Rainbow flag's creator didn't celebrate his home state, but Kansans keep his memory alive
Gilbert Baker left Kansas as soon as he could. But, as many around the world celebrate LGBTQ pride month, it's worth noting that Kansas also struggled to hold the flag creator dear.
The iced tea is flowing, and the women of Parsons High School’s class of 1969 are on a roll.
A handful of them are circled up at a table in the increasingly crowded fellowship hall of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where yearbooks from 50 years ago are spread out at the front of the room and laughter from old stories grows louder amid the white cinder block walls and green-and-yellow linoleum-tiled floor. One of the women at the table has purple hair – not the subtle tint of elderly ladies’ salon rinses but the declarative violet in vogue among queer kids.
All of these women have clear recollections of a classmate who got the hell out of Kansas as soon as he could and went on to change the world.
Gilbert Baker, born in Chanute, Kansas, on June 2, 1951, designed the rainbow flag, now flown all over the world to signify support for LGBTQ equality and pride.
“He always was into the arts,” one of Baker’s classmates remembers.
“He was a personality unto himself,” says another.
“He was always at our lunch table. He really did feel comfortable with us, and we felt comfortable with him.”
“He loved to act, and help us do the plays.”
They remember a dark-haired boy with thick Buddy Holly glasses. “You know, he would be the kind to wear a scarf or shawl, whatever you’d call it.”
“A snappy dresser.”
“This may not be etiquette, but in ’69, we didn’t know what gay was. So Gilbert was just different,” says Debbie Sailsbury Burke. “People would make fun of him because he was different, but he set the stage way before it was ever a norm.”
One time, he asked Patty Eakins Edgington on a date. “I’d evidently broken up with a boyfriend. I don’t know what I’d done, I was 16 or 17, who knows. And I don’t know why he said – that’s just Gilbert – he said, ‘Let’s go to the drive-in.’ So we went to the drive-in movie and it was a quote, date, but I kind of knew it wasn’t really a date.”
Everyone agrees: “Just a friend — just a friend.”
“The next day,” Edgington continues, “I got yellow roses delivered to my house: ‘Thank you for a great time.’ He was just a nice guy.”
In the decades since they graduated, people began to realize what Baker had done after leaving Kansas. Eventually Facebook came along.
“I shot a request to him and he accepted,” Edgington says. “I posted some stuff over the years because I fiddled around in art, and he’d comment.”
At some point there was talk of inviting Baker back for one of the reunions, but that brought up other memories.
“At our lunch table, the guys, the jocks, would come by with their trays and they would slap him in the back of the head,” Burke says. “I mean some of them were cruel to him. I always felt sorry for him.”
They point across the room to Sandy Salyer, who remembers Baker doing cartwheels. Salyer says she read an interview where Baker talked about being bullied as a kid.
“When I heard that it broke my heart,” she says. “We were just innocent and didn’t understand what a gay person was. He was a free spirit, loving life.” A lot of people didn’t know where he went after high school, but he seemed destined for greatness.
“I’m just so proud of what he did and the movement he was part of,” Sayler says. And she begins to tear up. “I’m really sorry people treated him that way.”
"Take me away!"
Kansas has a rough time staking much of a claim to Gilbert Baker. By the time of his death, at age 65 on March 31, 2017, his personality and his work were too big even for San Francisco. He’d made his home in New York City.
“The rainbow flag has become a universal symbol for inclusion, peace and love,” the New York Times noted in his obituary. “It has been waved by gay rights supporters in China fighting for equality. It has been hung from apartment balconies as a sign of solidarity. After the United States Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, more than 26 million people on Facebook changed their profile photos to include the flag.”
In his autobiography “Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color,” published posthumously in 2019, Baker devotes a grand total of eight pages to his Kansas upbringing. He titled that chapter “Dreaming of a Life Over the Rainbow.”
“I was born gay and I always knew it,” Baker writes, before detailing the pain of that knowledge in 1950s Kansas.
As a child in his room, Baker pulled sheets off of his bed to fashion outfits for a kindergartner’s imaginary drag routine, dancing to songs on the radio until he heard someone coming and scrambled to put the sheets back on the bed.
Later, when his parents discovered him twirling in his aunt’s old prom dress, his father spanked him. Sundays at the Methodist church were no comfort. “In my soul, questions burned: Did God make me gay and love me, or was I going to hell for a sin?” He considered killing himself.
Still, his work was inspired and ultimately shaped by a quintessentially Kansas event: President Dwight D. Eisenhower running for re-election, which Baker’s mother let him watch on TV.
“I was mesmerized by the hoopla of bunting and balloons and thrilled by the pageantry,” he writes. “I especially loved the parade of state delegates, each group carrying signs and banners created in crepe paper. There were crazy hats and pretty girls in washes of stars and stripes, the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. I was especially moved by the sight of the American flag.”
Armed with crayons, young Baker became obsessed with drawing what he’d seen. But “it was not considered normal to imagine greatness and beauty,” he writes. “Being an artist was bad in the same way that homosexuality was bad.”
Baker’s family moved to Wichita for his father’s law practice. By the time he was 9, he was in such distress that he went to the library to try to figure out what was wrong with him; in a book about Freud and abnormal psychology, a description of “delusions of grandeur” seemed to explain his feelings. Fearing his parents would send him to a mental institution, Baker, like so many other Midwestern kids of his time, tortured himself with efforts to be something he was not.
He grew obsessed with death. “Only one thing seemed certain about my life in Kansas: I would either be blown up by a nuclear bomb or die from boredom.”
Peak mid-century TV provided a bit of salvation: Phyllis Diller on “The Tonight Show”; the political, passionate and kooky Barbra Streisand; the long-haired Beatles and the Rolling Stones. “Old people said they looked like girls, so they were definitely pushing a button on the taboo of homosexuality,” he writes.
Baker took up the trumpet, and music became his teenage means of survival – “the way I could compensate socially for being so effeminate and being known as the class queer.” Nobody wanted to play Sousa marches, so Baker pressured music teachers to include arrangements of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
“My efforts succeeded,” he writes, “and I even became popular with my classmates because of it.”
But fights with his parents intensified, and he grew riveted to news from the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The streets of Chicago were exploding, “but the only thing taking over the streets in Kansas was tumbleweed.”
By the time he was 19, he knew it was time to leave.
“So, unlike Dorothy, when the tornado came I ran right for it, saying, ‘Take me away!’”
“We just act like it’s normal”
About 35 miles south of Baker’s birthplace in Chanute, in the far southeast corner of the state, Parsons is home to around 10,000 people. Its well-kept Main Street and the presence of Labette Community College make it feel almost like a city to the kids from nearby towns of just a few hundred.
It’s the kind of place where people remember ZaSu Pitts, an actress who started out in silent films and worked up through 1963’s “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Pitts has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a bronze star in front of the Parsons movie theater. It’s also the birthplace of a jazz trumpeter named Buck Clayton, who played with Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Billie Holliday and has been honored with a local jazz festival. Cherryvale, 20-some miles away, has bragging rights to two people: Vivian Vance from “I Love Lucy,” and Frank E. Bellamy, a high school student who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We jump on every little tiny thing we can to get people to our towns,” says Scotty Zollars, the library director at Labette Community College. “But why has there never been any mention of Gilbert, who had much wider representation than that?”
It would be easy to consider that a rhetorical question with the obvious answer that a stereotypically conservative place like small-town Kansas wants no part of celebrating gay culture. But the real answer is more complicated.
Even Zollars, a gay man in his late 50s who has lived around Parsons for almost his entire life, had never heard of Gilbert Baker until 2017. And that’s not because Zollars has stayed in the closet.
“I don’t hide it. Everybody at work knows, my boss knows. My fiancé and I go to college events, we go to Mass together, we’ve had no repercussions at all,” Zollars says. “We just act like it’s normal. And there’s other couples in town who are the same way. My impression is that people in southeast Kansas, they really don’t care as long as you don’t shove it in their face.”
Flying rainbow flags does, of course, put something in people’s faces. But that only partly explains the lack of recognition for Baker’s legacy.
It’s also as if Baker, by leaving so early and so thoroughly, helped erase his own legacy in Kansas.
Another reason Zollars had never heard of Gilbert Baker until 2017 was that no one had made any serious effort to honor him until Aaron Casserly Stewart was elected to the city commission. Stewart was an anomaly in Parsons for two reasons.
“As a gay, black man, to be honest, I didn’t think I was going to be elected,” Stewart says. But he was newly back to town for family reasons, and ran for office to honor his father. “He was the city building inspector, so anything that was built in the town he had to sign off on it. A lot of people knew him.”
Stewart doesn’t think the fact that he’s gay had much to do with his election. “I beat out an incumbent who had been on the council for a while. I think people wanted a change.”
During his own high school years, a couple of generations after Baker’s, Stewart had been the president of the student council, popular enough to be president of all the southeast Kansas student councils. But some kids found his diary, in which Stewart had been trying to deal with his sexuality. They took it to a party and read it out loud.
“Being outed, at 17 in rural Kansas in 1983, was more than I could deal with, so I left,” he says. Stewart finished his senior year in Lawrence and, like Baker, then joined the military and left the state.
Stewart ended up in Minneapolis, where, possessed of a soulful baritone, he got a gig singing with the Sounds of Blackness, a three-time-Grammy-winning group whose members ran in the same circles as Janet Jackson and the esteemed producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. From there he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a personal assistant for the keyboardist Morris Hayes, who’d been in Prince’s New Power Generation.
By the time he came back to Parsons, Stewart had been gone for 22 years. Now in his late 40s, he didn’t need anyone’s validation. Dealing with people’s conservative views was hard, but Stewart was also surprised to find a lot of support.
“Because my husband is British, and we’re an interracial, inter-generational couple,” he explains, “there was a bit of, how do I say, just, interest in that because we were kind of a novelty.”
Recognizing an opportunity to which the rest of the town was apparently oblivious, Stewart got in touch with Baker.
“He had not been back to Parsons since he left, so I invited him back,” Stewart says.
He also called some of Baker’s old classmates, and they talked about having a day in his honor, with Stewart giving him a key to the city and the college hosting a Gilbert Baker Film Festival.
Over the course of almost a year, Stewart had phone conversations updating Baker on the various plans.
“He was really reluctant to come back because of the experience growing up in small town Kansas,” Stewart says.
But both men seemed struck by the fact that no one had ever asked Baker to come back.
Finally, Stewart says, “he decided to come.”
A month before his celebrated return, Baker died.
The film festival went on as planned. Zollars screened the hits “Milk” and “Pride” as well as “Out Here in Kansas,” a short documentary about a gay football star from Andover, and he gave an award for one of the student submissions. Hardly anyone came – maybe 15 or 20 people including staff at the college. “It was not a good showing,” Zollars says, “but we did it.”
In the year that followed, Stewart immigrated to England where he and his husband were married. But he stayed in touch with a few people back in Parsons, and in 2019, he reached out to one of the city commissioners and asked if they’d fly a rainbow flag at City Hall during June.
“I didn’t get a response,” he says.
By then, though, another gay couple had moved to town. A doctor named Shawn Zimbrunes had taken a job at the hospital, bringing his husband, David Matthew, from Washington, D.C. When he learned it was Baker’s hometown, Matthew told a reporter for the Parsons Sun, he was surprised. “I wondered where is the memorial? Where is the honor of his legacy? Where are the pride flags?”
Matthew, who had spent most of his life on the East Coast, couldn’t let Pride Month pass without honoring Baker. He bought three dozen rainbow flags (which wasn’t easy, since they’re in short supply around that time of year). He put the first one up in his yard, an act that felt so momentous it brought him to tears.
He also approached businesses along Main Street, and the owner of the popular Kitchen Pass offered to fly two flags out front and one inside in support of LGBTQ friends and employees. There were some questions about affixing flag-holders to city light poles, and in general all of this was a lot of drama for Parsons. Two of the flags outside the Kitchen Pass were stolen, then returned.
Other than that, Matthew said in a written statement to the Parsons Sun, the response had been overwhelmingly positive.
“I heard heart-wrenching stories about rather awful experiences growing up in a town where they felt hated and excluded, where they feared admitting who they were. People relayed how it brought them to tears to see pride flags flying in a town where they had never felt seen, never felt accepted. I also heard from local residents who were absolutely thrilled to see these flags to honor Gilbert Baker, to honor their son or daughter who is gay, to honor their family and make them visible and appreciated in the place they call home,” Matthew wrote.
One city commissioner agreed that the town should consider a way to honor Baker, and encouraged people who had enthusiasm and ideas to bring them forward.
Fifty years later
The fellowship hall at St. John’s church has grown loud and humid, crowded with members of the class of 1969.
Les Hammett, a State Farm insurance agent who bought a house with his wife in Liberty, Missouri, a while back but still drives to his hometown for work during the week, finds a place near the yearbook table to make a short speech. He explains why a journalist is here asking questions about Gilbert Baker and encourages everyone to share their memories.
“As far as I’m concerned, Gilbert did a lot to change the world for the better,” Hammett says to emphatic applause. “Some of us have been talking about trying to do something, just a little plaque to recognize Gilbert, maybe up at the city building or at the high school, something,” Hammett says. “If you’re interested in helping us, let us know.”
“Good job, Les,” says a man nearby.
By the spring, the city had donated a small plot of vacant land downtown to a group called Southeast Kansas Point of Pride (the group’s name referring not to LGBTQ pride but rather the civic pride that inspires residents to take part in neighborhood clean-ups and plant flowers in pots lining downtown streets). The Point of Pride folks planned to turn the small, empty grassy strip into a pocket park. Renderings show a fountain, a couple of park benches, native plants and, along one wall, a plaque in honor of Gilbert Baker.
Hammett figured it would be ready to dedicate this fall, perhaps in time for the next Gilbert Baker Film Festival at Labette Community College.
“It’s not often that you rub shoulders with a person who changes the world,” says Hammett, who guesses it was 15 or 20 years ago when he learned his classmate had designed the rainbow flag. He’s been impressed ever since.
Hammett’s own memories of high school suggest a nearly universal truth – that teenagers in that setting don’t have any clue how others perceive themselves or each other – which is especially sad in Baker’s case.
“He talked about being picked on in high school,” Hammett says. “I’ll be honest with you – I just never saw that. I thought Gilbert was well liked. He was in theater and that kind of thing, he was a fun person. I think everybody liked Gil.”
But Hammett was preoccupied with his own concerns. “My mom died right before I started high school, and I lived with my grandparents. I was just trying to survive. I didn’t go to dances and that kind of thing. My social skills and my social life in high school was not like a lot of folks.”
Maybe everyone feels like an outsider in high school, one way or another. Certainly it’s easier for gay kids today, even in a town like Parsons, which Hammett describes as “pretty straight.”
Over reunion weekend there was one rainbow flag along Main Street. It was a mile west of downtown, past the middle school, where the thoroughfare’s lined mostly with houses, attached to a white bungalow with potted plants on the front porch.
“We have it up all year,” says Alyson Delich, who has lived in the rental house for a couple of years with her girlfriend, Bailey Collins. Once or twice she’s been outside and someone in a passing car has yelled an obscenity, she says. “They always drive by fast, so you never get to see who it is.”
But in June, she says, “like five people drove by and hung out their windows and yelled ‘Happy Pride!’ when I was on my porch.” That was really cool, she says. “Because there aren’t a lot of flags.”
Delich describes her landlord as “an older man, really nice, sweet, soft-spoken.” When they first put up the flag, she says, “we heard some older people were making comments to him and he was like, ‘They’re nice girls.’”
Now 23, Delich has lived in Parsons since she was a kid; she and Collins got together when they were in high school. “When I was a senior in high school there was probably seven people who were out,” she says. “That’s a small amount of people, but I felt like that was quite a few people for a small high school.”
Delich has a supportive family, and says she and Collins are lucky they’ve never encountered more than an occasional derisive comment. But there are so few LGBTQ people in Parsons that the two of them socialize with other queer people mainly at concerts in Kansas City and electronic dance music festivals around the region.
“The younger generations are out and living their lives,” says Zollars, the library director, who is now the advisor for Labette Community College’s Gay/Straight Alliance. That club, he says, is a direct result of conversations with Baker about returning to Parsons.
“He wanted to help start GSAs at the high school and the college. The high school administrator said absolutely not, but we were able to start one at the college,” Zollars says. Sixteen people are on its roster, though as with any club only a few are active. “We have a trans man, gender queer, non-binary – a whole bunch of them who have come out since the GSA started,” Zollars says.
But for some of those young people, Parsons still feels like it did for Gilbert Baker. “I think the L, G, B part of the spectrum is becoming old hat, in a way,” Zollars says. But that’s not the case for his trans, non-binary and queer students. “Their abuse is so massive right now.”
Max, a member of the club, plans to get out of town as soon as he graduates, splitting for the big town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma – it’s three times the size of Parsons – where his sister lives and he has friends.
Now 20, Max grew up 25 miles away in Edna, Kansas, population 410. “I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy,” Max says of growing up in “a small-town redneck environment with this kind of stuff.” In high school, Max was still presenting as female. “But everybody knew I liked women, and that caused enough issues that I just held everything back until college, when I was like actually out on my own,” to begin his transition.
Parsons is also “pretty bad” for trans woman Raven Wyrick, 20, also a member of the club. “I've been to a lot of different places because my family is military,” says Wyrick, adding that Parsons is “a minimal improvement” over the last military base in South Dakota.
But Wyrick plans to stay. Her parents are not accepting, so she’s living with her grandmother in a house she’s been promised.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to afford a house, so I’m not letting this house get away from me. I don’t care if I have to stay with my grandma,” she says. “Even if the outside can be dangerous, it feels that much safer having that place to live.”
And Wyrick holds out some hope for Parsons.
“I think change is the nature of life, and I’ve seen some improvement in this place,” Wyrick says, citing the rainbow flags that flew, however briefly, at the Kitchen Pass restaurant last June.
Earlier this week, Kitchen Pass owner Dave Pawlus put up two more flags.
“I worried about it a little bit last year, I’m not sure why,” Pawlus says. “I’ve never really been political or an activist type of person. I kind of try to stay out of it. But I was very glad once I did do it.”
After he put up flags last year, he says, “I heard a couple stories. A lot of people thanked me. A good friend called and said, ‘Thank you, I don’t know if you know, but my son is gay.’ That kind of hit me, made me realize that was the right thing to do. It made me feel good.”
Once people get to talking, Parsons turns out to be filled with surprising stories about people’s loved ones.
Wyrick, after all, learned about Gilbert Baker from her grandmother.
“She said, ‘Oh, hey, the creator of the flag lived here.’ I was like, what the hoo-hey are you talking about? I was kind of shocked because this place is so bad.”
But it also made sense, Wyrick says.
“Because where else do you need pride other than in a place like this? This is where it’s the worst. This is where you need it.”