The Art of Gilbert Baker: Art Is Like A Gun

"The real connection to the public happens with confrontation at the boundaries of fear. Art is like a gun that way."

By GLBT Historical Society

Contact sheet with various 1990 International Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade images by Robert PruzanGLBT Historical Society

In addition to his early involvement in the gay-rights movement, Gilbert Baker participated in protests against the Vietnam War and supported marijuana legalization efforts. He also learned how to sew. 

Over the next four decades, Baker melded his artistic gifts with his devotion to justice, employing a range of media and approaches—including sewing, painting, design and performance—to advocate for positive social change. 

Gilbert Baker as Pink Jesus (center) flanked by Scarlot Harlot (right) and Sister Sadie, Sadie the Rabbi Lady (left) by Robert PruzanGLBT Historical Society

In 1990, Baker shocked spectators at that year’s International Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade with his “Pink Jesus” protest. He marched wearing a loincloth, covered head-to-toe in pink body paint and splayed on a crucifix emblazoned with the sign “Martyrs for Art.”

“‘Pink Jesus’ was a protest of many things I was pissed off about [in 1990]. I was protesting Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina homophobe trying to kill the National Endowment for the Arts because of its support of gay art. … I was also fed up with the [San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay] Freedom Day organizers, who controlled every aspect of the event. They had grown more conservative, asking drag and leather marchers to cool it. More censorship.”

I clicked my pink high heels three times, adjusted my American-flag loincloth and crashed the front of the parade. … On top of the assemblage was a chartreuse note proclaiming, ‘MARTYRS FOR ART.’… Fred [Herzog] and Jerry [Schreyer] unfurled my banner, which read, ‘NOT SPONSORED BY JESSE HELMS.’ It stretched out, curb to curb, 75 feet wide. I could hear gasps of outrage. This was a direct slam of the parade committee.”

Gilbert Baker’s reinterpretation of a Nazi concentration-camp uniformGLBT Historical Society

Describing his fashion in a 2017 interview posthumously published in the Castro Courier in the summer of 2018, Gilbert Baker contended, “You choose not to wear the uniform of the oppressor. No one should wear them, only look at them. They’re empty, perfect, ready and waiting, just like this horror show of a presidency is waiting to do God knows what.”

Gilbert Baker during an interview with ABC television for the series “When We Rise,” February 2017 by Tony TaylorGLBT Historical Society

Baker responded to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump by creating adaptations of the uniforms worn by homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The pink triangle patch sewn on the front of the uniform identified the prisoner as homosexual.

Prior to the creation of the rainbow flag, the triangle was probably the best-known international symbol of the LGBTQ community. Baker updated and personalized the design by displaying his eight-color rainbow—a more positive symbol—on the back of the garment.

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