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Rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker, at Miami Beach Botanical Garden event, to reflect on his colorful life

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Kansas-born Gilbert Baker, who created the iconic gay rainbow flag in 1978, says he’s often asked if he’s a “friend of Dorothy.”

“I say, ‘Honey, I am Dorothy,” laughs Baker, who confesses that although “it’s a convenient analogy,” Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz anthem Over the Rainbow did influence him a bit when he sewed his first pride flag.

“It works because the song is beautiful,” Baker says. “The lyrics of the song are about the longing to be free.”

Baker — who 10 years ago unfurled the world’s largest rainbow flag (1.25 miles long) along Duval Street in Key West — visits Miami Beach for the first time this week. He’ll speak to LGBT activists and allies Thursday night at the city’s Botanical Garden and be interviewed for an upcoming documentary by independent filmmaker Joe Cardona and the Miami Herald about singer Anita Bryant and South Florida’s role in the gay rights movement.

“Anita Bryant is an important figure in gay history because she angered and enraged a generation of people who got active,” Baker says.

Bryant, spokeswoman for Florida orange juice, led a successful campaign in 1977 to repeal Miami-Dade County’s original gay-rights ordinance. A year later, Baker debuted his first rainbow flag during gay pride in San Francisco, where he lived.

“We took the gay pride parade with 50,000 people to 500,000,” says Baker, now 62. “Anita Bryant had the effect of galvanizing the whole gay movement. She was somebody who everybody could hate. She was easy to hate.”

Baker lived “his Kansas nightmare” until he got drafted in 1970 and sent to San Francisco as an Army medic nurse during the Vietnam war. Until then, he didn’t know anyone else who was gay.

“[Gay] people were psychopaths, criminals. I was afraid my family would lock me up and give me electroshock,” he says. “I was a screaming queen.”

Coming out to his mother and father was hard. “My parents and I didn’t speak for 10 years. It took a long time to rebuild that relationship,” he says.

After an honorable discharge in 1972, Baker stayed in San Francisco and became an artist.

“I love to sew and fashion. Everything with fabric. That’s my medium,” he says.

He became “the banner guy” in gay politics. “That’s how I began to meet people like Harvey Milk,” he says.

Baker, who gets no royalties for the rainbow flag, is still political. He supports a boycott of Russian products because of anti-gay laws recently passed there.

“In the case of Russian vodka, it’s very similar to the [1977] orange juice boycott,” he says. “It had a little effect on Florida orange juice [sales]. Just enough for people to take it seriously. Enough for Florida orange juice to ditch Anita Bryant.”

IF YOU GO

‘An Evening with Gilbert Baker’ will be 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr. Free.

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