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Key West remembers Gilbert Baker, creator of rainbow flag

On June 15, 2003, volunteers reach the Atlantic Ocean carrying a 1.25-mile-long rainbow flag down Duval Street in Key West. The mammoth banner was created by Gilbert Baker, who developed the flag symbol in 1978.
On June 15, 2003, volunteers reach the Atlantic Ocean carrying a 1.25-mile-long rainbow flag down Duval Street in Key West. The mammoth banner was created by Gilbert Baker, who developed the flag symbol in 1978. Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau

The Key West community this week is remembering Gilbert Baker, the creator of the iconic LGBTQ rainbow flag that helped define a political movement. He died in his sleep March 31 in New York City at age 65.

Baker’s flag of eight colors represents the idea of equality and justice for everyone, he always said, and he chose Key West to commemorate its 25th anniversary.

On June 15, 2003, at that year's Key West Pride, an anniversary edition of the flag that measured 1.25 miles long was unfurled across Duval Street and dubbed the Sea-to-Sea Rainbow Flag since it stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers and businessman Gregg McGrady were the two Key Westers who persuaded Baker to choose the island city for the giant flag.

“He told us about the upcoming 25th anniversary of the flag and was looking for some way and a place to commemorate it,” Carruthers said. “He thought it would be great to have a rainbow flag span from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Baker came to Key West and, with help, spent several months sewing the lengthy flag, made of almost 18,000 linear yards of nylon in the original eight colors. From his Key West workshop in April 2003, Baker said why he chose the island for the anniversary.

“The thing that sold it for me, in terms of committing to do it, was when I found that the city’s motto was ‘One Human Family,’ ” Baker said, referring to the motto adopted by the Key West City Commission in 2000 and later by the County Commission.

Several months later, his multi-ton flag was unfurled down the length of Duval Street with some 3,000 volunteers helping to carry it.

“We had people join in at the last second,” said Susan Kent, who was part of the giant flag production team. “My neighbors were having a birthday party across the street. They brought the whole party down. Gilbert was a sweetheart, he kept in touch. He will always be around us.”

“My dream is a reality today,” Baker said after. “We’ve made a great moment in gay history.”

Carruthers recalls June 15, 2003, as a special day for Key West, as the bright sunlight saturated the flag’s colors.

“I consider my involvement as one of the primary achievements of my life,” Carruthers said.

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