God save the queers

PinkNews logo on pink background with rainbow corners.

PinkNews.co.uk’s Katherine Knowles meets the man behind those pink flags which have dominated gay pride marches across the country and the world.

First there was the flag. Pink and cheerful and vibrant, spilling silkily out of the envelope, bringing a smile to the bleary eyed 9am workers in the PinkNews.co.uk office, then gracing the lectern at our paper launch party, where it drew admiring glances from MPs and members of the gay choir alike.

Then there was the artist, David Gwinnutt, “You like it? Oh my god that’s fantastic! You thought it was cheerful? Fantastic! Being gay is fantastic! I wanted to celebrate it. Really, there’s such a lot of drama, but I think it’s fabulous!”

Straight off my interview list and onto my fantasy dinner party guest list. Full of fascinating nuggets of gossip; “I remember driving up to Blitz one time, and I saw Boy George chatting outside. He was wearing an Elvis jacket, a Mohican and bondage trousers! Oh, and this other time, I was over at his squat with all the crowd, and suddenly this huge fight broke out when Jeremy Healy accused Boy George of stealing his hairspray. Honestly, it was terrifying!”

“People probably know me best for my photos” says David. Indeed his images of disco life in the 70’s have become iconic collectors’ items.

“I was there, and I saw what went on. I wasn’t the loudest. You could say I saw a lot rather than talked a lot. But I was there with a perspective. Taking photos was my way of commenting on what was going on. I always wanted to take Boy George’s portrait, but I never did. He wanted to control the image and interpretation, and I wouldn’t let him. He asked me why I wanted to take photos, and I said, like I always do, “for posterity”. When he wrote Taboo, he has the photographer character say that exact same line, my line! I don’t know if he remembered that was me, or whether it was more unconscious, but there you go.

“It was an amazing scene. Everyone was an artist or a musician or a film maker. It was so intense. And inspiring. You could really flourish, and everyone was watching too, checking out the competition.

“I grew up on the 70’s disco London gay scene, and it was very influenced by America. The rainbow flag came out of San Francisco, I think, and it was all lumberjack US fashion. I went to New York when I was 19 and very impressionable, and it blew me away! It was overwhelming. I’m visually aware, and what I see that I like I emulate, so it was all about America for me.

“But now, I think the gay scene here in London is thriving, more so than in the US, I think. And I wanted to create something that was about being gay and being British. The Pink Jack seemed like a good thing. I’m really glad it resonates with other people.

“I wanted it to be a positive thing. I think that your art should come from the most important things inside yourself. And for me, the biggest thing in my life is my sexuality. I’ve known all my life that I was gay. Some people have negative dramas and traumas, but it wasn’t like that for me. It was more of a voyage of discovery. I don’t know if my experience was normal – you certainly get the impression from other gay artists that being gay is difficult, that to be gay is to be alienated or victimized even if you rise later to a positive place. That wasn’t true for me and I wonder if it’s so true for everybody, really. It’s a story that doesn’t represent me.”

A self fulfilling myth, I wonder?

“Well, people always talk about being bullied at school for being gay, but that was not my experience. I was on the school rugby team that won the All England School’s Championships. I knew I was gay at the time, and my team mates knew too. I was 14. I won a medal. You don’t expect that from gay people, do you, but you see, I think it must happen for other people too. It’s just a different story.

“Don’t get me wrong, I know that I have been very fortunate, and I know that some people have a terrible time. But it is not a negative thing to be gay! It’s different to being straight, I think, but in a positive way. I have lots of straight and gay friends. And the flag represents the way we can all come together. It’s a celebration of friendship.”

David’s celebration of friendship is catching on in a big way! What started as a one off flag for an art exhibition is now being printed on T-shirts, mouse mats, and mugs in time for WorldPride.

“It’s not just gay merchandise” says David. “At least, I hope people won’t think that. Honestly, I made it as art. In fact I made it specifically for a gallery show I was creating about being gay and sexuality.

“I always wanted to be an artist rather than a photographer, really. I shared a studio with an artist called Brian Clark when I first moved to London. I saw a Warhol picture called Clouds when I was 16, and I loved it and felt I understood it.

That’s when I first understood and was alerted to the idea that you could express things though art. I did a foundation course and a degree at Middlesex Art College, usual stuff. And I was taking photos. I was encouraged to take them, and I could sell them, so I carried on. Now I’m going back to my art roots, rather than taking pictures.”

Interview over, I leave David to his hot chocolate and head back to my computer, cheered by the sight of the beautiful happy pink flag hanging on the wall above my desk.