‘The Ribbon Maker’ Ben Johansen brings his Orlando Ribbon Project to an end

Ben Johansen (L) and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, wearing a ribbon, pose for picture. (Photo courtesy Ben Johansen)

ORLANDO | Ben Johansen announced on social media Feb. 16, after nearly five years, he is retiring the Orlando Ribbon Project, an initiative to hand out rainbow ribbons around the world in order to spread a message of love and hope and as a way to honor the memory of the 49 lives lost at the 2016 Pulse tragedy.

Johansen began making those now familiar rainbow ribbons with a black bar across them as a way to cope with the news of what happened at Pulse and to “do something that brings awareness to everything that was going on.” His project, which turned into a movement, earned him the nickname “The Ribbon Maker.” 

“It actually happened the second day I was making ribbons,” Johansen said in a 2016 interview with then Watermark editor Billy Manes. “I had a reporter following me around, and I was telling him about Orlando, and he was interested. So, he’s actually the one who coined me the ‘Ribbon Maker’ and wrote the story.”

Since those first days, the Orlando Ribbon Project has created 1.3 million ribbons which have made there way to all 50 states, 67 countries and every continent, Antarctica included.

“Antarctica was the last of the continents that I needed to get them to,” Johansen says.

Photos courtesy Ben Johansen.

After a year and a half of trying, he finally was able to find and speak with a researcher working in Antarctica. It took another nine months following their conversation to finally be able to see his ribbons being worn there.

“All the scientists there were very excited to put on the ribbons,” Johansen says, “They went outside and took pictures of themselves in the snow with the ribbons on. It was very cool.”

Those little ribbons have also been worn by dozens of politicians and celebrities including Vice President Kamala Harris, former presidential candidates Julian Castro and Pete Buttigieg, entertainers Jamie Lee Curtis, Alan Cumming, Patti LaPone, George Takei, Ricky Lake, Ernie Hudson, Ricky Martin and more.

Photos courtesy Ben Johansen.

Initially Johansen planned to just make ribbons for friends and staff members at The Center Orlando but that turned into a project with a goal of making at least one million ribbons.

“Somebody had jokingly said, ‘How many of these are you going to make?’ and I said ‘How about a million,’ and they helped me to it,” he says. “I was able to get to the millionth mark by the 2019 Pride celebration and made the 1,000,001 on stage.”

Johansen is also spreading his ribbon awareness to Congress with a push to get lawmakers wearing the rainbow ribbon at Pulse’s five-year mark.

“The more people wear them, more people will see them and more people might start to take action,” Johansen says. “Maybe we will see change shortly. Just recently, I did a letter-writing campaign to all the Democrat members of Congress. I sent out over 200 letters with ribbons for them to hopefully wear on June 12.”

Johansen says while he has retired from making ribbons, he still has plenty in stock to hand out and  is looking to navigate what he’s calling “the final frontiers”: personally handing the millionth ribbon to former First Lady Michelle Obama and getting a ribbon in space.

Ben Johansen make the one millionth ribbon on stage during Come Out With Pride in 2019.

“Michelle and Barack’s team have me on their list of people to talk to, but they are busy with everything going on in the world that it’ll take some more time, but I’m very optimistic, and I think it’ll happen.”

Johansen was supposed to meet Michelle Obama at a fundraiser in May 2020, when he planned to present her with her ribbon, but it was canceled due to the pandemic.

“I still have the millionth one under glass dedicated to Michelle Obama,” he says.

As for getting a ribbon into space, Johansen says he currently has people trying to contact Elon Musk, founder and CEO of the space transportation services company SpaceX, and Richard Branson, founder of the spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. Johansen is hopeful he’ll achieve getting a ribbon into space by the June 12, the five-year mark of the Pulse tragedy, but he also being realistic in his plans.

“I won’t be disappointed if they don’t get there by June,” he says. “I know it’s going to take some time, but I have a really good feeling that it’ll happen no matter how long it takes. I’ve got a lot of perseverance and I want this to happen, so I know it will.”

Johansen says he’s mostly received positive feedback to his ribbon project with many thanking him for honoring the 49 with a positive message and helping spread a symbol for gun law reform.

“Whenever I see one I get this huge, virtual warm hug like I did something good. A lot of people say it’s just a ribbon but it’s more than just a ribbon,” he says. “I want people to remember what happened here. The message with the rainbow ribbon is to remember the 49 murdered and to spread a bit of love, hope and kindness.”

More in News

See More