The man who created the LGBT community’s now-iconic symbol — the rainbow flag — has died.
Gilbert Baker died in his sleep at his apartment in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Baker was 65.
The rainbow flag’s storied history began in 1978 when San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk — who was assassinated in November of that year — enlisted Baker to create something that would represent the LGBT community and replace the pink triangle that Nazis used to identify gays. Milk paid Baker $1,000 for his work.
The colors of the rainbow were intended to symbolize hope and unity.
“Flags are about power,” Baker had said in an interview. “Flags say something. You put a rainbow flag on your windshield and you’re saying something.”
Recalling one of the defining moments in his career, Baker said, “The moment I knew that the flag was beyond my own personal experience – that it wasn’t just something I was making but was something that was happening – was the 1993 March on Washington. From my home in San Francisco I watched the March on C-SPAN and saw hundreds of thousands of people carrying and waving Rainbow Flags on a scale I’d never imagined.”
The GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco wrote on its Facebook page that Gilbert had donated one of the sewing machines he used to create the flag. He also donated one of the 100 hand-dyed reproductions of the flag he made several years ago, the non-profit organization said.
San Francisco mayor Ed Lee had the “iconic and beloved” rainbow flag fly at half-staff from his balcony. Lee also issued a lengthy statement, remembering Gilbert as a “trailblazer for LGBT rights, a powerful artists and a true friend to all who knew him.”
Lee said the rainbow flag is “more than just a symbol. It is the embodiment of the LGBT community, and it has become a source of solace, comfort and pride for all those who look upon it. Standing side-by-side with Harvey Milk, Gilbert first raised the flag here in San Francisco, but those rainbow colors are now seen around the world.”
Lee also acknowledged how Lee was an integral part of the LGBT rights movement, writing, “At a time of great uncertainty in the LGBT community, Gilbert’s act of sewing together multicolored materials unified and empowered individuals across the country, helping to bring them together under a common cause.”
Baker, who was born in Kansas in 1951, was stationed in San Francisco in the early 1970s while serving in the US Army, at the start of the gay rights movement.
There he began making banners for gay rights and anti-war protests, often at the request of Harvey Milk, who would become the first openly gay man elected to public office in California when he won the 1977 race for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
The original flag had eight colors: pink to represent sexuality; red for life; orange for healing; yellow for sunlight; green for nature; turquoise for art; indigo for harmony; and violet for the human spirit.
It was later reduced to six colors when pink and indigo were removed.
Baker went on to design flags for other events, including state visits to San Francisco by the President of Italy; the President of France; the Premier of China; the President of the Philippines; the President of Venezuela and the King of Spain. He designed flags for the 1984 Democratic National Convention, the 1985 Super Bowl, San Francisco Symphony Black and White Balls, and stage and street decorations for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parades from 1979 through 1993.
In 1994 Baker created the history making, mile-long Rainbow Flag for Stonewall 25 in New York to mark the 25th anniversary of the gay civil rights movement. The Guinness Book of World Records recognized the mile-long Stonewall 25 Rainbow Flag as the world’s largest flag.