Gilbert Baker at the 2016 opening of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah's new home in Chelsea. | DONNA ACETO
BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Gilbert Baker, the gay man who created the Rainbow Flag that became the international symbol of the LGBTQ rights movement, died in his sleep on March 31 in his Hamilton Heights home in Manhattan at the age of 65.
Baker, born in Chanute, Kansas, on June 2, 1951, served in the US Army from 1970 to 1972 and was honorably discharged, an account of which he described to the late Randy Shilts for his 1993 book “Conduct Unbecoming.” Stationed in San Francisco, Baker stayed there and, having learned to sew, created banners for anti-war and gay rights demonstrations on the encouragement of his friend Harvey Milk.
Baker created the Rainbow Flag in 1978 and it flew at City Hall that June for Pride. It was later the same year that Milk, a city supervisor, was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone.
The original flag had eight colors, each with the following meaning: hot pink for sexuality; red, life; orange, healing; yellow, sunlight; green, nature; turquoise, magic and art; blue, serenity and harmony; and violet, spirit.
About his creation, Baker, once said, “Flags are torn from the soul of the people.”
Within a year, the flag’s design had been altered to include just the six colors it now has – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.
Working at Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco, his flamboyant window displays caught the eye of Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who had succeeded Moscone, and she commissioned him to design a flag for her first formal inauguration. Over the years, he designed flags for visiting heads of state from China, France, Venezuela, and Spain, and for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the Black and White Ball.
In 1994, the year he moved to New York, he created a mile-long Rainbow Flag for the Pride March celebrating the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. It took 5,000 marchers to carry that flag, which traveled up First Avenue past the United Nations rather than down Fifth Avenue, the traditional Pride March route.
At World Pride in 2000 in Rome, Baker held a photo exhibition of the variety of Pride Flags he had created over the years, and two years later staged an exhibition of 180 pieces from that collection at New York’s LGBT Community Center. An expanded version of the exhibition was held in San Francisco the following year.
Gilbert Baker with President Barack Obama at the 2016 White House Pride Celebration. | COURTESY: JAY BLOTCHER
The mile-long flag was surpassed by his 25th anniversary Rainbow Flag he created in 2003 that stretched across Key West from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.
Gays Against Guns march behind a banner created by Gilbert Baker, designer of the Rainbow Flag, in the 2016 New York City Pride March. | DONNA ACETO
Over the past year, with the tragedy of the Orlando Pulse murders and the rise of Donald Trump, Baker busily created many Rainbow Flag-themed banners used widely in demonstrations. He created his final flag just days ago.
Gay City News will publish a fuller remembrance this weekend.