Rainbow Flag Creator Gilbert Baker poses at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on January 7, 2016 in New York City
Rainbow Flag Creator Gilbert Baker poses at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on January 7, 2016, in New York City

Gilbert Baker, gay rights icon and creator of the rainbow flag has passed away at the age of 65.

It was a sombre day in our community’s history on March 31, when iconic gay rights activist and creator of the Rainbow Flag passed away. Adored by all in the community, Gilbert Baker became one of the most influential figures for his achievements starting in the 1970s when he was a part of a gay rights community in San Francisco after receiving an honourable discharge for serving in the U.S Army for two years.

It was reported by the medical examiner’s office that he was found dead in his New York apartment, having passed away in his sleep from hypertensive heart disease. At the young age of just 65, we remember his astonishing accomplishments in a time that was far less forgiving than today’s society towards our community.

As mentioned on his website, Baker taught himself to sew in 1972 after his service, a talent he used to make banners for gay and anti-war marches, often at the request of his friend Harvey Milk, well-known for being the first openly gay man to hold public office. In 2008, Milk’s life was documented in the award-winning blockbuster “Milk” starring Sean Penn, for which Baker was asked to design versions of his original flag to be used in the film.

The rainbow flag debuted at the Gay Freedom Day Parade on 25 June 1978 in San Francisco. Baker had pleaded with the San Francisco Pride committee to let him design the flag, horrified after hearing they were planning to use the pink triangle, a symbol that was created by the Nazis. “It came from such a horrible place of murder and Holocaust and Hitler,” he said during his 2005 interview with the Museum of Modern Art. “We needed something beautiful, something from us.

The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, genders, ages, all of those things. Plus it’s a natural flag – it’s from the sky.” This turning point in his life was recently depicted in the four-part mini-series When We Rise, mostly written by award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the film manages to pack in the many milestones that led us towards a more accepting society of LGBTI rights. See the trailer below.

With a team of 30 volunteers and a budget of $1000, Baker soaked cotton muslin strips in garbage cans filled with dye, then sewed the pieces together creating the first rainbow flag, measuring 30 by 60 feet. The flag has continued to become an iconic symbol of inclusion and acceptance of diversity, with over 26 million people changing their Facebook profile pictures to a rainbow flag filter when marriage equality was passed in America; a truly spectacular tribute to Baker’s artistry. According to his website, “Google lists more than 2,600,000 references to the Rainbow Flag and another catalogued 241,000 images.” In 1994, after moving to New York City, Baker created a mile-long version of the flag for the 25th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riot of 1969. Carried by 5000 people and measuring 30 by 5280 feet, it broke the world record for the largest flag ever made. As he never decided to patent his design, he didn’t profit from the flag’s countless commercial adaptations; it remains, to this day, a labour of love.

It was suggested that Baker was inspired by Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow” and the riots that followed the gay icon’s death. Although the flag colours have been reducing to only 6 colours now, the original flag consisted of 8, each colour representing something different; Pink for sexuality, Red for life, Orange for healing, Yellow for sunlight, Green for nature, Turquoise for magic/art, Indigo/Blue for serenity and harmony, and Violet for the spirit.


Gilbert Baker at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978

Gilbert Baker at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978

News spread quickly as people turned to social media to pay tribute to the beloved icon. Edwin Lee, the current Mayor of San Francisco said that the flag “has become a source of solace, comfort and pride for all those who look upon it.” When asked about Baker he said that Gilbert was “a trailblazer for LGBT rights, a powerful artist and a true friend to all who knew him.”

Born in Kansas, 2 June 1951, Gilbert Baker passed at the young age of 65. Although no longer with us, his passion, talent and kind heart has left an imprint on our community that will be forever cherished.