Gilbert Baker, the designer of the rainbow flag, which has become a worldwide symbol for the LBGTQ community, has passed away at the age of 65. While his legacy to humanity will always be the beloved rainbow flag, it is crucial to remember the man and life behind the design.
Baker was born in Chanute, Kansas, in 1951 — a time when gay and questioning people did not have the same social liberties they have now. He joined the U.S. Army in 1970 and was stationed as a medic in San Francisco, where he worked at a hospital for returning Vietnam veterans. At that time, the city was in the midst of its queer revolution, as well as Vietnam War protests and Harvey Milk’s political organising and election for City Supervisor, whom Baker befriended. Gilbert Baker participated in city’s queer demonstrations by sewing flags and banners and in 1978, Milk, among others, asked Baker, the self-described “gay Betsey Ross,” to design a flag to represent the movement as a whole. Baker’s rainbow flag was unveiled at San Francisco's Pride Parade that year, and immediately became associated with queer visibility.
Until we had a flag, the symbol for our movement was the pink triangle, which was put on us by Hitler and the Nazis,” Baker told Refinery29 in a 2015 interview. “The triangle came from a very negative, terrible place. We needed something that expressed our beauty, our soul, our love — that came from us and wasn’t put on us.”
The flag’s initial design had eight colours, not the six we know today. It was changed to six colours because at the time, Baker said that pink dye was “too expensive,” reports the New York Times, and blue and turquoise were later merged into royal blue to represent harmony. Red stands for life, orange is healing, yellow is sunlight, green represents nature, and violet purple stands for spirit.
Both Baker and his legendary design have seen some of the darkest and brightest times in queer history. In November 1978, the same year the flag was introduced, his friend Harvey Milk was assassinated. In the '80s, the AIDS epidemic was killing thousands, and protests erupted against the Reagan administration's silence and refusal to provide federal funds for healthcare and research to fight AIDS. The AIDS Memorial Quilt, featuring many images of the rainbow flag, was presented on the National Mall in 1987. Through the '90s and 2000s, Pride parades took place in major cities across the world as U.S. states began decriminalising their sodomy laws which led to Lawrence vs. Texas’ Supreme Court decision to reverse them nationwide in 2003. When the Supreme Court further upheld the Equal Rights clause under Obergefell vs. Hodges in December 2015, queer Americans could finally marry their same-gender partner in all 50 states. The rainbow flag was waved on the steps of the Court, at impromptu parades in the streets, and its six colours lit up the Obama White House in celebration.
Gilbert Baker later went on to work as a vexillographer for the Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco, but always knew the rainbow flag was his life’s proudest achievement. He famously refused to patent or trademark his design, allowing it to be used commonly on clothing, artwork — just about anywhere that can be printed. His gift to humanity is a symbol that is as beloved as it is easily recognisable, that proclaims its visibility loudly and with pride, and mirrors the beauty of the natural world with the beauty of the diverse community it represents.