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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 7, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 14
Rainbow Flag creator Gilbert Baker dies at 65
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Rainbow Flag creator Gilbert Baker dies at 65

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Gilbert Baker, the artist who designed the iconic Rainbow Flag, died March 31 in New York City. He was 65.

Baker's longtime friend and fellow activist Cleve Jones broke the news on his Facebook page.

'I am heartbroken,' Jones wrote. 'My dearest friend in the world is gone. Gilbert gave the world the Rainbow Flag; he gave me forty years of love and friendship. I can't stop crying. I love you forever, Gilbert Baker.'

Baker and Jones met each other in the circle of young Gay activists who gathered around Harvey Milk in 1970s-era San Francisco. When Milk arrived in the city in 1972, Baker was already there, having just completed a two-year stint in the U.S. Army. Jones also arrived about that time to study political science at San Francisco State College.

While Milk, who was 20 years older than his young friends, ran for office several times before finally winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Jones became his political aide while Baker pursued a career as an artist.

After leaving the Army with an honorable discharge, Baker taught himself to sew and used his newly acquired skills to make banners for antiwar and Gay rights marches.

Among his many creations was the one for which he is best known - the Rainbow Flag - which he designed in 1978, shortly after Milk was assassinated.

'We needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that,' Baker told CNN in a 2015 interview.

The flag proved to be an immediate hit.

'We stood there and watched and saw the flags, and [the crowd's] faces lit up,' Jones later told The New York Times. 'It needed no explanation. People knew immediately that it was our flag.'

Baker's original design was not the same one the contemporary LGBT movement uses. The prototype had eight colors, each with a specific symbolism: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit.

Thirty volunteers helped Baker hand-dye and stitch the first two Rainbow Flags in the top-floor attic gallery of the Gay Community Center, which was then at 330 Grove Street in San Francisco. Almost immediately, circumstances forced changes to the design. The flag lost its hot pink stripe when Baker approached the Paramount Flag Co. to begin mass-producing them. The pink fabric turned out to be too expensive to include. Next, the flag lost its indigo stripe when the 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade organizers decided to fly the flag in two halves from the light poles along both sides of Market Street. To accommodate their plans, the flag needed six stripes instead of seven. Finally, the turquoise stripe became medium blue, which was easier and cheaper to acquire.

Baker moved to New York in 1994, where he continued his creative work and activism. That year he created what was then the world's largest flag to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.

In 2003, to commemorate the Rainbow Flag's 25th anniversary, Baker created an even larger flag that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean at Key West, Fla. After the event, he sent sections of the flag to LGBT community centers in 100 cities around the world.

The GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco owns one of the sewing machines Baker used to produce the original flags in 1978, along with one of the limited-edition recreations of the eight-stripe design he produced to mark the 25th anniversary of the flag. In 2012, the society displayed both objects in an exhibition on the history of the flag at the GLBT History Museum, which it sponsors in San Francisco's Castro District.

In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City acquired examples of the flag for its design collection. The museum's curators ranked it as an internationally recognized symbol on par with the Creative Commons logo and the recycling symbol.

To honor Baker, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee flew a Rainbow Flag at half-staff from his balcony overlooking the city's United Nations Plaza, where a community vigil in Baker's memory was held March 31.

'Gilbert was a trailblazer for LGBT rights, a powerful artist, and a true friend to all who knew him. Our thoughts are with his friends and family. He will be missed,' Lee tweeted.

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