It’s hard to imagine a world without the now iconic six-colored stripes of Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag, which he made in 1978 at the request of the late San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk to be launched at that year’s Gay Pride Parade as a uniting symbol. (Baker’s original flag had eight colors.)
Today Baker’s flag proudly flies in all corners of the globe, a resolute and vibrant reminder of how far we’ve come in the past few decades in terms of LGBTQ rights, and how much more remains to be done.
Gilbert, a former soldier from Kansas, as The LA Times noted, died Thursday in his sleep at his New York home at the age of 65. Media reports, tributes, and messages of gratitude began pouring in on Friday, with everyone from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to Ben & Jerry’s praising Gilbert for his lifelong fight for LGBTQ rights and his creative gifts as a designer.
In a moving statement on Friday, Mayor Lee called Gilbert “a trailblazer” and “a powerful artist and a true friend”:
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.
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.
In a New York Times obituary about the death of “the self-described ‘gay Betsy Ross,’” close friend Cleve Jones describes the moment Gilbert’s new flag was unveiled back in 1978: “We stood there and watched and saw the flags, and their faces lit up. It needed no explanation. People knew immediately that it was our flag.”
In 2015, New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired the rainbow flag into its design collection. That year, Baker told MoMA’s Michelle Fisher:
I thought, a flag is different than any other form of art. It’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a just logo—it functions in so many different ways. I thought that we needed that kind of symbol, that we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands. [The Rainbow Flag] doesn’t say the word “Gay,” and it doesn’t say “the United States” on the American flag but everyone knows visually what they mean. And that influence really came to me when I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.
Appropriate, indeed. R.I.P.