“Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible – to live in the truth, as I say – to get out of the lie.”
TRQ: Gilbert Baker Born June 2, 1951
Designer, political activist, and flag-maker, Gilbert Baker is most known as the creator of the Rainbow Flag, a known all around the world as the inclusive symbol for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement. He was friends with activist and politician Harvey Milk and was commissioned by Dianne Feinstein for her first inaugural ceremony. Two of his flags broke worlds’ records for their length.
Baker was born in the small rural town of Chanute, Kansas. His mother was a teacher, and his father was a judge. From a young age, Baker was outgoing, but felt like an outsider because he was gay.
Baker attended a year of college and drafted to serve in the US Army. From 1970 to 1972, he was stationed in San Francisco as a medic. There he lived as openly gay in the early days of the gay rights movement.
After his honourable discharge from the military, Baker combined his artistic talents and political efforts to make anti-war and pro-gay banners for political marches and protests. In 1978, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk suggested that Baker create a new gay and lesbian political symbol to replace the pink triangle, a holdover Nazi relic.
Working in the Gay Community Center, Baker, and volunteers filled trashcans with dye and pieced together the first flags. There were eight colors: pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for peace and purple for spirt.
The flags were ready to be unveiled on June 25, 1978, at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Baker then commemorated the pride parade by hanging the flags in United Nations Plaza.
“We stood there and watched and saw the flags, and their faces lit up,” said Cleve Jones, gay activist, and friend of Baker. “It needed no explanation. People knew immediately that it was our flag.”
That year Baker also produced a series of limited-edition silkscreened posters and paintings of the Rainbow Flag, and did so every year after that to celebrate the flag’s birth.
Later, Gilbert worked at the Paramount Flag Company, where his flamboyant window displays caught then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s attention. She commissioned Baker to design her first inaugural ceremony’s flags and banners.
Soon came more commissions from the city for flags at distinguished cultural and political events. In 1984, he created the flags and banners for the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
Baker’s career as a vexillographer (flag maker) outlasted Paramount, which closed in 1987. He went on to work with The San Francisco Symphony Black and White Ball, Golden Gate Park concerts, and the city’s gay pride events and stages. He served as grand marshal for LGBT pride events in cities around the world, including New York City, London, Philadelphia, Toronto, Stockholm, and Vancouver.
In 1994, Barker created a Rainbow Flag that was a mile long. He designed it to commemorate the Stonewall Riot’s 25th anniversary. 5,000 people were required to carry the 5,280-ft banner. Baker set a world’s record.
In 2000, the Vatican delayed and closed Barker’s first art and photography exhibition in Rome, celebrating World Pride. In 2002, the New York LGBT Community Center hosted the exhibit, which included 180 pieces.
In 2003, the show expanded when it moved to San Francisco, simultaneously showing at the Public Library and LGBT Community Center. Baker created a new world-record breaking Rainbow Flag for Key West that stretched 1 and a-quarter miles long. It reached from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Afterwards, the flag was cut into sections and distributed to cities around the world. The story of The Key West flag is documented in Marie Jo Ferron’s Rainbow Pride.
In 2008, Baker worked with director Gus Van Sant on Milk, for which Sean Penn won an Oscar. Barker not only created period flags but also appeared in a cameo role.
In 2011, the National Gallery of Art in Dublin, Ireland honored Baker, who presented President Mary McAleese with a Rainbow Flag.
The next year Baker suffered a stroke, which affected his ability to move. As a form of therapy, Barker began sewing beads and sequins to gowns. He won the “best-dressed” at Drag Invasion of the Pines on July 4th.
On June 26, 2015, Baker unveiled a Rainbow Flag at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art as part of their permanent collection. This was the day the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. The world celebrated by showcasing the Rainbow Flag colors on the White House, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, the World Trade Center, and Walt Disney World’s Cinderella’s Castle.
On June 9, 2016, President Obama invited Baker to the White House to commemorate LGBT Pride Month. Barker presented Obama with a hand-dyed Rainbow Flag.
In response to the Trump administration, Baker produced a collection of Holocaust outfits and brought back the pink Nazi triangles. The Art Saves Lives Gallery in San Francisco hosted the exhibit in January 2017.
While planning a trip back to Kansan for the first annual Gilbert Baker Film Festival, he passed away in his sleep at home on March 31, 2017. Memorial services were held in San Francisco and New York City, which transitioned into a protest march against Trump.
In June 2019, the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Museum (SNM), inducted Baker as one of the inaugural 50 American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes.”
Gilbert Baker never trademarked the Rainbow Flag. “It was his gift to the world,” Jones said. “He told me when the flag first went up that he knew at that moment it was his life’s work.”
About the Authors
Troy Wise is currently a PhD student at UAL Central St Martins and teaches fashion and graphic design at London College of Contemporary Arts. His background is in marketing and is founder and co-editor of Image Amplified. He lives in, and is continually fascinated by, the city of London.
Rick Guzman earned his most recent MA at UAL Central St Martins in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries. He currently holds two MA’s and an MBA in the New Media, Journalism and International Business fields. Co-editor at Image Amplified since its start, he lives in London, is fascinated by history and is motivated by continuing to learn and explore.