Gilbert Baker, who designed the iconic rainbow flag, has passed away at 65 years old.
Baker died Thursday in his sleep, said Cleve Jones, an AIDS activist and Baker’s longtime friend. He died in New York City.
The idea of designing the flag came from Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, and Baker’s friend. Milk was in the city’s board of supervisors and they’d talk about the need for a new symbol. He urged Baker, who was then 27 years old, to come up with a design.
It was 1976, and the US was celebrating its 200th anniversary, and the US flag was on everything.
“It really put the seed in my head,” Baker said. “I was like: ‘Wait a minute, we are a global tribe, and a flag really fits our mission.'”
He sewed and stitched in San Francisco’s gay community center and the first flag flew on Gay Pride Day on June 25, 1978, in the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco. It was 30 by 60 feet.
The original rainbow flag had eight colors: pink (sex), red (life), orange (healing), yellow (the sun), green (nature), turquoise (magic), blue (harmony), and purple (spirit). When Baker decided to mass-produce the flag, he found out that pink was too expensive to make in mass quantities, and went with an even number: six. So red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple have stayed through the years.
“When it went up and the wind finally took it out of my hands, it blew my mind,” Baker said. “I saw immediately how everyone around me owned that flag. I thought: It’s better than I ever dreamed.”
A vigil in Baker’s memory was held Friday evening under the rainbow flag in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza. The flag was flown at half mast.
— Mayor Ed Lee (@mayoredlee) March 31, 2017
“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 said in a statement.
Baker was born in Chanute, Kansas, on June 2, 1951. He joined the US army as a medic. In the 70s, he arrived in San Francisco and worked at an orthopedic hospital where Vietnam veterans underwent skin grafts and amputations. The horrors of wars, and politics, changed his mind about life. He immersed himself in the gay and lesbian community of San Francisco, to “find my own, gay family.”
He lived during a time when being gay meant going to jail or a mental institution. Milk, with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, was assassinated five months after the first rainbow flag was raised. Half of his friends died of AIDS in one year in the 80s.
But Baker encouraged young gay people to come out of the closet. He told them to never give up hope, and that it gets better.
“You can live in this light of the truth. It’s totally liberating,” Baker said. “You don’t have to live a lie. Living a lie will mess you up. It will send you into depression. It will warp your values.”
The Bible also inspired the flag.
“We needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that,” Baker said. “We’re an ancient, wonderful tribe of people. We picked something from nature. We picked something beautiful.
“How do you argue with that? People want to argue about it, but I say: ‘The rainbow’s in the Bible. It’s a covenant between God and all living creatures.'”
Today, the rainbow has many incarnations and can be seen flying in countries across the world.
Featured image: Gilbert Baker in front of the rainbow flag. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.