Activism

The Creator of the Rainbow Flag Died This Year—Leaving Behind a Global Symbol of Unity, Strength and Love

A memorial march for Gilbert Baker, who died suddenly in March, was held on June 14 (Flag Day, which was his favorite holiday), at the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

Gilbert Baker, designer of the rainbow flag, at the 2016 NYC Pride parade.
Photo Credit: W42ST

The Man

Forty years ago, the dominant symbol for the LGBTQ community was still the pink triangle, a reclaimed icon of hate and persecution that had been used by the Nazis against gay men during the Second World War.

“It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler,” said Gilbert Baker later. “We needed something beautiful, something from us.”

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An artist and activist, Gilbert had a vision of something else, a symbol to reflect pride not shame. He designed and made the first ever rainbow flag by stitching together hand-dyed strips of fabric, which flew over San Francisco’s City Hall on Gay Freedom Day in 1978. From then, he knew he’d found his life’s work.

It’s impossible to know how many flags he made in his lifetime. But one of the biggest was a mile-long, carried by 5,000 people up First Avenue for the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in 1994.

He was busy preparing for Stonewall 50 – in two years’ time – when he suffered a fatal heart attack in his New York apartment on March 31. He was 65. He’d always refused to patent his design – he considered the flag his gift to the world.

THE COLORS

The first flags had eight colors: pink representing sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic and art, blue for serenity and harmony, and violet for spirit. But when demand soared and pink fabric proved too expensive, it was removed from the palette, and turquoise and blue became a single blue.

Recently Gilbert had created 39 nine-color versions — using the original eight colors, and adding lavender to represent diversity — to mark the flag’s 39th anniversary.

THE LEGACY

“Gilbert was a great friend, an amazing artist, and a terrific activist. It’s hard to even imagine that the iconic rainbow flag is a fairly recent creation by one man, but the fundamental brilliance of that idea has swept the world. In every country, Gilbert’s flag is the eternal emblem for freedom and hope for LGBTQ people, and it inspires the fight globally.

“Just days ago, activists in St Petersburg, Russia, protesting the arrest, torture, and murder of gay men by Chechnyan authorities were dragged off to jail for waving the rainbow flag.

“Gilbert was a completely sweet and humble guy, whose flash of inspiration created a transcendent symbol for the ages.”
—Ann Northrop, Activist, journalist

“Every time an LGBT person sees Gilbert’s rainbow flag –anywhere in the whole world, anywhere on Earth – they know they aren’t the only one, that they are not alone. Gilbert’s flag is an instantly recognizable symbol that says to every LGBTQ or their ally, ‘Please, come in. You are absolutely welcome here.’ Think about that. What a powerful, honorable, simply incomparable legacy.

“He recognized that every one of us is represented by one of those gorgeous colors that makes up the even more gorgeous rainbow. Our individual talents shine on their own, but Gilbert believed in ‘the collective’ and the greater good and that together we are a major force to be reckoned with.”
—Ken Kidd, Queer Nation

“Gilbert was a mentor to me. I could always rely on him to give me an honest answer. He was generous and gracious. I miss him immensely.”
—Catherine Marino-Thomas, Activist

PARTING WORDS

“Together we are changing our world – our planet – from a place of hate and violence and war, to a place of love and diversity and acceptance," said Gilbert. "And that is why we’re here. THAT is the big, long rainbow, from ‘before me’ to ‘well after me.’”

A memorial march will be held on the evening of June 14 (Flag Day), which was Gilbert’s favorite holiday, at Stonewall.

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of W42ST. Read it online here.

Ruth Walker is the editor of W42ST, a Hell's Kitchen, New York, magazine. Follow W42ST on Twitter at @w42st.