Gilbert Baker, creator of the rainbow flag, which would endure as the symbol of gay activism and solidarity for 40 years, has died.
Cleve Jones, a longtime friend and noted gay rights activist, announced the death on Twitter.
Baker designed his first flag during the 1970s while an active member of San Francisco’s gay community. An Army veteran and drag performer, Baker found himself sought after for his deftness at costuming to make signs and banners for the burgeoning gay rights movement.
At the time, the pink triangle, designed after the schema Nazi’s used to target homosexuals for extermination, was commonly appropriated by activists. Baker found himself dismayed by the appropriation.
“It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler,” said Baker during a 2015 interview with the Museum of Modern Art. “We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag—it’s from the sky”
The first rainbow flags debuted at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978.
The parade committee fronted $1,000 for its design and construction and enlisted about 30 volunteers for the project, built at a gay community center.
“I wanted to make it at the center, with my friends—it needed to have a real connection to nature and community, ” Baker said in the same interview.
His original design included eight colored bars running horizontally, corresponding to values he believed represented the diversity of the gay community. Two colors – turquoise and pink – had to be dropped to due to the difficulty at that time of mass producing flags of that color.
This compromise, however, allowed for an easily reproducible flag.
In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the flag for its design collection.
Baker was born in Kansas in 1951, and served in the U.S. Army from 1970-72. The Army brought him to San Francisco where he found a place among the increasingly accepted and visible gay community there.
During his years in San Francisco, he crossed paths with Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay men to hold public office in 1978. When Milk’s life was turned into a biopic, Baker was tapped to design versions of his original flag for the film.
Baker was 65 and died in his sleep at his New York City home.