Gilbert Baker was an American activist and designer, recognized as the designer and creator of the LGBT banner.
Her mother was a teacher, her father was a judge and her grandmother owned a women’s clothing store.
He grew up in a conservative town, and he was fascinated by women’s clothing while he was in his grandmother’s shop. The clothes and fabrics caught his attention from a very young age.
The spent a year in college before being drafted into the army in 1970. He worked as a doctor and was stationed in San Francisco.
He worked in a military hospital, treating wounded soldiers who had served in the Vietnam War.
Gilbert Baker announced he was gay when he was 19. “My parents didn’t talk to me for ten years, but it allowed me to overcome my own suicidal desires, allowed me to become the artist that was inside me and allowed me to say,’Well, you know, I can have a dream and I can go for it.
He then found a home in the LGBT community in San Francisco after leaving the military.
Baker learned to sew by himself while living in San Francisco after he was honorably discharged from the military in 1972.
Beginnings in Sewing
“Once I finally left Kansas, the first thing I did was get a sewing machine,” she told Refinery29 in 2015. “Because it was 1972 and I had to look like Mick Jagger and David Bowie.”
Today everyone recognizes the rainbow flag as a symbol of the LGTB+ community. Its creator was the designer Gilbert Baker.
He served in the Army from 1970 to 1972, which led him to San Francisco just as the gay liberation movement began to take shape.
His story as a soldier is one of the stories in Randy Shilts’ book, Conduct Unbecoming, about homosexuals and lesbian soldiers in the United States.
Baker graduated with honors, his profile says, settled in the Californian city and learned to sew flags.
Between 1970 and 1972 he was part of the United States Army, where he was stationed in San Francisco during the LGBT liberation movement.
After being discharged with honors from the army, he decided to learn sewing and began creating banners for anti-war and gay rights protests. At that time he met the politician and activist Harvey Milk, with whom he had a great friendship.
By 1979, he began working at Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco. From the moment he entered the country, he began to design advertising panels for political figures such as the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China, the Presidents of France, Venezuela, and the Philippines, and the King of Spain.
He also did some work for the Democratic Party, as well as several creations for numerous civil acts, for the celebration of International LGBT Pride Day in San Francisco.
History and Meaning of the LGTB Flag
The seventies in the United States were full of moments that marked its history: the American army withdrew from the Vietnam War in 1973 and for the first time in history a president – Richard Nixon – resigned from the presidency in 1974.
With this complex context, the United States celebrated 200 years of independence in 1976 and it was then that the idea of having a symbol that the gay community could identify with according to its creator, Gilbert Baker, first emerged.
It was a year later, in 1977, when Harvey Milk – the first openly gay public servant in the United States – motivated Baker to create a unique symbol with which the gay community could identify, a symbol with which they could proudly boast who they were.
The change to the seven colors came for practical reasons. “It was very difficult to find factories that produced pink on a large scale. The demand for this flag had soared that it could only be mass produced,” Miguel Brox, head of COGAM’s Documentation and Culture Centre, told Verne.
Another color was lost soon after, in the protest marches for the murder of Harvey Milk. When the flags were stuck to the light poles, the central colors were confused with the support.
The best way to solve the problem was to reduce the number of shades of the flag. Thus the turquoise strip was removed and the current flag was born, which, almost 50 years after it first marched on the streets of San Francisco, is still an icon for the community that created it.
Baker had been a soldier in Vietnam for two years and, on his return, reinvented himself as an emblem maker. He didn’t have much time, so he decided to sew and dye two flags with the help of several dozen volunteers.
The original flag did not have the six colors of the current one, but it did not correspond to the seven colors of the rainbow either. It had eight stripes, each with a meaning.
The creation of a symbol
The gay community needed a symbol they could identify with without having to remember a painful past.
In those years the pink triangle with which gay men’s clothing was marked in the Nazi concentration camps had ceased to be a symbol of their condemnation and became one that they proudly wore.
“He came from a place of horrible murders, the Holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful, something from ourselves. Gilbert Baker.
The inspiration for creating the gay flag came from a banner that already existed: the American flag. For Baker, the American flag is very powerful because of its ability to be adopted and transformed by pop culture: from being used as a garment to becoming part of the pop art of artists like Jasper Johns. That’s why the gay flag has bars just like the American flag.
The first time I saw you
The first time the rainbow was used as a gay emblem was in 1978. Milk always said how important it was to be visible, to claim something as simple as its existence, a letter of nature, so they came to the conclusion that they needed a banner.
“A flag fulfilled that mission because it is a way of proclaiming your visibility, or of saying,’This is me,'” Baker said in an interview with the Moma two years ago, when the museum took the original flag.
It premiered at the June 25th march in San Francisco that year. Five months later, Councilman Harvey Milk, the first openly gay public official, was murdered along with the then mayor. Baker then went on to create flags and, of course, also to LGBT activism.
This was the creation of the most important symbol for the people who make up these communities. The first two flags of the parade were sewn and dyed by hand. Their colors reflected the diversity of the LGBT community. The eight that make up Baker’s design have the following meanings:
- Pink: Sexuality.
- Red: Life.
- Orange: Health.
- Yellow: Sunlight.
- Green: nature.
- Turquoise: Magic-Art.
- Indigo/Blue: Serenity.
- Violeta: Spirit.
The trip to New York
In 1994, Gilbert Baker traveled to New York where he continued his creative work and activism. That year he created the largest flag in the world (of that time) for the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
By 2003, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the LGBT flag, Gilbert Baker made a two-kilometer rainbow flag that ran through Key West from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.
After the celebrations, he sent several parts of the flag to more than a hundred cities around the world.
The design of the flag had some changes, due to the availability of fabrics in the market. In 2008, the most widespread variant has six horizontal stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet, and red appears at the top, as it would appear in a rainbow, so Baker referred to it as”the commercial version”, because it was born out of the need to produce it en masse.
The Modern Flag
The modern flag now has six stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. According to a 2009 interview, the strong pink color was removed when a commercial version was made, because that color of the fabric was too expensive.
In 1979, the indigo color was removed before the Gay Freedom Day parade, as its organizing committee wanted to fly the flag in two halves, from poles on Market Street in San Francisco, so they needed equal sides.
Baker created the world’s largest flag at that time to honor the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. He also created a rainbow flag that extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in 2003 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its creation.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired the rainbow flag in 2015 for its design collection.
A global symbol
Harvey Milk only knew the eight-color gay flag: he was killed on November 27, 1978, along with George Moscone, mayor of San Francisco, by an ex-colleague who wanted his public office back.
After the murders, the popularity and demand for the gay flag grew, so Baker had to take two colors off the flag – pink and turquoise – for a mainly economic reason: dyeing eight colors was very expensive, even printing four-color photographs was very expensive.
“I realized I’d need to make some compromises to make it really work as a symbol.” Gilbert Baker.
Gilbert Baker knows that there are still many reasons for the LGBT community to continue to fight for their rights. But the gay flag has given them something that connects them around the world and something that has transcended him as an artist.
Gilbert Baker died while sleeping in New York City on March 31st from cardiovascular disease2017 at the age of 65.
The coroner’s office said in a statement that Baker died of”hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
His friend, activist Cleve Jones, told CNN that Baker suffered a stroke several years ago. The blow left him disabled, but he had been able to teach himself to sew again.
In 2016, he introduced President Barack Obama with a framed version of the rainbow flag, according to the Washington Post.
Baker was featured in the 2017 TV miniseries”When We Rise”, which was broadcast on ABC. In the second part of the series, you can see Baker sewing the flag and explaining to activist Ken Jones why he chose the colors he made.
On June 2, 2017, Google dedicated a doodle in honor of the 66th anniversary of Gilbert Baker’s birth.
It was also the subject of a 2003 documentary, Rainbow Pride, and he recreated his iconic flag for the film Milk, and was also interviewed for the film’s DVD extras.
Gilbert Baker recreated the original rainbow flag for the film Milk in 2008.