Over the weekend, both the design community and the gay community lost a legend: Gilbert Baker, the creator of the iconic Rainbow Flag, has died.
An artist and prominent activist in San Francisco during the 1970s, Baker is best known for the flag he conceptualized and sewed by hand in 1978. Today, the Rainbow Flag is a ubiquitous symbol of LGBT rights that has brought visibility to the movement worldwide. It’s also a work of art with a history worthy of preservation—in 2015, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired the flag as part of its permanent design collection.
In an interview with MoMA curatorial assistant Michelle Millar Fisher, Baker described the value of being in the center of the LGBT rights organizing and knowing how to sew. Growing up in rural Kansas, his grandmother owned a women’s clothing store, but no one in the conservative town thought it appropriate to teach him the family skill. After he was discharged from the army at age 21, Baker moved to San Francisco, bought a sewing machine, and taught himself to sew by making his own drag clothes.
As Baker later became involved in gay rights activism, the skill came in handy for making banners for protests. “I was in the army and got out in 1972 and that became my role, if you will,” Baker told Fisher. “My craft became my activism.”
At the time, the LGBT community was struggling to find one uniting symbol—the reclaimed Nazi “pink triangle” badge and the Greek letter lambda being the two most popular icons in use. “It was necessary to have the Rainbow Flag because up until that we had the pink triangle from the Nazis—it was the symbol that they would use [to denote gay people],” Baker told Fisher. “It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler. 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.”
In June of 1978, Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist and first openly gay man elected to public office in the states, invited Baker to make a flag for a march. Baker and a team of 30 volunteers dyed yards of cotton, then sewed the flag together in the attic of the Gay Community Center in San Francisco. The initial handmade versions had eight colors, instead of the six the flag has now, but turquoise and pink were eventually dropped because they were uncommon flag colors and thus too difficult to manufacture. One history of the flag also points out that the six stripes made it easier for protesters to divide up the colors evenly during protests, or to split the once-large flags in half to hang on flag poles.
While it’s still possible to find the eight-color version of the flag online, it was the six-color flag that truly took off and is seen everywhere today. In a Refinery29 interview from 2015, Baker pinpointed when he felt it had really become an international symbol:
For the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 1994, Baker made a mile-long flag for the parade. Coverage of the event was widespread and gay rights were moving into a new stage of public acceptance. “That was the pivotal moment,” he says, “they started to have these little rainbow stickers that people would put in their store windows. Like ‘we take Visa and Mastercard.’ At first, I was like, ‘What the fuck is that? We are not a credit card,’” he says, laughing.
While LGBT rights activists have made great strides since the creation of the flag, Baker was always careful to point out in interviews that there was still a ways to go—particularly in a global context. Even within the United States today, the new administration appears intent on reversing progress on transgender rights and LGBT rights. A lasting symbol of diversity, solidarity, and human rights for all, Baker’s Rainbow Flag lives on, and is now as pertinent as ever.