Gilbert Baker - Early Life, Harvey Milk & Rainbow Pride Flag - Biography

2022-05-21 17:04:07 By : Ms. Tiffany Zhou

Self-described as the “gay Betsy Ross,” Gilbert Baker was an American artist, LGBTQ rights activist and the creator of the rainbow flag. A skilled vexillographer (flag maker), his work spanned 30 years and broke two world records. Baker’s artistic work helped define and solidify the LGBTQ movement. He died on March 31, 2017, at the age of 65.

Gilbert Baker was born on June 2, 1951 in the tiny rural town of Chanute, Kansas. His parents were prominent community citizens; his mother was an educator and his father served as a judge and lawyer. Baker had an outgoing and friendly personality as a child but felt ostracized because of his gay identity. After graduating from high school, Baker attended college for a year before the Army drafted him. Baker was stationed in San Francisco just as the gay liberation movement was beginning to take shape. After serving a short two-year term, he was honorably discharged and settled into the thriving activist community of San Francisco.

In the 1970s, Baker participated in drag shows and joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a non-profit LGBTQ advocacy group whose members dress as nuns to bring attention to gender and sexual intolerance. An emerging activist and prominent drag performer, Baker joined forces with Harvey Milk—the first openly gay elected official in California. Baker became Milk’s right-hand flag man, utilizing his drag queen costume sewing skills to design and stitch numerous banners protesting the Vietnam War and supporting gay rights. In fact, when Baker’s very first rainbow flags made their debut, Milk stood beneath them. 

With increasing interest in the gay liberation movement, Milk and others joined forces with Baker to create a symbol for the movement. The group focused their efforts on creating a flag—because "flags are about proclaiming power, so it's very appropriate," Baker said in an interview with the New York Museum of Modern Art just after they acquired his original flag design in 2015.

Baker got to work designing a symbol for the gay liberation movement in 1978. He wanted it to be beautiful, unique and an undeniable representation of the LGBTQ community. The first pride flag was comprised of eight colorful stripes representing diversity: hot pink (sexuality), red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sun), green (nature), blue (art), indigo (harmony) and violet (human spirit). With help from volunteers, Baker filled eight metal trash cans with natural dyes and organic cotton in the attic of the Gay Community Center in San Francisco and used his sewing machine to stitch together the first two flags that flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. 

After the assassination of Milk in November 1978, demand for the rainbow flag greatly increased. But the shortage (and expense) of hot pink fabric meant that the flag was reduced to seven stripes, later to be reduced again to six stripes (red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet) to account for symmetry if the flag must be split in half during parades and festivals. The current six-striped rainbow pride flag symbolizes the diversity of the LGBTQ community and is displayed globally as an emblem of LGBTQ support.

Baker continued to promote the rainbow flag as an artist at Paramount Flag Company, which he credits with helping bring international attention to the rainbow flag through its mass production. Throughout the 1980s, Baker became a prominent artist for local civic, state and national events, including the 1984 Democratic National Convention. He also designed flags for several world leaders including the Premier of China, the King of Spain and the presidents of France and Venezuela, among others. One of Baker’s 1992 rainbow silkscreens even hung in the West Wing Office complex of the White House during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Baker shared his rainbow flag textiles, photographs, oil paintings and other artwork with audiences around the world including at World Pride in Rome (2000), at the New York Gay Community Center (2002), at the San Francisco Public Library (2003) and at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center (2003). His original flag design has been acquired for the prestigious MOMA's design collection in New York City.

In 1994, Baker was commissioned to design a mile long (30-feet-wide) rainbow flag to be carried by 10,000 people in a New York City parade honoring the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. In 2003, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the flag itself, Baker again created a giant rainbow pride flag. This time, the mile-and-a-quarter-long flag that stretched sea to sea from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in Key West employed the original eight colors. Following both occasions, Guinness World Record’s recognized them as the world’s largest flags to date. The giant flags were cut up and disseminated to more than a hundred cities worldwide.

In addition to developing the internationally recognized symbol of LGBTQ pride, Baker created artwork, essays, articles and speeches about the rainbow flag. His flags were never trademarked; he chose to see the rainbow flag as his gift to the world. He even returned to San Francisco to recreate the banners and flags he originally made in the 1970s to bring authenticity to the Academy Award winning feature film Milk (2008) starring Sean Penn. 

An artist until the end, just before his death, he created 39 nine-color flags which included "the eight original colors, plus lavender to represent diversity in order to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the first rainbow flag," so stated his obituary in the New York Times. 

On March 31, 2017, Baker died from hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in his New York City home at age 65. His life is celebrated in the documentary, Rainbow Pride (2003), and his original sewing machine used to create the first flag is on display at The GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

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