As announced by his longtime friend Cleve Jones on Facebook, Gilbert Baker, the creator of the first rainbow flag to symbolize gay equality, has died. He was 65.
Jones recently spoke to SFist about watching the mini-series When We Rise, which was partly based on Jones' memoir, and called Baker "probably my oldest and dearest living friend." Jones talked about the surreality of having themselves depicted as young men by actors, but that there was something special about being able to share this experience with living friends like Baker.
"I am heartbroken," Jones writes today, "My dearest friend in the world is gone. Gilbert gave the world the Rainbow Flag; he gave me forty years of love and friendship. I can't stop crying."
A ledendary figure in the LGBT rights movement, particularly in San Francisco where he lived since the early 1970s, Baker was born in 1950 and served in the US Army from 1970 to 1972, getting stationed in San Francisco just as Jones and others were sowing the seeds of the early movement for gay equality. When We Rise depicts a scene in which Baker interrupts a meeting of the nascent San Francisco Pride committee to suggest that the movement needed a symbol that was not the pink triangle, which was created by the Nazis.
Randy Shilts' 1993 book Conduct Unbecoming tells the story of Baker's time in the military, as part of a larger exploration of gay persecution in the military.
According to the bio on Baker's website, "It was this skill that he put to use making banners for gay and anti-war street protest marches, often at a moments notice, at the behest of his friend Harvey Milk... Milk rode triumphantly under the first Rainbow Flags Baker made at their debut on June 25th 1978, for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Baker credits Milk for inspiring his work with the message of hope. Early in 2008, Baker returned to San Francisco to recreate the banners and flags he made in the 70”s for the Academy Award winning feature film Milk starring Sean Penn."
The Museum of Modern Art acquired one of the original flags as part of their design collection in 2015. In an interview with the museum, Jones said about his inspiration:
So the American flag was my introduction into that great big world of vexilography. But I didn’t really know that much about it. I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco. I knew how to sew. I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. 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]. 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. Plus, it’s a natural flag—it’s from the sky! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexilography, this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had .
Jones announced that there would be a vigil for Baker tonight, beneath the giant rainbow flag that billows over the Castro, at 7 p.m.