Gilbert Baker: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

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Rainbow Flag Creator Gilbert Baker poses at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on January 7, 2016 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBT community, is being celebrated with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 66th birthday.

Baker died earlier this year. As California State Senator Scott Wiener said, Baker, “helped define the modern LGBT movement.”

According to Google, Doodler Nate Swinehart, who is part of the LGBT community, “wanted to capture that same community spirit Baker treasured. He collaborated with other team members, including other LGBT Doodlers who felt personally connected to the project, to nail down the right concept.”

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(Nate Swinehart/Google)

The Doodle created by Swinehart and his team, consists “of a stop-motion animation of actual fabric strips coming together to create the flag. They made a trip to local San Franciscan fabric shops and filmed the doodle in a tiny kitchen only a few blocks from the same spot where Baker and his friends constructed that first flag in 1978.”

A photo showing Google Doodlers making a “homemade Doodle for a homemade flag.” (Google)

According to Google, “Today we celebrate Gilbert Baker’s pride, creativity, and the lasting impact he’s had on strengthening and uniting people all over the world.”

His sister, Ardonna Cook, told Google, “Our family is so proud of the legacy of activism and artistry that Gilbert has left to the world. He touched millions across the globe and empowered them to become stronger and more visible LGBT people. Gilbert led a bold and inspiring life by bringing The Rainbow Flag to life and it is that legacy which should guide us in respecting and celebrating diversity.”

His close friend, activist Cleve Jones, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “That day when he raised the first rainbow flag, he knew that was his life’s work. And for every march, every protest, every celebration, every memorial, he was always the one sewing and sewing and sewing. I take some comfort in knowing that he will be remembered. For generations to come, people will know that flag. It’s an example of how one person can have an amazing and brilliant idea that reaches not just millions, but hundreds of millions of people.”

Donations in Baker’s memory can be made to the Gilbert Baker Fund here.

Here’s what you need to know about Gilbert Baker:

1. Baker Was Born in Kansas, Served in the Army & Was Stationed in San Francisco at the Start of the Gay Rights Movement

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Then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg greets Gilbert Baker (Busty Ross) as they both march in the annual Gay Pride parade June 30, 2002 in New York City. (Getty)

Gilbert Baker was born June 2, 1951, in Chanute, Kansas, according to the New York Times. His mother was a teacher, his father was a judge and his grandmother owned a women’s clothing store.

He told the Washington Post he grew up in a conservative town, and was fascinated by women’s clothing while at his grandmother’s store. He said the clothes and fabrics interested him from a young age. Baker told the New York Times he was outgoing as a child, but felt like an outcast because he was gay.

Baker spent one year in college before he was drafted into the Army in 1970. He worked as a medic and was stationed in San Francisco. He worked at a military hospital, treating injured soldiers who had served in the Vietnam War. But he was often disparaged by superiors and fellow soldiers, especially in boot camp, <a href="http://In 2016, he presented President Barack Obama with a framed version of the rainbow flag, according to the Washington Post.” target=”_blank”>according to the Washington Post. His stories about his time in the military were featured in Randy Shilts’ 1994 book “Conduct Unbecoming” about the treatment of gays and lesbians in the military.

Being stationed in San Francisco was a blessing for Baker, who was there at the start of the gay rights movement.

He was discharged honorably in 1972 and stayed in the city, joining the movement. He became friends with Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones, who was his roommate, and other leaders.

“It was a wonderful time,” he told Refinery29 in 2015. “Harvey [Milk] hadn’t been murdered yet and gay artistic empowerment — you had gay chorus, gay band, gay theater, gay film, all of this stuff — was just flowering.”

He came out as gay when he was 19.

“My parents didn’t talk to me for ten years, but it allowed me to get past my own suicidal urges, it allowed me to become the artist that was inside of me and it allowed me to say, ‘Well, you know, I can have a dream and I can go for it,’” he told Refinery29.

Baker told the Miami Herald in 2013, “(Gay) people were psychopaths, criminals. I was afraid my family would lock me up and give me electroshock. I was a screaming queen.”

He said he found a home in the LGBT community in San Francisco after leaving the Army.

“For me and, really, a whole generation of people, that was really a defining time,” Mr. Baker said in a 2008 New York times interview.

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Dr. Ulrich Sacker, Director of the Goethe-Institute of San Francisco debates with Gilbert Baker and Brett Thomas members of Americans for Gay Rights after the group dumped German beers in the gutter in protest of Germany’s ban of sexually explicit Internet forums through the online service Compuserve 04 January in San Francisco. (Getty)

His friend, Cleve Jones, told the Bay Area Reporter after Baker’s death that they met about 1974.

“He was such a diva. He was so outrageous and sometimes quite ridiculous,” Jones told the newspaper. “We had a lot of wonderful times just dreaming up crazy stuff to do” to shock, amaze, or even outrage people.”

Jones said Baker was driven by his upbringing to change the world and earn better treatment for the LGBT community.

“Beneath the bravado and the bitchiness was a deep compassion, and when AIDS came and so many of our friends died so horribly, he was a part of caring for an awful lot of people,” Jones told the Bay Area Reporter earlier this year.

2. He Taught Himself to Sew After Leaving the Army, Stitching Banners for Anti-War & Gay Rights Marches

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Gilbert Baker, who designed the most internationally known symbol for the gay culture, the rainbow coloured flag, 25 years ago, heads the Stockholm Pride Parade carrying a 250-metre long flag in Stockholm, 02 August 2003. (Getty)

Baker taught himself to sew while living in San Francisco after he was honorably discharged from the Army in 1972.

“Once I was finally liberated from my Kansas background, the first thing I did was get a sewing machine,” he told Refinery29 in 2015. “Because it’s 1972 and I have to look like Mick Jagger and David Bowie every single second. Taffeta jumpsuits.”

He also began performing as a drag queen (he later used the name Busty Ross, a nod to his flag-making), and sewing helped him put together affordable costumes.

“I ran with a pretty amazing crowd then,” he told Refinery29. “We’d be hanging out looking at Vogue magazine, and thinking like, ‘Ah, wouldn’t it be great to look like this?'”

Baker also began stitching together banners for gay rights and anti-war protests, he said.

“Because I loved to sew, my role in the movement became to make banners. That’s really how I ended up making the first flag — I was the guy who could sew it,” Baker told Refinery29.

“I love to sew and fashion. Everything with fabric. That’s my medium,” he told the Miami Herald in 2013. He earned a reputation as “the banner guy” in gay politics in San Francisco, he told the newspaper. “That’s how I began to meet people like Harvey Milk.”

3. Baker, Who Called Himself the ‘Gay Betsy Ross,’ Stitched Together the 8 Strips of Colored Fabric Into the Iconic Rainbow Flag in 1978

Baker, who would call himself the “Gay Betsy Ross,” created the first rainbow flag in 1978, stitching together eight strips of colored fabric into the iconic symbol. Then 27, he had help from fellow activists in his San Francisco community, and the flag quickly became popular. Baker wanted to create a symbol for the LGBT community to replace the pink triangle, which was a symbol of oppression dating back to Nazi Germany, when it was used as a classification for gay people.

“We needed something beautiful, something from us,” Baker said. “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!”

According to Google, Baker and 30 people created the first flag in the attic of the Gay Community Center, hand-dying it and using more than 1,000 yards of cotton.

The flag consisted of eight colors, each representing part of the community:

Hot pink – Sex
Red – Life
Orange – Healing
Yellow – Sunlight
Green – Nature
Turquoise – Art
Indigo – Harmony
Violet – Spirit

The modern-day flag now has six stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. According to a 2009 interview, the hot pink stripe was taken out when a commercial version was made, because that color of fabric was too expensive. In 1979, the indigo stripe was removed before the Gay Freedom Day Parade, as its organizing committee wanted to fly the flag in two halves, from light 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 stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in 2003 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his creation.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City acquired the rainbow flag in 2015 for its design collection, according to a press release. He talked with the museum about his interest in vexillography:

Vexillography is really the high science and art and understanding of flags and their history, the academic word for flag making and heraldry. No! To a degree, it all began in 1976. That was the bicentennial of the United States and that year in particular I began to notice the American flag—which is where a lot of the Rainbow Flag comes from—in the sense that all of a sudden [I saw] the American flag everywhere—from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the Gap and tchotchkes.

And I thought, a flag is different than any other form of art. It’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a just logo—it functions in so many different ways. I thought that we needed that kind of symbol, that we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands. [The Rainbow Flag] doesn’t say the word “Gay,” and it doesn’t say “the United States” on the American flag but everyone knows visually what they mean. And that influence really came to me when I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.

So the American flag was my introduction into that great big world of vexillography. 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 vexillography, this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had….

He told MoMa the flag still represents the community well, despite changes from when it was created:

Much has changed for some, but as a global vision, we are way far away from where we need to be. We are still dealing with huge, massive resistance, even here in our own country, even here in our own city, even in our own families. What the rainbow has given our people is a thing that connects us. I can go to another country, and if I see a rainbow flag, I feel like that’s someone who is a kindred spirit or [that it’s] a safe place to go. Its sort of a language, and it’s also proclaiming power. That’s the phenomenal [aspect] of it. I made it in 1978 and I hoped it would be a great symbol but it has transcended all of that—and within short order—because it became so much bigger than me, than where I was producing it, much bigger even that the U.S. Now it’s made all over the world. The beauty of it is the way that it has connected us.

“It fits us,” he said of the flag in 2012. “We’re all the colors, all the sexes, all the genders. Infinite people. Infinite colors.”

4. He Worked for a Flag Company in San Francisco as a Designer & Was an Artist


Baker took his flag-making skills to the San Francisco-based Paramount Flag Company after his success with the rainbow creation, according to the New York Times. He started working there in 1979, according to The Advocate.

The newspaper said Baker designed flags for then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s inauguration and later for the premier of China, the president of France, the president of Venezuela, the president of the Philippines and the king of Spain. He also designed flags for the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

He later left the company and focused on his career as an artist. He created art that celebrated the rainbow flag and the LGBT community, according to his website:

In addition to traditional textile work, Baker began creating fine art celebrating the Rainbow Flag and the gay community starting in 1978 with his first series of signed limited edition silkscreen posters- 22 x 35 oil on linen. A second series followed in 1979. He worked with photographers to document the Rainbow Flag and created subsequent posters and paintings every year to mark its birth. One of his 1992 silkscreens 22 x 35 oil on linen was given to the Clinton White House where it hung in the West Wing Office complex.

In 2000 Baker staged his first exhibition of photographs and fine art celebrating the flag in Rome for World Pride. In 2002 Baker mounted an extensive showing, 180 pieces, at the New York Gay Community Center where more than 80,000 people saw the collection. In 2003 this exhibition was expanded and showcased in two simultaneous exhibitions at the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.

“He got up every day and made art,” Charley Beal told the New York Times.

Another friend, Cleve Jones, pointed out that Baker did not get a trademark on the flag and did not make money from its commercial success.

“It was his gift to the world,” Jones told the Times. “He told me when the flag first went up that he knew at that moment that it was his life’s work.”

In 2016, he presented President Barack Obama with a framed version of the rainbow flag, according to the Washington Post.

According to the Times, he was creating 39 nine-color flags, the eight original colors plus lavender to celebrate diversity, in recent weeks in preparation for the 39th anniversary of his original creation.

5. Baker Died in His Sleep in New York City on March 31 of Cardiovascular Disease

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Rainbow Flag Creator Gilbert Baker poses at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on January 7, 2016 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

Gilbert Baker died at the age of 65 on March 31, 2017, in New York City, where he had moved in 1994 to continue his life as an artist and activist.

Baker passed away in his sleep, his friends said. The medical examiner’s office said in a statement that Baker died of “hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.”

His friend, activist Cleve Jones, told CNN Baker suffered a stroke several years ago. The stroke left him disabled, but he had been able to teach himself to sew again.

Jones said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter that Baker “suffered a massive stroke six and half years ago and was able to teach himself how to sew again, but it affected his day-to-day life from then on, and I was quite concerned the last time I saw him. … He complained about being in a fair amount of discomfort.”

Baker talked about his health issues with the newspaper in 2012.

“It really f*cked me up. For three months I couldn’t see or walk. I’m a strong guy and I recovered, but it changed me. It made me think about dying, it gave me pause to think that every life is finite. It made me appreciate the ones who came before me who did so much great work,” Baker told the Bay Area Reporter.

“I’m still in shock; he was just the most amazing person. Funny and smart and fierce … One of the most compassionate people,” Jones told CNN.

Baker was celebrated in the 2017 TV miniseries “When We Rise,” which aired on ABC. In the second part of the series, Baker can be seen sewing the flag and explaining to activist Ken Jones the reasons why he chose the colors he did.

He was also the subject of a 2003 documentary, “Rainbow Pride” and recreated his iconic flag for the movie “Milk,” and also was interviewed for the film’s DVD extras.

A vigil was held in San Francisco after his death and the rainbow flag flew outside San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza and city hall.

“Gilbert was a trailblazer for LGBT rights, a powerful artist and a true friend to all who knew him. Our thoughts are with his friends and family. He will be missed,” Mayor Ed Lee said in a statement. “The rainbow flag is more than just a symbol. It is the embodiment of the LGBT community, and it has become a source of solace, comfort and pride for all those who look upon it.”

He was survived by his mother Patricia Baker, and his sister, Ardonna Baker Cook.

“Our family is extremely grateful for all of the condolences and support we have received on behalf of Gilbert’s passing,” they said in a statement after his death. “He will be dearly missed by his family, friends, the art world, as well as the entire LGBTQ community. He led a bold and inspiring life by bringing the rainbow flag to the world and teaching others about the beauty in diversity.”

A celebration of Baker’s life is set for June 8 at 7 p.m. local time at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are free, and can be obtained here.

Donations in Baker’s memory can be made to the Gilbert Baker Fund here.

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