The man who created the most recognizable symbol of LGBT unity and pride, Gilbert Baker, has died at 65, according to a Facebook post from his close friend, activist and writer Cleve Jones. A flagmaker by trade, Baker sewed the first rainbow flags in 1978, and they debuted at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, where San Francisco City Supervisor and LGBT rights activist Harvey Milk passed under them as they flew high above the parade route, according to Baker’s website.
“My dearest friend in the world is gone. Gilbert Baker gave the world the Rainbow Flag; he gave me forty years of love and friendship,” Jones, whose autobiography inspired the recent ABC miniseries When We Rise, in which Baker was featured, wrote in a Twitter post.
An Army veteran, Baker, who was born in Kansas in 1951, was stationed in San Francisco in the early ‘70s, and he remained there upon his honorable discharge from the armed services. He eventually taught himself to sew, combining his skills with activism early on, creating banners for protests on the fly, often at the request of his friend Milk.
Following the creation of the rainbow flag, Baker took a job with the Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco. His outrageous designs caught the eye of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who commissioned him to create work for her inauguration. From there he designed works for luminaries including 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 the flags for the 1984 Democratic National Convention, according to his website.
Despite his success and recognition as a preeminent designer of flags, Baker never stopped working on his the rainbow flag. His commitment to its evolution took him to New York City in 1994, where he designed a record-breaking mile-long rainbow for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In 2003, for the 25th anniversary of the flag’s design, he broke another world’s record when he created a flag that spanned from sea to sea — from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in Key West, according to his site.
One of the subjects of Randy Shilts’s 1994 book Conduct Unbecoming, about LGBT people in the military, Baker was an artist and activist throughout his life, giving speeches and lectures about the rainbow flag around the world up until his death.
The cause of Baker's death is unknown at this time.
Watch Baker and Jones discuss the first rainbow flags in this snippet of a PBS documentary.