Gilbert Baker, an artist and activist credited with creating the LGBT community’s iconic rainbow flag, died Thursday night in his sleep at his home in New York City. He was 65.
Baker, who taught himself how to sew after leaving the Army, had the idea to create the first rainbow flag as a symbol to unite San Francisco’s LGBT community; other rejected symbols included a pink triangle and the Greek letter Lambda, San Francisco Gate reports.
“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,” Baker said at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015. “And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.”
The flag made its debut at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade as an eight-colored banner, with each color representing a certain meaning: sexuality (pink), life (red), healing (Orange), sunlight (yellow), nature (green), art (turquoise), harmony (indigo) and the human spirit (violet). The flag was eventually reduced to the six colors it is associated with today, with pink (due to fabric unavailability at the time) and indigo removed and blue replacing turquoise.
Just five months after the flag’s debut, the assassination of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk propelled the rainbow pride flag’s status as the rallying symbol for the community.
“Harvey Milk was a friend of mine, an important gay leader in San Francisco in the ’70s, and he carried a really important message about how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out, and that was the single most important thing we had to do,” Baker said at the MoMA. “Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility, or saying, ‘This is who I am!'”
To honor Baker, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee hung a rainbow flag at half-staff from the city’s United Nations Plaza. “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,” Lee tweeted.
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— Mayor Ed Lee (@mayoredlee) March 31, 2017
Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tweeted, “Rainbows weep. Our world is far less colorful without you, my love. Gilbert Baker gave us the rainbow flag to unite us. Unite again.”