How an Army veteran designed the iconic symbol of the gay rights movement
Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 18, 2015.
Every year in June, cities around the world honor the gay community with events celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. While today, the symbol of the gay community — the rainbow flag — is universally recognizable, it would not have existed without one Army veteran, Gilbert Baker, who found himself stationed in San Francisco at the beginning of the gay rights movement in 1970.
Baker, a Kansas-native who was drafted to serve as a surgical nurse, was honorably discharged from the Army in 1972 and decided to stay in San Francisco. In a documentary called “The Gay Betsy Ross,” Baker says he bought his first sewing machine and taught himself how to sew so he could make his own clothes, in the style of his fashion icon, David Bowie.
In 1974, Baker met gay civil rights activist and politician, Harvey Milk, and the two developed a close friendship, according to a San Francisco Travel article. Milk challenged Baker to come up with a symbol that would represent the gay pride community instead of the pink triangle, which was once a symbol used by Nazis to identify and persecute homosexuals.
Thanks to his sewing skills, Baker was able to stitch together eight pieces of fabric that he dyed himself with help from volunteers. Each color represented the values held by the gay community: pink stood for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the human spirit.
Nine years after the Stonewall riots in New York City that launched the gay rights movement, and eight years after the first gay pride march, the LGBT community finally had its colors. The rainbow flag flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978.
In the article for San Francisco Travel, Baker says watching the flag fly for the first time was the most thrilling moment of his life. “Because I knew right then that this was the most important thing I would ever do,” he said, “that my whole life was going to be about the Rainbow Flag.”
Gilbert went on to design flags for other organizations and public figures including the 1984 Democratic National Convention, the 1985 Super Bowl, and the decorations for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parades from 1979 through 1993, according to San Francisco Travel. In 1994, he moved to New York City and created the world’s longest flag on the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Nearly a mile long and carried by 5,000 people, the flag broke the Guinness world record for the largest flag.
In a recent interview published this month in Inside Out, the Museum of Modern Art’s blog, Baker said he was inspired to create a flag because flags are unique from other art forms.
“It’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth,” Baker said. “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.”