On April 1, 2017, Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag — synonymous with LGBTQIA pride –passed away in his sleep in New York City. He was 65.
Baker served stateside in the Army during the Vietnam War from 1970 to 1972. The son of a former Army drill sergeant, Baker received his draft notice; his family rejoiced, certain that the experience would make him more masculine. His parents had worried about him since he was a five-year-old sketching fashion designs while watching the Miss America Pageant on TV.
As he grew, his artistic side flourished, along with his love for Barbara Streisand and Mick Jagger. Baker defied the strict gender norms of the 1950s and 60s; his father wanted to see him become a West Point cadet and forced Baker to tear up his sketches and smash his records.
Baker was stationed in San Francisco at the beginning of the gay rights movement, and after his honorable discharge, he stayed in the Castro District and taught himself how to sew. His story is included in the book Conduct Unbecoming, which chronicles individual histories of the LGBT military community.
Using his self-taught skills, he became an artist and acclaimed vexillographer–a flag maker–for more than 30 years. His work was revered around the world, and he designed pieces for heads of state including the Premier of China, the President of France, the President of Venezuela, the President of the Philippines, and the King of Spain.
Iterations of his flag– and color choices– have been replicated in many situations and in many places around the world. Famously, the White House lit up in the colors of the flag to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality in 2015.
The original eight colors that Baker chose have symbolic meaning (although two were removed from the original design, owing to the difficulties of obtaining some of the dyes at the time). “The rainbow is a part of nature and you have to be in the right place to see it,” Baker said to CBS. “It’s beautiful, all of the colors, even the colors you can’t see. That really fit us as a people because we are all of the colors. Our sexuality is all of the colors. We are all the genders, races, and ages.”
Despite its immense popularity across the globe — and its iconic history — Baker never profited from the flag. He declined to patent it, deeming it his gift to the world.
Baker lived long enough to see Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed, marriage equality become the law of the land, and his own flag carried on U.S. military bases around the world during Pride Month celebrations.
J.G. Noll is a veteran’s spouse.