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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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 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.
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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2. He Taught Himself to Sew After Leaving the Army, Stitching Banners for Anti-War & Gay Rights Marches
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.
“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. 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.
“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 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.”
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
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, but had been in good health.
“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.”
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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