Lifelong activist and artist Gilbert Baker, most famous for creating the iconic rainbow flag which has become a banner for the global LGBTQ movement, died Thursday in New York at age 65.
Born in Kansas, Baker arrived in San Francisco in 1970 while serving as a medic in the U.S. army, where his work with injured Vietnam veterans spurred his lifelong anti-war activism.
After his discharge in 1972, he remained in San Francisco, immersing himself in the growing Gay rights movement, working closely with legendary LGBTQ activist Harvey Milk.
It was in preparation for San Francisco's 1978 Gay Pride parade that Baker created the ironic flag in the attic of the local Gay Community Center.
"I thought that we needed that kind of symbol, that we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands…that influence really came to me when 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," said Baker in an interview recalling his process.
Baker reportedly settled on the rainbow as the symbol — others had suggested a pink triangle, the Nazi badge imposed on LGBT victims of the holocaust, which has since been reclaimed by many activists — because it represented joy, celebration, and inclusion and could be easily recreated.
"That day when he raised the first rainbow flag, he knew that was his life's work. And for every march, every protest, every celebration, every memorial, he was always sewing and sewing and sewing," said Cleve Jones, an activist and friend of Baker's who helped dye the first flag, in an interview with SFGate.
Jones pointed out that Baker never made any money off of his creation, recalling that Baker told him it was "my gift to the world."
"It's an example of how one person can have an amazing and brilliant idea that reaches not just millions, but hundreds of millions of people," Jones added.
"He was a genius at political theater, at political art," said San Francisco Supervisor Jeff Sheely. "He's one of these heroes who never sought attention for himself. But he was relentless."
"He inspired you with his passion and his joy to come together," recalled Dustin Black, who wrote the film "Milk" about Harvey Milk, the first elected openly LGBT politician in the U.S.
"That was always his thing, how do we bring each other together," Black told SFGate. "That's partly why it's so painful to lose a force like him now, when we're living in such divided times. He made us truly a family, and gave us a symbol of hope and pride."
On Friday evening mourners gathered for a vigil in the Castro district — the heart of the LGBTQ community in San Francisco — while outside city hall Baker's flag flew at half mast.