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Remembering the man behind the rainbow flag: Gilbert Baker

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Gilbert Baker, one of the original creators of the rainbow flag at the March in DC for LGBT rights, October 11, 2009. (Photo by Daniel Nicoletta)
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Days before Gilbert Baker’s memorial at the Castro Theatre on June 8, his longtime friend walked into a kickboxing class in the Castro and asked if anyone knew the name Gilbert Baker.

Out of 100 people, only one raised their hand.

“Who knows what the rainbow flag is?” Jerome Goldstein, Baker’s friend for nearly 40 years, asked as a follow-up.

Every single hand shot into the air.

Goldstein and his husband, Tom Taylor, planned the celebration of life for Baker, the man they considered family and who also officiated their wedding. Following Baker’s death on March 31, community members gathered at the historic theater to honor the self-proclaimed “gay Betsy Ross” and celebrate Baker’s greatest accomplishment: the creation of the rainbow flag.

Baker worked as a flag maker and artist after arriving in San Francisco during the height of the gay liberation movement in the early 1970s. He never patented the flag because he wanted it to belong to the entire community.

“As we end our residence here on Earth, within a generation or two, we’re long forgotten, but there are some things that endure forever,” Goldstein said. “The rainbow flag will endure forever.”

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Today, the rainbow flag adorns nearly every flag pole and building in the Castro District, but still many community members do not know the name of the man who walked the same streets and made the longevity of the flag his life’s work.

“I knew right away that the rainbow would be the perfect fit for us because it expressed our diversity in terms of our gender, our ages, our races, and all the ways we’re different and yet connected,” Baker told NBC in an interview in 2016.

After growing up in a conservative small town in Kansas, Baker moved to San Francisco as a U.S. Army draftee in 1970. He was honorably discharged two years later and found himself in a momentous time for LGBTQ rights.

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“San Francisco was seen as a countercultural capital, and a lot of people came here for that reason,” said Paul Gabriel, a historian who curated an exhibition on the flag’s history for the GLBT Historical Society when he worked as their exhibits director.

In the midst of this energy, Baker learned to sew and began performing as a drag queen, according to Taylor and Goldstein. He became actively involved in the community and befriended Harvey Milk three years before Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

The organizers of the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade asked Baker to create a flag for the celebration, since he was known for making banners for previous events in the community. Baker and 30 friends packed into the attic of the Gay Community Center and hand-dyed two flags.

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The first flag had eight rainbow stripes that included the primary and secondary colors along with pink and turquoise, and eventually evolved into the flag that is seen today. The second was a tie-dyed version of the flag of the U.S. in fashion with the counterculture style at the time, but it became too difficult to reproduce.

Baker wanted new representation for the community detached from the dark history held by the previous symbol, the pink triangle. Though the triangle was reclaimed in the 1970s, it first appeared as the marker for homosexual men in Nazi Germany.

“The rainbow has always been a symbol of starting over and rebirth and hope after a lot of violence and anger,” Gabriel said. “I think to remember the birth of the flag, you have to remember both the harrowing sorrow and the revolutionary joy.”

Milk rode down Market Street during the Gay Freedom Day Parade for the flags’ debut on June 25, 1978. The flags unfurled at the United Nations Plaza as the marchers turned the corner to City Hall.

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“When that thing sailed out of my hands into the air, I went, ‘Oh my god, this is gonna be the most important thing I’ll ever do in my whole life,’” Baker told NBC in the 2016 interview.
The two original flag poles still stand today at the United Nations Plaza.

“Gilbert would get out of his bed at the mere mention of protest,” Goldstein said. “He loved the idea of confrontation and pushing the limits.”

In 1979, the Paramount Flag Company on Polk Street began producing the rainbow flag, catapulting the symbol into the masses.

Economic roadblocks shaped the flag into the color scheme seen today. Paramount axed two colors because pink was not commercially available and turquoise was at a premium price.

The company experimented with several variations of the flag between 1979 and 1980, but the six-color flag resonated with the community and generated the most sales.

“During those early years, every time I saw it, I felt my heart swell because there was this visible, physical symbol that connected me to a whole lot of people that I’d never met,” said Paul Ellis, manager at Cliff’s Variety Store on Castro Street. “It created a feeling of community that I had in my head, but the presence of the flag gave it more weight, more reality.”

The rainbow flag proved more popular than ever when the Paramount Flag Company’s two folding tables at the 1980 Pride Parade collapsed due to the high demand of the marchers. The next year, the entire inventory of rainbow flags sold out. The flag soon became the company’s third most lucrative product.

“It really took on a life of its own,” recalled Taylor, who worked with Baker on numerous projects over the years.

The rainbow flag spread cross-country and worldwide over the next few years. The Paramount Flag Company received international orders from Australia, Holland and the United Kingdom by 1986.

Baker continued his work with the flag by breaking the world record for longest flag when he moved to New York City in 1994. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, 5,000 people joined together to carry the mile-long flag across the city.

Baker later created an even longer flag in 2003 that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in Key West.

“He loved to be in the limelight, loved to be on center stage and loved to be waving the flag all over the place,” Goldstein said.

Baker made frequent trips back to San Francisco and continued to promote the flag through essays, interviews and photographs throughout the rest of his life.

For the 25th anniversary of the flag, Baker approached the GLBT Historical Society with the idea for the exhibition on the flag’s history. He later returned to San Francisco in 2008 to recreate banners and flags for the film “Milk.”

Baker died peacefully in his sleep on March 31 at his home in Harlem. He was 65.

“Right until a month before he died, he was right here, and we were talking about the next project,” Taylor said, motioning to boxes overflowing with Baker’s works in progress on the floor of his studio.

Taylor is continuing Baker’s vision for a rainbow flag historical exhibit in the San Francisco International Airport to debut next year for the flag’s 40th anniversary.

“The gay flag lives within our hearts, so the creator of this lives within our hearts as well,” said Michael Acumey, a San Francisco State University student. “This Pride, we should all come together in happiness and celebrate this great man and the legacy he left behind.”

Mayor Ed Lee and other city officials paid homage to Baker as they raised the rainbow flag at City Hall on Monday to kick off the 47th annual Pride week.

“I can still imagine in my mind as a creative artist he was there in some room sewing pieces of colorful fabric together and wondering if anyone would recognize what this was really all about,” Lee said. “Today, it’s not just a symbol in San Francisco, it is a symbol of pride all around the world.”

Though Taylor and Goldstein hoped to see a float dedicated to Baker leading the parade, they plan to march down Market Street with a rainbow flag to honor their longtime friend and the gift he gave to the worldwide LGBT community.

“You may not remember his name,” Goldstein said. “But you’ll never forget his flag.”

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