Gilbert Baker created the Rainbow Flag, symbol of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender movement in June 1978. His work as a vexillographer (flag maker) spans 30 years and includes two world records. The Rainbow Flag is an international phenomenon, with millions of people everywhere embracing it as a visibility action.
Baker, born in Kansas 1951, served in the US Army 1970-1972, which stationed him in San Francisco just at the start of the gay liberation movement. His soldier’s story is told in Randy Shilts book “Conduct Unbecoming”. After being honorably discharged Baker stayed in San Francisco and taught himself to sew.
It was this skill that he put to use making banners for gay and anti-war street protest marches, often at a moments notice, at the behest of his friend Harvey Milk- later elected to office and assassinated Nov 27, 1978.
Milk rode triumphantly under the first Rainbow Flags Baker made at their debut on June 25th 1978, for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Baker credits Milk for inspiring his work with the message of hope. Early in 2008 Baker returned to San Francisco to recreate the banners and flags he made in the 70”s for the Academy Award winning feature film “Milk” starring Sean Penn.
Baker is quoted in the 2007 book “The American Flag, Two Centuries of Conflict and Concord” saying “Flags are torn from the soul of the people.” His creation of the Rainbow Flag is in the public domain, as are all flags, and its explosion as a commercial product in endless variations began all most immediately.
In 1979 Baker went to work at Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco, at first doing flamboyant window displays which caught the attention of then Mayor Dianne Feinstein who commissioned him to design flags for her first elected inaugural. From there Baker began designing flags as the centerpiece of formal civic and state events creating fantastic displays for the Premier of China, the President of France, The President of Venezuela, the President of the Philippines, the King of Spain, among many others. His work making flags and their protocols interesting and new opened the way for him to design the flags for the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
While his list of establishment credits is long, Baker never stopped working on the Rainbow flag. A committed gay activist, he became an industrial artist in residence at Paramount Flag Company, who he credits with giving him the education and opportunity to make the Rainbow Flag known and demanded internationally.
When Paramount closed it’s doors in 1987 Baker continued creating flag spectacles for The San Francisco Symphony Black and White Ball, rock shows in Golden Gate Park, and fabulous stages and street display’s for San Francisco Gay Pride.
In 1994 Baker Moved to New York City and created a mile long Rainbow Flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot 1969. Measuring 30 x 5280 ft. and carried by 5000 people, it broke the worlds record for largest flag. Unfurled past the United Nations Building before a crowd of millions, Bakers magic with fabric became a worldwide media event. Today, Google lists more than 2,600,000 references to the Rainbow Flag and another catalogued 241, 000 images.
In addition to traditional textile work, Baker began creating fine art celebrating the Rainbow Flag and the gay community starting in 1978 with his first series of signed limited edition silkscreen posters- 22 x 35 oil on linen. A second series followed in 1979. He worked with photographers to document the Rainbow Flag and created subsequent posters and paintings every year to mark its birth. One of his 1992 silkscreens 22 x 35 oil on linen was given to the Clinton White House where it hung in the West Wing Office complex.
In 2000 Baker staged his first exhibition of photographs and fine art celebrating the flag in Rome for World Pride. In 2002 Baker mounted an extensive showing, 180 pieces, at the New York Gay Community Center where more than 80,000 people saw the collection. In 2003 this exhibition was expanded and showcased in two simultaneous exhibitions at the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.
In 2003, the Rainbow Flag’s 25th anniversary, Baker broke his own world record for the largest flag creating a new one that stretched sea to sea from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in Key West. Baker then sent sections of this flag, sponsored by Absolut Vodka, to more than 100 cities around the world.
Baker has contributed essays, articles, interviews, and photographs about the flag to LGBT and mainstream publications. In 2003, he and his Key West project was the subject of “Rainbow Pride” a feature length documentary by Marie Jo Ferron, bought by PBS National and debuting in New York on WNET.
Baker gives speeches and lectures about the Flag and LGBT history in cities large and small around the world. His message is about human rights. He has written an unpublished memoir about his life as the creator of the flag- a story he says is still unfinished.
Gilbert Baker lives in New York City continuing to evolve the Rainbow Flag.