Rainbow flags the world over should be flying at half-mast this week, following the sad news of the death of this iconic symbol’s creator. Gilbert Baker, who passed away on 31 March 2017 at the age of 65, created what is now known as the internationally recognisable LGBT rainbow flag, seen at Pride events, marches and protests, as well as gay-friendly bars, venues and spaces the world over.
The rainbow-stripe flag as a symbol of diversity, visibility and hope for the LGBT community is so simple – and so universal today – that it is easy to forget that it was, in fact, invented by somebody. However, subtle changes in the flag’s design over the years by Barker demonstrate that indeed it was an imaginative design that was refined over time. Baker served in the United States Army from 1970, and was stationed in San Francisco at a key time in the Gay Liberation movement that focused around that city. When he left the military he learned how to sew, and designed protest banners and flags to be used at gay rights and anti-war demonstrations in the city, first creating an eight-colour version of the rainbow flag for San Francisco Pride on June 25, 1978.
The flag in its original eight-colour incarnation had a specific meaning attached to each colour. Pink – absent from the classic rainbow flag as we know it today – stood for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, blue for harmony and purple for the spirit. The first flag was hand-stitched and dyed (very much against the rules!) in one of San Francisco’s laundromats, but once it became a mass-produced item practical restrictions on certain coloured fabrics led to the design to being simplified to the six colours used today.
Baker went on to work as a professional flag designer, but his gift to the LGBT world remains his most famous creation. Gift is the right word too, as Baker nobly refused to copyright his design.