Gilbert Baker is remembered today as the man who created the rainbow flag, the universal symbol of the LGBTQ rights movement. But he might never have created it if not for his two years in the Army.
Baker was drafted into the Army in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, on his 19th birthday. He had known while growing up in Chanute, Kansas, that he was gay, but he hid it when he was drafted. Still, it didn’t take long for his fellow soldiers to catch on.
“I was the gay guy and subject to a lot of abuse and violence,” Baker said in 2008 about his treatment in the military. “I was always very social and very outward going […] a survival mechanism, I think, for me and a lot of gay people was to be the party master. And even though everybody else was giving me a hard time I was the one that’s showing them how to have a good time, how to enjoy life and get into the groove.”
Fulfilling both his draftee obligation and his unofficial role as “party master,” he spent two years in San Francisco working as a medic and nurse in military hospitals and, he claimed, turning most of the soldiers in his barracks onto LSD. He left the military in 1972 and stayed in San Francisco, becoming active in the flourishing counterculture communities of the time.
He worked as a tailor and made clothes for gay pride events and anti-war protests. In the Army, of course, he’d seen that every unit, from divisions to platoons, had a flag, standard, emblem, or patch. When he realized that the LGBTQ community didn’t have a symbol to represent the gay rights movement, Baker decided to create one.
The closest thing the movement had to a unifying symbol was a pink triangle — a symbol with roots in Nazi persecution. It was far from an inclusive symbol based on pride rather than fear.
“I think up until we had the Rainbow Flag we were really kind of stuck in a kind of victim mode,” Baker recalled in a 2008 interview. “And especially with the pink triangle. It was put on us by the Nazis and it really did function as a symbol for our movement and our ‘liberation’, but it wasn’t from us.”
On June 25, 1978, Baker debuted what is now the universal symbol of the LGBTQ community: the rainbow flag. Hand-dyed, Baker’s rainbow flag was made of eight colors, each with its own significance: pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for peace, and purple for spirit. He flew it at that year’s San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade, and it took off.
Baker, who embraced his nickname as “the gay Betsy Ross,” committed to making the rainbow flag mainstream. The Paramount Flag Co. in San Francisco hired him to mass-produce the flags, which are now sold worldwide.
The hot pink color was removed because it wasn’t considered a standard manufacturing color, and the turquoise stripe was combined with the blue to make royal blue, giving the flag equal halves, six colors in all. In June of 1994, Baker became a world record holder for his mile-long rainbow flag commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City. The banner measured 30 feet by 5,280 feet and was carried by an estimated 5,000 people. For more than four decades, Baker advocated for LGBTQ rights. He even personally gifted a hand-dyed, cotton rainbow flag to President Barack Obama in June of 2016 at a White House reception to commemorate LGBTQ Pride Month.
On March 31, 2017, Baker died in his sleep at 65.
A foundation in his name serves to protect Gilbert Baker’s legacy and the history of the rainbow flag.