Gilbert Baker, a self-described “gay Betsy Ross” who in 1978 hand-dyed and stitched together eight strips of vibrantly colored fabric into a rainbow flag, instantly creating an enduring international symbol of gay pride, was found dead on Friday at his home in New York City. He was 65.
Cleve Jones, a friend and gay rights activist who confirmed the death, said that Baker had a stroke several years ago but had not been sick recently.
The first flags had eight colors, each stripe carrying its own signicicance: pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for peace and purple for spirit.
As the gay rights movement spread from San Francisco and New York in the 1970s, Baker was often asked by friends aware of his creative talents to make banners for protests and marches.
Before a gay pride parade in 1978 in San Francisco, Harvey Milk, a city supervisor and gay rights leader who was assassinated that year, joined others in asking Baker to create an emblem to represent the movement.
Baker, with help from volunteers, pieced together the first rainbow flags, unveiling them in the parade on June 25, 1978.
“A flag translates into everything, from tacky souvenirs to the names of organizations and the way that flags function,” Baker said in an interview in 2008. “I knewinstantlywhenIsawthe reaction that it was going to be something. I didn’t know what or how or — but I knew.”
The flag itself has changed since 1978, going from eight colors to six. Pink fabric was too expensive, Baker said, so it was removed,and turquoise and blue were combined into one color, royal blue.
Baker was born on June 2, 1951, in Chanute, Kan. His mother was a teacher, and his father was a lawyer and a judge. Baker said he was outgoing growing up but had always thought of himself as an outcast because he was gay.
Baker spent a year in college before he was drafted into the Army. He served as a medic and was eventually stationed in San Francisco, where he remained after leaving the Army in 1972.
After the 1978 parade, Baker joined a flag company in San Francisco that supported his idea of mass-producing his creation, but he later left for a career in art and design.
Baker refused to apply for a trademark for his flag.
“It was his gift to the world,” Jones said. “He told me when the flag first went up that he knew at that moment that it was his life’s work.”