Facial Hair Friday: Gilbert Baker and the Rainbow Flag

This June the National Archives is celebrating National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride Month, which honors the important contributions that LGBTQ+ Americans have made to United States history and culture. Visit the National Archives website for more information on our related holdings. Today’s post looks at the man who created the iconic gay pride flag: Gilbert Baker.

Gilbert Baker was born in 1951 in Chanute, Kansas, and was raised in Parsons, Kansas. As a child and young adult he used art to escape from daily difficulties he faced for being gay. He graduated high school the year of the Stonewall riots in New York, and after a year of college he was drafted into the U.S. Army. His time in the Army was difficult—he faced bullying and ridicule for his sexuality. Unable to get out of the military altogether, Baker became a medic, and the Army sent him to San Francisco to become a nurse. 

After his honorable discharge in 1972, Baker decided to stay in San Francisco and went back to school, using funds from the G.I. Bill. During that time, he learned to sew and thought he might go into fashion. This was during the early years of the gay rights movement, and protests were happening more and more often. Baker soon began to use his artistic talents and sewing skills to make banners for the movement. 

At the time, Baker thought that the movement needed a symbol and hoped to get rid of the pink triangle that some in the LGBTQ+ community were then using. They had reclaimed the symbol from the Nazis, who had used it to identify and persecute homosexuals. The Greek letter lambda had been introduced as a potential symbol shortly after the 1969 Stonewall riots, but it never really took on. 

At the urging of gay rights activist and member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Harvey Milk, Baker decided to make a flag for the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade. The Parade Committee gave him $1,000 for materials and supplies. He chose the rainbow design because he wanted a symbol that came from nature and reflected the diversity of the community. He assigned symbolic meaning to each of the flag’s original eight colors—pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for serenity, and purple for spirit.

Baker and a team of volunteers hand dyed strips of fabric in trash cans filled with dye. Once dry, they stitched the sections together to create two giant rainbow flags, and raised one of them at the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco on June 25, 1978, for the parade.

This symbol took hold immediately, and demand for flags grew even more after Milk’s assassination later that year. To meet that demand, Baker partnered with the Paramount Flag Company to produce them.

Baker soon made adjustments to the flag. To make mass-production easier, he removed the pink stripe due to dye availability and replaced indigo with blue. He also omitted the turquoise stripe to make the flag symmetrical and easier to display virtually.

Over the years, the flag’s use spread outside of San Francisco to communities all over the country and the world. Baker was eventually able to get the flag recognized as the official flag of the gay rights movement. 

The six-stripe flag is what you see generally now—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple—although there have been many variations over the years.

For what turned out to be Baker’s last Pride Month, President Barack Obama hosted Baker at a reception in the East Room of the White House in 2016. Baker presented President Obama with a framed copy of his original eight-stripe rainbow flag.

The following March, Baker passed away at his home in New York City at age 65. He is remembered today as the “Gay Betsy Ross.” 

Read more in our about LGBTQ+ history in our previous Pride Month blogs:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *