Shortly after the United States Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2015, that guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry, the rainbow flag was unfurled from apartment balconies, attached to car windows, and appeared in the background for tens of millions of newly changed profile photos on social media accounts. This universally recognised symbol of pride and solidarity was introduced nearly forty years earlier at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade.
Gilbert Baker arrived in San Francisco in 1972 during the early years of the gay liberation movement. With sewing skills learned from crafting his own drag costumes, he was often asked to make political banners for street demonstrations. In the months leading up to the 1978 Gay Freedom Day celebration in San Francisco, City Supervisor and gay rights leader Harvey Milk and other local activists implored Baker to create a new symbol for the movement. Baker seized on the idea of a flag as an appropriate symbol to proclaim power for his “tribe,” and a rainbow to represent his community’s diversity.
Over the next four decades, Baker worked tirelessly to ensure the rainbow flag would become a powerful and enduring symbol of pride and inclusion that transcends languages and borders, gender and race, and now, four decades after its creation, generations. After suffering a stroke in 2012, Baker retaught himself how to sew, continued to make art every day, and witnessed the full appreciation of the symbol he created. One of Baker’s final creations before his death in 2017 is on exhibit here—the flag he made for the ABC television miniseries When We Rise, based on the memoirs of his longtime friend, LGBTQ activist Cleve Jones. Jones recalls that when the rainbow flag was first unfurled in 1978, Gilbert “knew at that moment that it was his life’s work,” and refers to Baker’s creation as “his gift to the world.”