The Art of Gilbert Baker: A Symbol of Hope, Freedom and Love

"A Rainbow Flag was a conscious choice, natural and necessary. The rainbow came from earliest recorded history as a symbol of hope."

Replica of the original eight-color rainbow flag design by Art and Artifacts CollectionGLBT Historical Society

In 1978, San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker conceived a new symbol to represent the LGBTQ community: the iconic rainbow flag, first displayed at that year’s Gay Freedom Day Parade.

The San Francisco Gay Freedom Day decoration committee allocated $1,000 to create two rainbow flags for the event.

Baker recalled that the funds were spent as follows: “Five hundred dollars for 1,000 yards of muslin, 58 inches wide. Three hundred dollars for 10 pounds of natural dye in eight colors, and 100 pounds of salt and ash. And the rest for art supplies.”

One of the original eight-color flags flying at United Nations Plaza in San Francisco during Gay Freedom Day 1978 by Crawford Wayne BartonGLBT Historical Society

The flags featured eight colored stripes, and Baker assigned symbolic meaning to each:

PINK - sex
RED - life
ORANGE - healing
YELLOW - the sun
GREEN - nature
TURQUOISE - art and magic
BLUE - serenity
PURPLE - the spirit

The pink and turquoise stripes were dropped the following year due to cost and display considerations, resulting in the better-known six-color design.

Advertisement for volunteers needed to carry the mile-long flag by Gilbert Baker CollectionGLBT Historical Society

After a quarter-century in San Francisco, Gilbert Baker moved to New York City in 1994. He remained deeply devoted to his creative work linking art and social justice, traveling widely to organize and participate in cultural activities related to the rainbow flag. Baker resided in New York for the last two decades of his life.

The mile-long rainbow flag being carried down First Avenue in New York City by Mick HicksGLBT Historical Society

For New York City Pride in 1994, Baker created a mile-long rainbow flag that was carried down First Avenue in Manhattan. During the parade, Baker used scissors to cut segments from the flag to be rushed to Fifth Avenue for an impromptu protest march in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the headquarters of New York City’s anti-gay Catholic archdiocese. 

Gilbert Baker sewing the mile-long rainbow flag for the 1994 New York City Stonewall 25 Pride Parade by Mick HicksGLBT Historical Society

Gilbert Baker

"When all else fails, art is the ultimate weapon."

Gilbert Baker wearing a white sequined dress (right) by Charles BealGLBT Historical Society

Born and raised in Kansas, Gilbert Baker (1951–2017) once quipped that, “unlike Dorothy, when the tornado came, I ran right for it, saying, ‘Take me away!’”

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1970, he was stationed in San Francisco as a medic. After being honorably discharged in 1972, Baker remained in the city and began to participate in the activism that would define the rest of his life and artistic career.

Gilbert Baker presents President Barack Obama with an original, hand-dyed cotton rainbow flag on June 9, 2016 by Barack Obama Presidential LibraryGLBT Historical Society

Examining how Baker blurred the lines between artist and activistprotester and performer, this online exhibition emphasizes his intuitive understanding of the ways art can serve as a powerful means to address political and social issues.

Gilbert Baker sewing the mile-long rainbow flag for the 1994 New York City Stonewall 25 Pride Parade by Mick HicksGLBT Historical Society

By exploring the less well-known dimensions of Baker’s wide-ranging oeuvre, we place the rainbow flag back into the unexpected and evocative context of his exceptional life as an activist and artist.

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The flag, the parade, the photographs, and preserving the memory of Stonewall
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