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Gilbert Baker, designer of the LGBTQ rainbow pride flag, died this Friday at 65 years old. His passing was mourned by LGBTQ activists and news outlets worldwide. Cleve Jones, famous San Francisco AIDS and LGBTQ rights activists wrote on his Twitter, “My dearest friend in the world is gone. Gilbert Baker gave the world the Rainbow Flag; he gave me forty years of love and friendship.”
Baker designed the pride flag in 1978 after being asked by San Francisco city supervisor and activist Harvey Milk to create a symbol for the LGBTQ community. The flag originally had eight stripes, with each color corresponding to a different symbol:
The flag was later streamlined into six colors—pink fabric was too expensive at the time so it was removed, and blue and teal were combined into one color.
Before Baker’s flag, the most common symbol used by gay activists was the pink triangle, co-opted from the upside-down triangle Nazis forced gay men to wear in the concentration camps. While the pink triangle was reclaimed by many and became a powerful symbol in the fight against AIDS stigma, it was born out of a time of great sorrow.
Baker’s flag, meant to portray the beauty and pride of the LGBTQ community, was anything but.
“It was necessary to have the Rainbow Flag because up until that we had the pink triangle from the Nazis—it was the symbol that they would use [to denote gay people]. It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things,” said Baker in a 2015 interview with the Museum of Modern Art after they acquired his flag for their collections.
Since its inception, Baker’s flag has become one of the most immediately recognizable cultural symbols in the world. It’s such a simple thing, but more times than I can count seeing the distinctive six stripes out of the corner of my eye has brought a smile to my face or made me feel a little less alone in an unfamiliar environment. Because so many LGBTQ people’s lives are marked by isolation, having a reminder that we belong to a group, what Baker called “a tribe,” that stretches across the world, is powerful.
Sometimes it seems like the pride flag has lost some of its potency. Seeing it on everything from credit cards to corporate logos makes you wonder what the flag really stands for anymore. Is what was once a powerful symbol now just a cliché?
I don’t think so. Much has changed for the better in the almost 40 years since Baker sewed his first flag. Yet there is still work to do in the fight for LGBTQ rights. In a world that often denies LGBTQ people their full humanity, keeps them isolated from one another, and denigrates their relationships, having a symbol proclaiming that we are proud of who we are and worthy of love and respect is just as important as ever. I wouldn’t want to be represented by anything less.
Rest in peace, Gilbert Baker. Thank you for all the tireless work you did for us.
Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Carina Julig at email@example.com.