NEW YORK — Gilbert Baker, the designer of the iconic rainbow flag, has died.
In 1978, Baker sewed a multicolored flag that became the symbol of the LGBT community across the world.
Baker, 65, died Thursday in his sleep, said Cleve Jones, an AIDS activist and Baker’s longtime friend. He died in New York City, the medical examiner’s office there said.
A vigil in Baker’s memory was planned Friday evening under the rainbow flag in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza. The banner could be seen flying half-staff from the balcony of Mayor Ed Lee.
“Gilbert was a trailblazer for LGBT rights, a powerful artist and a true friend to all who knew him. Our thoughts are with his friends and family. He will be missed,” Lee said in a statement.
Baker was born in Chanute, Kansas, and joined the US Army as a medic. He arrived in San Francisco about 1970 to work at an orthopedic hospital where Vietnam veterans underwent skin grafts and amputations.
After his honorable discharge from the military, he stayed in San Francisco and immersed himself in the gay and lesbian community.
It was after the election of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, when Gilbert created the rainbow flag.
The 30-by-60 feet flag flew on Gay Pride Day on June 25, 1978.
“We needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that,” Baker told CNN in 2015 interview.
The iconic flag became the new symbol for the gay and lesbian community worldwide, but has since then gone through some changes.
The first flag had eight stripes: pink stood for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for harmony and purple for spirit.
When Baker began to mass produce the flag the following year, he had to drop two colors. He ended up dropping the pink stripe, as it was too expensive to mass produce, and turquoise, to go with an even number of colors.
A few years ago, Baker suffered a major stroke that left him disabled, but he mostly recovered and taught himself to sew again, Jones told CNN.
He was able to create the flags used in ABC’s miniseries “When We Rise,” based on Jones’ book and a flag that he presented to President Barack Obama at the White House, according to Jones.
“I’m still in shock; he was just the most amazing person. Funny and smart and fierce … One of the most compassionate people,” Jones said.
“The rainbow flag is more than just a symbol. It is the embodiment of the LGBT community, and it has become a source of solace, comfort and pride for all those who look upon it,” Lee said.