In 1978, the city of San Francisco was holding the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25. For that parade, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the state of California, tasked Baker, an advocate and talented sewer, with designing a flag and a symbol for the event, according to Time Magazine. For the occasion, Baker settled on a multicolored flag with hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo and violet horizontal stripes.
“We needed something that expressed us. The rainbow really fits that, in terms of: we’re all the colors, and all the genders and all the races,” he told Time. “It’s a natural flag; the rainbow is in the sky and it’s beautiful. It’s a magical part of nature.”
Up until that point, the only symbol associated with the LGBT movement was a pink triangle, which also happened to be a Nazi concentration camp badge.
When Milk was later assassinated, the flag became a symbol of pride within the gay community, per SFTravel. It was tweaked slightly to drop the pink and turquoise, and was later vaulted into national prominence when a California man went to court over his right to fly the flag, eventually winning in an out-of-court settlement, per the Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, Baker’s original flag was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, per Rolling Stone.
“Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility, or saying, ‘This is who I am!’” Baker told the MoMa in an interview.
Baker, who never made any money off his design, would later meet with President Barack Obama.
Cleve Jones, a longtime gay activist and friend of Baker’s, first announced news of his death on Twitter. In an interview with SFGate, he said he took “some comfort in knowing that he will be remembered. For generations to come, people will know that flag.”
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee flew the rainbow flag at half mast on Friday in honor of Baker and also tweeted out a memorial message. A candlelight vigil was also held in San Francisco.
According to media reports, Baker died in his sleep.