Gilbert Baker, the artist and civil rights activist who created the iconic rainbow symbol for the gay rights movement, died of natural causes in New York City Friday. He was 65.
Baker sewed the original rainbow flag in 1978 after his friend, then-San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, asked him to use his skills to make banners for gay and anti-war street protests. The flag has since come to represent inclusion and safety for the gay community worldwide.
The artist never patented the flag, saying instead that it was his gift to the world.
Just days prior to his death, Baker had finished sewing what would be his last rainbow flag.
"He had hand-sewn 39 of these flags to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the creation of the Rainbow Flag, with plans for them to be displayed in San Francisco in June," a press release said.
Dozens flocked to a vigil for Baker Friday night at Castro and Market streets in San Francisco, honoring him under a rainbow flag in the Castro district, one of the first gay neighborhoods in the country. The crowd observed a moment of silence, and supporters carried a giant rainbow flag inscribed with the words "resist" and "rise."
Fellow activist and longtime friend Cleve Jones said the community first flew the flag during the city's annual Pride parade almost 40 years ago.
"Their faces lit up, and without any explanation at all, everyone knew immediately this was our flag," Jones recalled.
City officials lowered the rainbow flag that billows over the entrance to City Hall to half-mast Friday in honor of Baker.
In a statement released Friday, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee described Baker as a “trailblazer for LGBT rights, a powerful artist and a true friend to all who knew him.”
“At a time of great uncertainty in the LGBT community, Gilbert’s act of sewing together multicolored materials unified and empowered individuals across the country, helping to bring them together under a common cause,” Lee wrote.
Lee said that, for him, the rainbow flag is more than a mere 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,” he said.
Other San Francisco leaders echoed their grief at Baker's passing.
Supervisor Scott Weiner credited him with helping to "define the modern [LGBT] movement."
Jeff Sheehy, another member of the city's board of supervisors, called Baker a "hero" for the community.
"The kid from Kansas was inspired by his own over-the-rainbow experience in 1978. The eight-color flag, which later became the six-color flag, is now the global symbol for the LGBT community. Gilbert was a master of political theater, and the core of his personal being was artistry. The rainbow flag will always be his greatest work of art," Sheehy said in a statement.
NBC Bay Area's Jean Elle contributed to this report.