This weekend, San Francisco’s Market Street will be awash in rainbow colors as an estimated 1 million people turn out for the annual SF Pride celebration. But the man who created the rainbow flag will be notably absent.
Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag, died in March at the age of 65, leaving behind a colorful legacy that will be celebrated during this year’s parade.
“We’re doing a moving art piece as well as a tribute on the main stage for him,” said George Ridgely, executive director of SF Pride.
Ridgely said in addition to the Pride’s official tributes, many of the parade’s more than 200 contingents will likely create their own tributes — just as they did last year following the mass Orlando gay nightclub attack that left 49 people dead.
Even without the tributes in the parade, Ridgely said the entire parade route of rainbow banners and flags serves as the most fitting tribute to Baker.
“His spirit is there,” Ridgely said, “and has always been there with those flags along the route.”
Baker crafted his unique six-color flag in San Francisco in 1978 while working for the Paramount Flag Co. With his activist’s gift for outreach, the flag quickly caught on as a symbol of the LGBT movement and eventually spread globally.
“The symbol now has taken a whole life of its own,” said Tom Taylor, who worked with Baker on some of his early flags. “We really love seeing it going around the world.”
Baker moved to New York in the 1990s but would often return to San Francisco and his home away from home in Taylor’s workshop, which included commercial sewing machines. There he would work on ideas such as the mile-long rainbow flag he created for New York to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the gay civil rights movement.
“After he made the mile-long flag in New York, that was it,” Taylor said. “That cemented it in history.”
Taylor and his husband Jerry Goldstein recently hosted a memorial gathering for Baker at the Castro Theater. The line of attendees stretched down the block, snaking beneath recently installed rainbow banners for the Pride celebration. Bruce Beaudette stood in the line engulfed in a costume that looked like a rainbow ribbon factory had just exploded.
“Before 1978, we didn’t have a joyous symbol representing us,” Beaudette said. “It’s also joyously colored, life and happiness.”
A few steps away, Michael Wong, artistic director for the Gay & Lesbian Freedom Band, wore a drum major outfit and conducted the band through a romp of popular songs.
“We’ll see at the Pride parade this year so many remembrances of Gilbert,” Wong predicted, “because the rainbow flag will be seen everywhere.”
Baker’s flag has recently become embroiled in controversy after a Philadelphia LGBTQ group added stripes of brown and black to represent people of color. Goldstein is among those who believe the idea is misguided, saying the flag’s six existing colors already were intended to represent everyone.
“All of the colors in the rainbow flag and those he proposed were all of inclusivity,” Goldstein said. “There are six colors, and the six colors are going to endure forever.”