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    Life of Iconic Rainbow Flag Creator Celebrated in the Castro

    By Sister Dana Van Iquity

    Gilbert Baker: 1951–2017 

    It was a very sad day when Gilbert Baker, my dear friend, fellow nun, and creator of the iconic Rainbow Flag, passed away (and I’d like to picture him majestically flying Somewhere Over the Rainbow) after 65 years on this planet. But true to my queer community’s heart, hundreds gathered in Harvey Milk Plaza on March 31 beneath the huge rainbow flag he made—assembled both to mourn and celebrate a gay hero.

    Baker was an artist, designer and lifelong activist for LGBTQ equality. A native of Kansas, Baker lived in San Francisco from 1970 to 1994, contributing his distinctive designs for countless events. In 1994 he moved to New York City, where he spent the rest of his life. Patrick Carney, Co-Founder of The Friends of the Pink Triangle, recently profiled Baker’s life and achievements for the San Francisco Bay Times. ( Baker remained active as an artist, with his work commemorating gay victims of the Nazi regime recently displayed in San Francisco at the Castro gallery, Art Saves Lives.

    Stretched out across the railings of the Plaza at the March 31 community gathering was the very last rainbow banner Gilbert had made with the words “Rise and Resist!” inscribed boldly in big black block letters. Veteran activist Cleve Jones, a close friend of Baker since way back during the days of Harvey Milk, acted as host of the community gathering. The amazing ABC miniseries When We Rise, based on Jones’ autobiography of the same name, included Baker.

    During the gathering, we all took a moment of silence to remember Baker and to send love to his mother, Patricia. The Rainbow Flag was lowered all the way for a short while in memoriam. Jones said Baker died peacefully in bed in his home in Harlem.

    Jones reminisced about the day in the 70s when Milk asked Baker to make a symbol that better symbolized the gay community than the lambda and the pink triangle. Baker selected the rainbow as a symbol of beauty, joy, diversity, and worldwide unity of our growing community. (At the time of Baker’s death, he and Carney were planning to commemorate both the pink triangle and rainbow symbols in a future exhibit.)

    Jones recalled when the Grove Street building served as a gay community center, and he, Baker and others were spilling dye everywhere—including all over their bodies—at the ambitious, exciting time when the first flag was made. On Pride Day, 1978, they raised the resulting initial Rainbow Flag at the United Nations Plaza to the amazement of LGBT onlookers “who just knew this was our flag,” Jones recalled.

    Senator Scott Wiener was among the attendees of the gathering. San Francisco Bay Times columnist and City College Trustee Raphael Mandelman had nothing but praise for Baker, as did Manager/Producer Jerry Goldstein of the famous incredible Tom & Jerry Christmas holiday display on 21st Street in the Castro. Activist Ken Jones, whose life is also featured in When We Rise, spoke tenderly of his friend Baker, who “got his wings today, free to fly high above and wherever forever.”

    Following the Castro & Market event, we all marched behind the rainbow “Rise and Resist!” banner—stretching across more than a lane of the Castro thoroughfare—to reassemble at the site of the old Harvey Milk camera shop/activist central, now known as the San Francisco Human Rights Campaign Equality Center. Along the way we loudly and proudly chanted, “All hail Gilbert Baker! We remember Gilbert Baker!” But in my mind I also chanted, “I remember Sister Chanel of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence!”