Hundreds gathered in San Francisco's Castro District on Friday night, March 31, only a few hours after news broke that Gilbert Baker had died at age 65. The Castro was the neighborhood where, in 1978, Baker created the iconic Rainbow Flag, now the worldwide symbol for LGBT equality and pride. Baker meant for the flag's colors to represent the diversity of LGBT people.
A few months later Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, rode in that year's Pride Parade--then called Gay Freedom Day. Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at San Francisco City Hall before the year was over.
Long time gay activist Cleve Jones was a personal friend to Baker and Harvey Milk. Both Jones and Baker were portrayed in the recent ABC TV historical drama "When We Rise."
Cleve Jones. Photo by Steven Bracco.
"He was a veteran, a drag queen, a sister, a revolutionary, and a hippie," Jones said as he addressed the crowd at Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro. "He dedicated his life to the movement. He saw the struggle for LGBT equality as part of the larger social justice movement."
Jones led mourners in a moment of silence for Baker, asking people to think of Baker's mother, who survives him.
Ken Jones, another community activist, stood quietly and teary eyed during the moment of silence. Ken Jones was also portrayed in "When We Rise."
"We need moments like this where we can come together and comfort each other through our pain and sorrow with our presence, our community," Ken Jones told SFGN. "If truth be told, Gilbert Baker is free. Free from all pain and sickness. Free from every oppression. Free, just like the flag that watches over us all the days of our lives."
Baker's work touched many LGBT people across the generations. Steven Bracco, a 31-year-old gay man in San Francisco, spoke to SFGN about his experience raising the Rainbow Flag in a "When We Rise" sequence which recreated the first time the flag was raised nearly forty years ago.
"It was an honor to have been part of this incredible recreation," Bracco said. "I'm incredibly grateful to have been part of this experience. The Pride Flag is a symbol of our community and it's important that we remember who created it. We have Gilbert Baker to thank for this symbol that is recognizable worldwide."
Photo by David-Elijah Nahmod.
Throughout his life Baker remained a humble man who saw the bigger picture. A former member of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence–he was Sister Chanel 2001–Baker once marched in a Pride Parade in a loincloth. With his body painted pink, he carried a pink cross and called himself Pink Jesus. Virulently anti-gay activist Rev. Jerry Falwell saw a photo of Pink Jesus and used it as weapon against the gay community. Baker never appeared in public as Pink Jesus again.
“You are responsible for what you do and say,” Baker said in 2012. “The Moral Majority took a picture of Pink Jesus and used it as a tool that I had no control over – they raised millions to stop the gay agenda with that picture. That made me wake up. When you do a piece of art it can be used against you.”
The 49 LGBT people who were murdered last summer at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, were also honored at Friday's rally in the Castro. San Francisco journalist David Bogachik, an emigre from the Ukraine, carried a Rainbow Flag with the words Somos Orlando--We Are Orlando--written across it. The words were written in Spanish to remember the fact that most of the people who died at Pulse were Latinx.
After the rally, mourners marched down Castro Street chanting We Remember Gilbert Baker. Several people held a long rectangular Rainbow Flag at the head of the march which had the words Rise and Resist sewn across it.
"Gilbert will always be remembered," said Sister Merry Peter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. "He gave away the Rainbow so the whole world could share it."