ARTIST Gilbert Baker, who designed the iconic rainbow flag for gay rights in 1978, has died at age 65.

He passed on Friday, with the cause of death revealed as heart disease.

Baker was a prominent figure in San Francisco as a gay rights activist and occasional drag queen who sewed his own costumes.

“I decided that we should have a flag, that we are a people, a tribe if you will,” he told the Museum of Modern Art two years ago.

“And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.

“The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things.”

The rainbow flag was readily adopted by the queer community. Today, more than 26 million people have changed their Facebook picture to a rainbow flag for LGBTI rights.

Baker told CNN in 2015, “When it went up and the wind finally took it out of my hands, it blew my mind. I saw immediately how everyone around me owned that flag. I thought, it’s better than I ever dreamed.”

The rainbow flag quickly became a highly recognisable symbol of queer visibility. People went to court to win the right to display it. In Australia, there is still controversy over the rainbow flag being displayed in government spaces.

Baker never patented the famous rainbow design and so did not profit from its popularity. He worked for a San Francisco flag company and went on to become a freelance designer, creating flags and banners for clients from government to sports.

Later in life, Baker famously created the mile-long rainbow flag that was paraded in the streets on the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York.

“He was a genius at political theatre, at political art,” said San Francisco city supervisor Jeff Sheehy.

“He’s one of those heroes who never sought attention for himself. But he was relentless.”

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