With pride months growing in popularity all over the world, the sight of the rainbow flag is becoming ever more present in today’s society.
If you ask the average person what the rainbow flag stands for, they will probably tell you gay rights- or gay pride. But most people have no clue how and when the rainbow flag came to be.
Unlike the familiar story of Betsy Ross sewing the stars and stripes of our American flag, the origin of the rainbow flag is somewhat lost in history.
The story begins back in June of 1969. Judy Garland had just died, and The Stonewall riots were happening. Watching all of this unfold, openly gay artist and activist Gilbert Baker subconciously began to associate the rainbow with the gay rights movement.
Gilbert didn’t have the idea create the flag right away, from 1970-1972 he was busy serving in the US Army, stationed in San Fransisco. After his honorable discharge, he began to teach himself how to sew and quickly put his new skill to use by making banners for anti-war and gay rights protests. In 1974 he met and became close friends with Harvey Milk, the cities first openly gay elected official.
Fast forward to 1978. Harvey Milk calls upon Baker to create a symbol for the gay community to be used in the city’s annual parade. Baker begins to brainstorm, combining his imagery of Judy singing “Over The Rainbow” with other symbolism including the WWI victory medal, and the Flag Of The Races which was prominent in the hippie movement.
Like the Flag Of Races, the rainbow flag would share horizontal stripes, each holding a meaning. But unlike the Flag Of Races, Bakers flag would have eight stripes vs five.
The meaning of the original flags colors were as follows: HOT PINK: Sexuality, RED: Life, ORANGE: Healing, YELLOW: Sunlight, GREEN: Nature, TURQUOISE: Magic & Art, BLUE: Serenity & Harmony, VIOLET: Spirit.
Baker has since said “We needed something that expressed us. The rainbow really fits that, in terms of: we’re all the colors, and all the genders and all the races. It’s a natural flag; The rainbow is in the sky and it’s beautiful. It’s a magical part of nature.”
The rainbow flag made it’s debut in the San Fransisco’s Freedom Day Parade on June 25th, 1978. Like modern day Betsy Ross’s, over thirty volunteers huddled in the attic of San Francisco’s Gay Community Center. For hours on end, they worked together to hand stitch and dye the very first two massive rainbow flags.
It took a tragic event however, for this flag to gain popularity. On November 27, 1978 Harvey Milk was assassinated. The grief stricken LGBT community sought out the flag as a symbol of unity during this sad time. Orders were in high demand, so the Paramount Flag Company (where Baker now worked) began selling versions made from stock fabric. Due to unavailability of hot pink fabric, Baker made the decision to drop the pink stripe from the flag, leaving it with seven stripes.
In 1979 the flag was changed again. When it was hung vertically from the lamp posts on Market Street, the center stripe became totally hidden. Changing the design to an even six stripes was an easy way to fix this. The turquoise stripe was dropped, leaving us with the famous six stripped flag that we see today. Baker refers to this flag as the “commercial version”, because it came to be due to production demands. For the 1979 Freedom Day Parade, they were now able to split the colors onto two flags, flying them on alternate sides of the street.
The rainbow flag has taken on a life of it’s own over years, since it’s early incarnations. It notably came to nationwide attention during the 1989 case of John Stout. Stout sued his landlords and won, for attempting to prohibit him from displaying the flag from his West Hollywood balcony. During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, activists added a black stripe to the flags, calling it the “Victory Over Aids Flag”. They suggested that when a cure was found, the black stripes should be removed and burned.
Baker went on to design many other flags for events like The Superbowl, Democratic National Convention, and for Presidents and Kings of other countries. In 1994 Baker was called upon to create the world’s largest rainbow flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. This was recreated in Key West in 2003, with all original eight stripes and stretched a mile and a quarter.
The rainbow flag is now proudly flown all over the world as a symbol of gay pride, and the fight for LGBT equality that continues today. It is now available in thousands of variations and forms, including the original eight stripe version. Just this week, an important recognition was given to Baker, when MOMA acquired the six stripe rainbow flag
as part of it’s design collection.
Looking back, Baker says “It all goes back to the first moment of the first flag back in 1978 for me. Raising it up and seeing it there blowing in the wind for everyone to see. It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightening – that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us. It was the most thrilling moment of my life. Because I knew right then that this was the most important thing I would ever do – that my whole life was going to be about the Rainbow Flag.”