LGBTQIA Pride: The Rainbow Flag

gay pride lgbt lgbtqia pride rainbow flag

Bite the Fruit Rainbow Flag

The Rainbow Flag is a symbol of pride for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (or queer), intersex and ally (LGBTQIA) people. The colors reflect the diversity of the gay community and the spectrum of human sexuality and gender. Using a rainbow flag as a symbol of gay pride began in San Francisco in 1978. Its use has become the convention at LGBTQIA+ rights events in the US and worldwide. Many fly the rainbow flag to celebrate inclusivity, hope and freedom.

The first rainbow flags were flown on June 25, 1978, at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. The flags were designed by gay activist Gilbert Baker (1951–2017). The original flags had eight colored stripes arranged in incalescent order. One flag flew with the warm colors on the upper part. Its complement, the other flag, which had rings of white stars in a blue canton, was inaugurated with the cool colors on top.

Photo of the two original eight-color flags flying at the United Nations Plaza during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day in 1978. Photo by Mark Rennie.

Photo of the two original eight-color flags flying at the United Nations Plaza during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day in 1978. Photo by Mark Rennie.

One of the two original eight-color rainbow flags flying at the United Nations Plaza during San Francisco Gay Freedom Day in 1978, this one with stars in the canton. Photo by Crawford Barton.

One of the two original eight-color rainbow flags flying at the United Nations Plaza during San Francisco Gay Freedom Day in 1978, this one with stars in the canton. Photo by Crawford Barton.

Baker credits two individuals, Harvey Milk and Arthur J. Bressan, Jr., who challenged him to devise a symbol of pride for the gay community. Milk was an American politician and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Bressan, a filmmaker, pressed Baker to create something that would “herald the dawn of a new gay consciousness and liberation.”

In 1976, the year of the US bicentennial, Baker observed the American flag everywhere, "from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the Gap and tchotchkes," offering an insight into his earliest notions of what would become a fervent rallying point and abiding beacon. 

"A true flag is not something you can really design. A true flag is torn from the soul of the people. A flag is something that everyone owns, and that's why they work. The Rainbow Flag is like other flags in that sense: it belongs to the people." ⁠—Gilbert Baker

Commissioned by the fledgling San Francisco pride committee, the first flags were produced by a team of thirty volunteers led by Lynn Segerblom and James McNamara. In the attic of the Gay Community Center in San Francisco, they mixed organic dye in large bins and colored thousands of yards of cotton fabric. The flags were stitched together using an industrial sewing machine. The original design had eight stripes, each color carried its own significance: sex for pink, life for red, healing for orange, sunlight for yellow, nature for green, magic for turquoise, serenity for indigo, and spirit for violet.

Rainbow Flag Eight Colors 1978

In a 1985 interview, Baker said he selected the rainbow motif because of its associations with the counterculture of the 1960s. He mused about the rainbow being a "natural flag in the sky." Prior, he admitted to being inspired by the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow.” On another occasion, he spoke of the rainbow in Egyptian and ancient cultures.

"We needed something beautiful, something from us," Baker explained. "The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things."

"What the rainbow has given our people is a thing that connects us," Baker continued. "I can go to another country, and if I see a Rainbow Flag, I feel like that’s someone who is a kindred spirit or [that it's] a safe place to go. It's sort of a language, and it's also proclaiming power."

In Judeo-Christian belief, the rainbow is associated with God's covenant. The rainbow appears in the mythological systems of many cultures. It is sometimes personified as a deity, such as the Greco-Roman messenger goddess Iris, or the Aboriginal Australian Rainbow Serpent. In literature, it may represent a bridge between earth and heaven.

Although Baker did not confirm it, some speculated that the song “Over the Rainbow” may have influenced him. Certainly the emotional connection many have with the song and the beloved gay icon Judy Garland, who popularized it, help canonized the rainbow flag into an enduring pennon.

Demand for the rainbow flag increased after the assassination of Milk on November 27, 1978. Baker designed a version of the flag without the pink stripe because fabric in that color was not readily available. The San Francisco-based Paramount Flag Company mass produced a version with seven stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo and violet.

Rainbow Flag Seven Colors 1979

In 1979, the flag was modified again. Aiming to decorate the street lamps along the parade route with hundreds of rainbow banners, Baker decided to split the motif in two with an even number of stripes flanking each lamp post. To achieve this effect, he added royal blue and omitted pink, turquoise and indigo that had been used in the original design. The result was a banner of three colors: red, orange and yellow on one side; green, blue and violet on the other. These six colors are used on the six-striped version of the flag that has become the standard today.

Rainbow Banner 1979

Most Pride rainbow flags today have six colors also stacked by temperature, from warm to cool. They are typically flown horizontally with red on top like a natural rainbow. 

Rainbow Flag

In 1989, John Stout, a private US citizen, sued his landlord when they attempted to prohibit him from displaying the flag from his West Hollywood apartment balcony. The rainbow flag received national and international attention after Stout won his case. LGBT communities in other countries began to use the rainbow flag.

In 1994, Baker made a mile-long version of the rainbow flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Stonewall 25th Anniversary in NYC 1994

In 2003, Baker reissued the original eight-striped version of the rainbow flag to commemorate the flag’s 25th anniversary.

On June 17, 2015, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) added the rainbow flag to its permanent design collection of cultural emblems acknowledging its nearly 40-year distinction as a “politically powerful, meaningful, and also aesthetically effective symbol.”

"I thought, a flag is different than any other form of art. It's not a painting, it's not just cloth, it is not just a logo. It functions in so many different ways," Baker told MoMA. “I thought that [the gay community] needed that kind of symbol, that we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands."

On June 26, 2015, the White House was illuminated in the rainbow flag colors to commemorate the legalization of same-sex marriages in all 50 US states, following the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision.

The White House in rainbow colors

In 2017, Baker unveiled a new version of the rainbow flag with a ninth stripe in lavender representing diversity in response to the election of Donald Trump.

Rainbow Flag Nine Colors 2017

Variations

LGBTQIA people use rainbow flags and many rainbow-themed items and color schemes as an outward symbol of their identity or support. In addition to the rainbow, many other flags and symbols are used to communicate specific identities within the community.

Various Groups

Many variations of the rainbow flag exist today. Some include the Greek letter lambda or a pink triangle or black triangle. Other colors have been added, such as a black stripe symbolizing those community members lost to AIDS. The rainbow colors have been used in adaptations of national and regional flags, replacing, for example, the red and white stripes of the US flag.

In the early years of the AIDS pandemic, activists designed a "Victory over AIDS" flag consisting of the standard six-stripe rainbow flag with a black stripe across the bottom. Leonard Matlovich, himself dying of AIDS-related illness, suggested that upon a cure for AIDS being discovered, the black stripes be removed from the flags and burned.

In 2017, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs created a version of the Flag that included black and brown stripes. It was part of a campaign called “More Color More Pride,” an initiative that sought to promote the inclusion of people of color. The move drew focus to the very real issue of racial discrimination and cultural exclusion within the community.

Tierney Pride Flag

New Pride Flag

In 2018, Julia Feliz, a Puerto Rican two-spirit designer, integrated the historic and modern-day struggles of the queer movement with racism to the six-striped rainbow. The design adds the colors of the Trans Pride Flag with brown and black diagonal stripes, emphasizing the importance of trans people of color to the gay rights movement from its inception at the Stonewall riots. Proceeds from the design help bring awareness on the disproportionate impact of transphobia and homophobia to trans and queer Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).

New Pride Flag

Progress Pride Flag

In June 2018, Daniel Quasar, a non-binary artist and graphic designer in Portland, Oregon, incorporated elements from both the Philadelphia flag and Trans Pride Flag to place a greater emphasis on inclusion and progression. While retaining the common six-striped rainbow design as a base, Quassar’s variation adds a chevron along the hoist that features black, brown, light blue, pink and white stripes to represent marginalized people of color and trans people, those living with and lost to HIV/AIDS and the stigma that surrounds them. The chevron points right to indicate forward movement and is situated along the left edge to signify progress is yet to be made.

Progress Pride Flag

Other symbols of pride

The Pink Triangle, with one tip pointed down, had been used as a symbol for the gay community. In Nazi Germany, a pink triangle was sewn onto the shirts of gay men in concentration camps. Homosexuality was illegal in Germany since 1871 but it was rarely enforced by the state. When the Nazi Party took power in 1933, thousands of LGBT individuals were arrested as part of the Nazi’s agenda to “purify” Germany. Despite its dark past, gay activists reclaimed the symbol in the 1970s as an act of defiance, recasting it as a symbol of affirmation. The reappropriation of a Nazi symbol of oppression proved to be very empowering to the movement.

Pink Triangle

Lambda, the Greek letter, was selected by the New York City's Gay Activists Alliance as its emblem in the wake of the Stonewall riots in the 1970s. One of its members recommended the symbol in part because it represents "kinetic potential" in science. It was adopted as a symbol of "unity under oppression" by the International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1974. It is used worldwide by countless LGBT organizations and campaigns.

Lambda
In ancient times, the Greeks used lambda to represent balance and temperance, the faithful conference essential to maintain stability. Modern democracies are based on the Greek system of “demos” and “kratos” (people and rule) where citizens take an active role in the government of their country. A key part of democracy is that the people have a voice. The Spartans saw lambda as unity and they held that society should never infringe on anyone's individuality and freedom. The Romans associated it with the illuminating faculty of wisdom. In physics, it denotes a shift in energy.

Lambda is an especially apt symbol for the gay liberation movement, which requires a shift from fear to hope and strives for balance through enlightenment to secure equal rights for LGBTQIA+ people.

One found, one still lost

For a time, the two original rainbow flags were displayed and stored at a gay community center in San Francisco. When Baker came to retrieve them as the center closed, he learned that the one with stars was stolen and the other sustained water damage. Baker repaired the flag, reducing it to 12’ by 28’ from its original 30’ by 60’ dimensions.

Baker took the flag remnant with him when he moved to New York in 1994. He was there to execute a mile-long flag exhibit for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.

Upon Baker’s death in 2017, friends cleared out his apartment and shipped most of his effects including the flag to his sister in Texas.

In 2019, Baker’s sister forwarded the flag to Charley Beal, president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation, to be used by marchers for Stonewall’s 50th anniversary in New York. After the event, with no one aware of its provenance, it was stashed in a closet.

Beal did not realize he was in possession of a section of the original 1978 banner until early 2020 when a vexillologist (flag expert) examined it firsthand.

The historic artifact has been added to the Gilbert Baker Collection that resides at the GLBT Historical Society Museum and Archives in San Francisco. Plans for a national tour are in the works.

Section of the original rainbow flag


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