History of the Pride Flag
August 15, 2022
The widely recognizable Rainbow Pride Flag, representing the LGBTQA+ community, encompasses lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, asexual, and other LGBTQA+ identities. Youth associate the rainbow with positive feelings, the the flag is a useful navigation device for LGBTQA+ youth to navigate physical and social spaces. The Rainbow Flag was created as a symbol for the gay community by Gilbert Baker in 1978 at the request of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politican to hold public office in California. Baker was a openly gay community activist, drag queen, and later accomplished vexillographer that worked magic with a sewing machine and was at the time co-chair of the Decorations Committee for the city (The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center 2022; About Gilbert Baker: Creator of the LBTG Rainbow Flag; The Rainbow Flag: The Original 1978 Flag). The original iteration of the Rainbow Pride Flag displayed eight horizontal stripes: pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet, the colors symbolizing sexuality, life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic and art, serenity, and spirit (The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center 2022; EqualityMaine “History of the Pride Flag”; Grovier 2016). This eight-striped version was first produced by a team of 30 volunteers and friends, including Lynn Segerblom (Faerie Argyle Rainbow), James McNamara, Glenne McElhinney, Joe Duran, and Paul Langlotz. They rinsed dyes at a public laundromat and stitched in the attic of a gay community center to create a massive 30x60 ft flag. According to Baker, the idea for the flag’s design came in 1976, the bicentenary anniversary of the United States’ day of independence as a republic, after the US withdrawal from the Vietnam War in 1973 and the resignation of Nixon in 1974 after the Watergate scandal left the American populace unsettled and in need of patriotic reassurance. Baker was impressed by the way in which the US flag was easily propagated, symbolically dense, emotional, and capable of inspiring great fervor even though the flag itself is simplistic in design. At the same time, he was aware of the competition his design would have with the pink triangle, a Nazi tool used to mark homosexuality in concentration camps (that was later co-opted by gay communities as a symbol of pride and reclamation). As flags “are about claiming power,” Baker wanted to distance his design from the negative historical connotations of the pink triangle, and believed that the gay community should have a positive emblem that was from and entirely theirs (Grovier 2016; Baker 2019). It’s been theorized that Baker’s flag was inspired by either gay icon Judy Garland’s song “Over the Rainbow,” the Stonewall Riots, the bright colors have often been used to imply homosexuality, and/or from the various historical instances of a rainbow flag being used as symbol for world peace, hope, social change, neutrality, faith, etc. (The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center 2022; Grovier 2016; Baker 2019). In an interview with the Museum of Modern Art, Baker confirmed that his reasoning for using a rainbow as a flag was because “It’s a natural flag.. It’s from the sky” (Grovier 2016). In his memoir, Baker saw the gay community, with its glamour and diversity, a “like a rainbow.” The rainbow aptly shows both the beauty and natural genuineness of the gay community. The eight-colored Rainbow Flag was first flown on June 25, 1978, during the SF Gay Freedom Day parade at the United Nations Plaza, cementing its status as a symbol of the LGBTQA+ community (The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center 2022; Grovier 2016). The pink stripe was later removed due to a fabric shortage that made pink dye difficult to source and the turquoise stripe was removed in order make the flag more symmetrical and easier to display after the omission of the pink stripe (EqualityMaine “History of the Pride Flag”; Grovier 2016; The Rainbow Flag: The Original 1978 Flag). The revised flag, or the currently Rainbow Flag as we commonly recognize it as, is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, representing life, healing, sunlight, nature, harmony and peace, and spirit respectively. The now six-color flag rose to prominency following the assasination of Harvey Milk and the San Francisco mayor George Moscone in November 27, 1978. Since its appearance, the Rainbow Flag has grown tremendously and spread wildly as the well-recognized symbol for the gay community, commonly displayed in pride parades and LGBTQA+ conventions and in general - as a common symbol for individual and community use. Other flags created that entered into popular use include the bisexual pride flag designed by Michael Page (pink stripe representing same-sex attraction, blue as opposite-sex attraction, and the purple overlap representing both attractions), the transgender pride flag designed by Monica Helms (light pink and light blue representing girls and boys respectively, and the white to represent transitioning, neutral, intersex, or undefined genders), the Philadelphia pride flag created by PR agency Tierney which added brown and black stripes to represent the QPOC community, and the progress flag designed by Daniel Quasar which mashed designs from the Baker rainbow, transgender, and Philadelphia pride flags to make a pride flag that was more broadly inclusive (The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center 2022; EqualityMaine “History of the Pride Flag”). “Flags,” as Baker puts it, “are torn from the soul of the people” (About Gilbert Baker: Creator of the LBTG Rainbow Flag; Grovier 2016). Resilience and passionate determination sewn in every patch of the banner. No doubt, these flags were made and will continue to push progress in the face of continued adversity for the LGBTQA+ community. —---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- “The crowd was as much a part of the show as the band. Everyone was there: North Beach beatniks and barrio zoots, the bored bikers in black leather, teenagers in the back row kissing. There were long-haired, lithe girls in belly-dance get-ups, pink-haired punks safety-pinned together, hippie suburbanites, movie stars so beautiful they left you dumbstruck, muscle gayboys with perfect mustaches, butch dykes in blue jeans, and fairies of all genders in thrift-store dresses. We rode the mirrored ball on glittering LSD and love power. Dance fused us, magical and cleansing. We were all in a swirl of color and light. It was like a rainbow.” - Gilbert Baker. To read up on more, check out the following links and resources:
https://www.unco.edu/gender-sexuality-resource-center/resources/pride-flags.aspx for images and short descriptions of various pride flags compiled by UNCO’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.
https://gilbertbaker.com/ for everything Gilbert Baker.
https://www.glbthistory.org/rainbow-flag to contribute to their 1978 Rainbow Flag History Project, an archival project that will “document the origin, creation, public display and legacy of the two original, eight-stripe rainbow flags first flown in 1978 in San Francisco”
About Gilbert Baker: Creator of the LBTG Rainbow Flag. The Gilbert Baker Foundation.
Baker, G. (2019). Stitching A Rainbow. In Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color. Chicago Review
EqualityMaine. History of the Pride Flag. EQME EqualityMaine.
Grovier, K. (2016). The history of the rainbow flag. BBC Culture.
The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center. (2022). Pride Flags. University of Northern
The Rainbow Flag: The Original 1978 Flag. GLBT Historical Society.
Wolowic, J. M., Heston, L. V., Saewyc, E. M., Porta, C. and Eisenberg, M. E. (2016). Chasing
the rainbow: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth and pride semiotics. Culture, Health & Sexuality. 19(5), 557-571. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2016.1251613