Gay Pages Summer 2016: History of The Rainbow Flag

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Have you ever wondered where the rainbow flag comes from, and how it came to symbolise gay pride and rights across the globe?


Our flag, which transcends borders, first saw the light of day in 1978. It came a long way since and was recently added to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. 

Artist and drag queen Gilbert Baker, whose alter ego was called Busty Ross, realised that flags are more powerful than seals or coats of arms. It represents a nation, a people or a country. And we are a people, a tribe, whose members span the globe.
In an interview Baker did with the Museum of Modern Art he said, “We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag – it’s from the sky! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexillography, this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had.“ 

The symbology is universal and transcends language, class, and social and cultural barriers. There is even a tenuous link with gay icon, Judy Garland, who sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz. Up till then, the community had adopted the pink triangle, a symbol made infamous by the Nazis. Naturally, some felt that a new symbol was needed – one with no connections to the past, yet a symbol representative of the entire community. 

Gay people historically used bright colours to signal their sexuality – including bright yellow socks, and the green carnation that Oscar Wilde famously wore on his lapel. Pink and lavender also featured prominently, possibly in reference to the pink triangle.
Baker, who grew up in a small town in Kansas, was fascinated by fabrics from an early age. His grandmother owned a women’s clothing shop, but he never learned to sew. He left his home town to join the army and upon leaving, ended up in San Francisco in 1972, just as the city’s gay community was flourishing. One of his first purchases was a sewing machine, so he could make the kind of clothes his heroes Mick Jagger and David Bowie were wearing. 

Soon he started making banners for protest marches. He was approached by Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first openly gay politician in a major U.S. city, to make a flag for a march he was organising. Just a few months later, Milk was assassinated. To manifest the community’s solidarity in the aftermath of this tragedy, the San Francisco Pride Committee elected to use Baker’s flag in honor of the slain Milk. 

Together with about thirty volunteers, Baker whipped up the first flags in the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove Street. They used trash cans filled with dye and dyed thousands of metres of cotton, but they needed to wash the dyed fabric and the group waited until late at night to visit a laundromat. They knew they weren’t supposed to put dye in a public washing machine, so they used bleach to clean the machines after they were done.

The first pair of flags was raised in the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco on 25 June, 1978. One was the rainbow flag and the other was an American flag with rainbow stripes instead of the usual red, white and blue. 

The original flag had eight colours – hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo/blue and violet, but over time, it lost two stripes and became the familiar six-coloured version we know today. Each of the colors has its own significance – hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit.
The hot pink stripe was lost when the first flags were mass produced, due to the rarity and expense of the fabric. The flag lost its indigo stripe shortly before the 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade. The parade’s organising committee wanted to split the flag in half and fly each part from opposite sides of Market Street, so it became a six-striped flag. Baker says the flag was cemented as an international symbol in 1994, when he made a mile-long flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

At the first Gay Games, originally called the Gay Olympics, and which was held in San Francisco in 1982, the rainbow flag reached cult status. The event was founded by an Olympic decathlete Dr. Tom Waddell who competed in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. 

In 2004 at the Key West Pride Festival, Gilbert Baker unveiled a re-creation of his original eight-colour flag. He commented, saying, “We lost two of the original colors, pink and turquoise. It’s time, however, to restore the original design. First, it is simply more beautiful and more authentic. Moreover, when we lost the pink, we lost the symbol for our sexual liberation. The missing turquoise honours Native Americans and the magic of life. Both colors are needed to embrace our history.“

Today, the rainbow flag is recognised globally as a symbol of gay pride and can be found on websites, bumper stickers and coffee mugs, to tee-shirts and shopfronts where it confirms the shop as being either gay-owned and operated, or gay-friendly. It is a symbol of hope, diversity and our unity.

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