The rainbow flag is a known symbol for the LGBTQ+ community, but how did the flag become this symbol? The story goes back to 1978, when Gilbert Baker, an openly gay artist, activist and drag queen, designed the first Pride flag.
After his honourable discharge from the United States army, Gilbert Baker arrived in San Francisco in 1972 during the early years of the Gay Liberation movement. Baker quickly became known for his sewing skills and flamboyant creations, which included drag costumes and political banners for demonstrations.
In 1978, while preparing for that year’s Gay Freedom Day celebration, City Supervisor Harvey Milk — the first openly gay person ever to be elected to public office in California, called upon Baker to create a new symbol to represent the LGBT community, that would also be unveiled at the event in June.
Baker and the first pride flag in 1978; image taken from "Medium"
Baker decided to make that symbol a flag, considering flags to be the most powerful symbol of pride, later saying in an interview: “[…] our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth, as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, ‘this is who I am!’”
Thirty volunteers helped Baker hand-dye and stitch the first two flags at the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove Street in San Francisco. Using dye in public washing machines wasn't allowed at the time, so they waited until late at night to rinse the dye from their clothes. Seeing the rainbow as a natural flag from the sky, Baker adopted eight colours for the stripes, using colour to establish meaning. Take a look here at what each colour represents. It's important to note that Baker refused to trademark the flag, as he wanted it to belong to the LGBT community.
The first pride flag being raised by Baker and collaborators in 1978; image taken from "History is Gay"
On November 27, 1978 Harvey Milk was assassinated, leading to the LGBT community using the flag as a symbol of unity during the tragedy. The flag was now in high demand, leading to some revisions of its design; the hot pink stripe was dropped due to fabric shortage of this colour. Baker also removed the turquoise stripe for the 1979 Gay Freedom Day parade; he wanted to create an even number of stripes for display on each side of streetlamps. This resulted in the popularly known and most commonly used six-stripe variant of the flag.
In 1994, a mile-long version of the flag displayed through the streets of New York to mark the 25-year anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, set a record for the longest flag ever produced; this helped with the flag's popularity further, making it a universally recognised, global symbol of the LGBTQ+ community.
Mile-long flag in 1994; image taken from "History is Gay"
Reflecting on the flag's legacy, Baker said: "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 lightning — 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.”
Looking for more still? Here's some further reading you should check out:
• Gilbert Baker Foundation - "Rainbow Flag: Origin Story"; https://gilbertbaker.com/
• GLBT Historical Society - "The Rainbow Flag"; https://www.glbthistory.org/rainbow-flag