The Rainbow Flag – A Community Symbol

Gilbert Baker probably didn’t know the simple rainbow flag he designed in 1978 would become the face of a major civil rights movement in the United States and around the world. If you would have told him that, in 2015, the White House would be lit with the rainbow colors of his flag in celebration, he wouldn’t have believed you. What Baker did know was the Harvey Milk, an icon in the gay community, had asked him to create a flag for San Francisco’s annual pride parade.

You see, Gilbert Baker had already been thinking about this symbol for over two years. In an interview he gave in 2015, he said that during America’s bicentennial in 1976, a year in which the America flag was flying everywhere, he realized that the gay community needed a cultural sign to rally behind.

Baker, born in 1951 in Kansas, served two years in the military during the Vietnam war. After he was honorably discharged from the Army, he worked on different activist causes. Baker learned to sew, expertly we might add, and joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a gay drag activist group.

The gay community did have a symbol already – a pink triangle. During WWII, the Nazis forced gay men to wear a pink triangle to identify them. Lesbians, or antisocial women as they were called, were forced to wear black triangles for identification. These symbols were derived from a dark period of history and Baker didn’t find it suitable to sustain them. Baker saw the triangles as stigmas attached to the by a horrible regime. The community needed more than a stigma – it needed something to be proud of.

Baker said the rainbow design was the obvious choice as, “We needed something that expressed us. The rainbow really fits that, in terms of: we’re all the colors, all the genders and 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 Is Born

  • Thirty volunteers, together with Baker in the attic of the Gay Community Center in San Francisco, worked to hand-dye and stich together the first flags.
  • The flag originally had eight stripes, with each stripe representing something different. This is a list of the original colors and their meanings. They are ordered as they were originally from top to bottom.
    • Hot Pink – Sex
    • Red – Life
    • Orange – Life
    • Yellow – Sunlight
    • Green – Nature
    • Turquois – Magic/Art
    • Indigo – Serenity
    • Violet – Spirit
  • The flag made its first appearance on June 25, 1978 at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade.
  • When Harvey Milk was assassinated in November 1978, demand for the flag skyrocketed.
  • Hot pink was dropped from the flag due to the scarcity of pigment for coloring.
  • In 1979, turquois was dropped so the flag would be symmetrical. Flying the seven-colored flag sideways from lampposts made for an awkward balance. The center stripe was obscured by the post itself, so taking out turquois solved the problem.

A Universal Symbol

  • The International Flag Association named the rainbow flag an official flag in 1986.
  • In 1988, John Stout lived in West Hollywood, California. He displayed the rainbow flag outside his home on the balcony, as many people were not doing. His landlords attempted to prohibit him from doing this, so he sued them. Though settled out of court, Stout was allowed to continue flying the rainbow flag on his balcony. This case brought national attention to the flag.
  • On the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Baker was commissioned again. It was 1994, and this time, he was to create the world’s longest rainbow flag. After months of planning and many teams of volunteers, they created a giant flag that was 32 feet wide and used the now typical six striped design. The Guinness Book of World Records certified it as the world’s largest flag.
  • In 2003, Baker created a flag to mark the 25th anniversary of the flag itself. This flag stretched across Key West, another LGBTQ haven. The flag stretched 1.25 miles, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf Coast Sea. Baker broke is 1994 record with this flag.
  • On June 26, 2015, the White House was illuminated with the colors of the rainbow flag to commemorate the legalization of same-sex marriage by the US Supreme Court.
  • In June of 2016, a gunman entered the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. He killed 49 people and injured 53. Pulse was a gay club and this incident profoundly affected the LGBTQ community. In the aftermath of this incident, the rainbow flag appeared in many places as people showed solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
  • The Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands is a place and its flag is the rainbow flag. Seriously, you can’t make this up. In 2004, because of Australia’s refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriage, a group of activists founded the kingdom. No, they are not recognized by any country in the world as legitimate, but they did declare war on Australia in September of 2004. Because of this situation, some Australian members of government have used it as a reason not to allow the rainbow flag to be displayed in government buildings.
  • As Australia has been going through the process of deciding whether or not same-sex marriage will be legal, the pride flag has been used widely by the side wanting it legalized.

Other Community Flags

There are other flags in the LGBTQ community. Other than the rainbow flag, common flags include ones for the bisexual community, the transgender community, and the pansexual community. (I mean no offense by leaving other flags off – I just wanted to hit some of the most well known ones)

Bisexual Pride Flag

Bi Flag

The bisexual pride flag, designed by Michael Page, was created in 1998. The bisexual community has long felt that they have not been properly represented by the wider LGBTQ community and have sought to distinguish themselves. The flag features pink for the top and blue on the bottom, with the two blending in the middle to create a purple stripe. Pink is representative of attraction to the same sex (gay and lesbian) and blue represents opposite sex attraction (straight). The purple is a blending of the two, meant to represent the bisexual community.

Transgender Pride Flag

Trans Flag

There is not a clear single representative flag for the transgendered community, but the most common one used is the transgender pride flag. It was created in 1999 by Monica Helms. It has five horizontal stripes. There are two light blue stripes on the top and bottom, flanked by two pink stripes, and a white stripe in the middle. The blue represents baby boys, the pink baby girls. The middle white stripe is for those who are not gender specific or undefined gender.

Pansexual Pride Flag

pan flag

The pansexual pride flag is fairly new, showing up around 2010. From top to bottom, there are three horizontal stripes: pink, yellow, and blue. Pink represents people who identify as female, regardless of their biological sex. Blue represents those who identify as male. Yellow represents a non-binary attraction, commonly referred to as bigender or gender fluid.

The Pride Flag in Everyday Life

Many in the LGBTQ community and those outside of the community have wondered if the flag should be used as an everyday item or if it should only be used for pride events. The answer to that is left up to individuals, but there are some considerations.

What is the purpose of flags? They are symbols of hope and pride in something larger than oneself. Flags carry with them deep emotional connections in people who fly them. The American flag is flown on many houses and businesses in the US. It doesn’t just come out on Independence Day. Likewise, state flags fly proudly. Schools have flags, as do many organizations. All are flown proudly by the people who identify with them. The pride flag should be flown proudly by anyone who identifies with it. It shouldn’t be a symbol to be brought out only when an event comes around. It should be continuous. The pride flag, for those in the LGBTQ community, has a meaning that goes beyond simple pride in a country, school, or company. This flag represents them as individuals. It is an internal pride that many people have struggled with throughout their lives. It represents a movement that has had to fight hard for acceptance.

The rainbow flag has become a universally recognized symbol for LGBTQ rights. There is no mistaking its meaning when it is flown. We can look back at the history of this flag with pride. Gilbert Baker had an idea and he brought it to life. Would any other design have meant as much? We’ll never know because he got it right. When Harvey Milk asked Baker to design a symbol for the community, Baker created the ultimate flag. It is pure and honest.