What is the history of the rainbow flag?
June 28, 2004
The rainbow flag stands out as this era's best-known LGBT symbol. From San
Francisco's Castro to Chicago's Halsted Street to New York City's Greenwich
Village, the flag is widely flown – during June and throughout the year – to
celebrate gay pride.
The rainbow has been used by many cultures, including indigenous peoples of
the Americas, as a symbol of hope. But the use of the rainbow flag to
symbolize gay pride originated with artist Gilbert Baker, dubbed the "Gay
Betsy Ross," in 1978.
Baker grew up in Kansas as an effeminate child with an interest in fashion.
In high school, he reportedly created a pop-art flower dress for his date to
wear to the prom. Baker arrived in San Francisco in 1970 as a draftee
stationed at the Presidio army base, where he worked as a nurse. He began
taking acid, joined the drag revolution pioneered by the Cockettes and the
Angels of Light, and eventually received an honorable discharge. "One taste
of Sylvester and I couldn't wait to trade medical whites for gold lame and a
feather boa," he later recalled.
According to Baker, "Gay life in the new generation was about being in your
face, out of the closet, not waiting for power but taking it." He often
stayed up nights making banners for political protests, and he organized
volunteers to create decorations for the city's annual Gay Pride
The idea for the rainbow flag was hatched when Baker's friend,
Harvey Milk, an openly gay candidate for the Board of Supervisors, suggested
the movement needed a symbol other than the pink triangle, which had
originated in Nazi Germany as a badge of oppression.
With a group of friends, Baker hand-dyed and stitched the first two rainbow
flags at the local gay community center. The original version consisted of
eight horizontal stripes in fuchsia, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise,
indigo, and violet, representing sex, life, healing, sunlight, nature, art
or magic, harmony, and spirit, respectively.
The flags made their debut at the June 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day
parade. "When we raised the flags on large poles in United Nations Plaza the
morning of the parade, we knew we'd created something magical," Baker
recalled. "It was the most thrilling moment of my life." The flag took on
greater political significance when a seven-color version – Baker could not
find fuchsia fabric in time – was carried in a candlelight march following
Milk's assassination in November 1978.
Baker approached the Paramount Flag Company about manufacturing the flag,
but his original hand-dyed colors were not all commercially available. Thus,
fuchsia and turquoise were omitted, and royal blue was substituted for
Without any concerted effort at publicity or marketing, the six-color
rainbow design was widely adopted, flying in front of homes and businesses,
adorning car bumpers, and appearing on T-shirts, key chains, and jewelry.
Since flags cannot be copyrighted and the design remained in the public
domain, Baker never profited from the explosion of rainbow-hued
While the rainbow flag is said to represent LGBT diversity, specific queer
communities have adopted their own flags. At the May 1989 International Mr.
Leather contest, Tony DeBlase introduced a Leather Pride flag comprised of
four black and four blue horizontal stripes, a white stripe in the middle,
and a red heart in the upper left corner. An early bear flag with diagonal
stripes was supplanted by the International Bear Brotherhood flag, designed
by Craig Byrnes in 1995, which features horizontal stripes in the fur colors
of bears throughout the world and a paw print in the upper left corner. The
Bi Pride flag, created by Michael Page, debuted in 1998. Comprised of pink,
purple, and blue horizontal stripes, it evolved from a symbol created by Liz
Nania featuring pink and light blue triangles overlapping to form lavender.
For the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 1994, Baker created a
7,000-pound, mile-long rainbow flag that was carried by 10,000 people
through the streets of New York City. Spectators along the parade route
threw money into the flag, raising $40,000 for a food program for people
By the rainbow flag's 25th anniversary, it had become possible to
commercially manufacture a wider variety of colors, and Baker reintroduced
fuchsia and turquoise. "[W]hen we lost the pink, we lost the symbol for
sexual liberation. The missing turquoise honors Native Americans and the
magic of life," Baker said. "Both colors are needed to embrace our history."
To celebrate the anniversary, Baker supervised a team of hundreds to create
a 1.25-mile-long banner in the original eight colors that was unfurled
across the island of Key West from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico
during that city's June 2003 Pride celebration.
"Flying the flag is a visibility action, whether it is a discreet sticker on
a car windshield or ten stories high," said Baker. "Even the often tacky
commercialization...pushes our message to the farthest reaches of the
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