With Pride Month almost here, we wanted to explore one of the most iconic symbols of the LGBTQ+ community: the rainbow. You’ve seen the rainbow flag (one of many LGBTQ+ pride flags) flying high at Pride parades and outside people’s houses, but how did the rainbow come to be associated with this community? What does the rainbow symbolize? Keep reading to find out.
Artist Gilbert Baker, who was a gay man and drag queen, is the creator of the original rainbow pride flag, which he designed in 1978 specifically to be a flag for the wide-ranging gay community. In his memoir Rainbow Memoir, he writes that his inspiration came in part from wanting to find an alternative to the pink triangle, which had been used by the Nazis in World War II to denote homosexuality and thus had a negative connotation. Instead, Baker writes, “We all felt that we needed something that was positive, that celebrated our love.” He had looked at the flags of various countries flying at San Francisco’s Civic Center and wanted the same thing for his community.
He hit upon the idea for the rainbow after a night out dancing, observing the colorful and widely varied members of his community, each with their own sense of style and identity. Baker writes of this revelation, “We were all in a swirl of color and light. It was like a rainbow…A Rainbow Flag was a conscious choice, natural and necessary. The rainbow came from the earliest recorded history as a symbol of hope. In the Book of Genesis, it appeared as proof of a covenant between God and all living creatures. It was also found in Chinese, Egyptian, and Native American history. A Rainbow Flag would be our modern alternative to the pink triangle. Now the rioters who claimed their freedom at the Stonewall Bar in 1969 would have their own symbol of liberation.”
Each color of the original rainbow flag had a specific meaning to Baker. According to Britannica, “Baker saw the rainbow as a natural flag from the sky, so he adopted eight colors for the stripes, each color with its own meaning (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 original flag, whose design was completed under Baker’s supervision with the help of thirty volunteers, was first flown at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco, although the pink and turquoise colors were later removed due to the cost of production, resulting in the more commonly seen six-color flag, according to the GLBT Historical Society.
The rainbow flag reached a milestone when Baker created a mile-long version of it for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which was carried during the 2004 New York City Pride Parade and later cut up, with pieces of it used in Pride parades around the world. He then created an even bigger rainbow flag, 1.25 miles long, complete with the original eight colors, for Key West’s Pride parade in 2003, with around 2,000 volunteers helping to carry it from sea to sea along Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean
Baker passed away in 2017; in his New York Times obituary, his friend Cleve Jones said that he had never applied for a patent on the flag, because “It was his gift to the world. He told me when the flag first went up that he knew at that moment that it was his life’s work.” Gilbert Baker’s original rainbow flag was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, which first hung it on June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage.
While Baker’s original pride flag is still an internationally recognized symbol, it has been updated and modernized to address additional aspects of the LGBTQ+ community. In 2018, Daniel Quasar created the Progress Pride flag, which adds five new colors to represent different members of the community: white for those lost to AIDS, pink and blue for transgender people, and black and brown to encompass people of color. Quasar said in a February 2021 interview, “Our community still deals with a lot of stigmas and a lot of racism and a lot of transphobia from within the queer community.”
The rainbow flag now waves all over the world as a symbol of the inclusiveness of the LGBTQ+ community. The rainbow has become a symbol that has even been embraced by cities all year long, with Atlanta featuring rainbow crosswalks, which were permanently installed in 2017, and Washington, DC painting a permanent rainbow Pride crosswalk near Dupont Circle. Atlanta spokesman Michael Smith told CNN why the city’s rainbow adornment is so important, saying “[The intersection] is where many gay people who felt isolated–particularly young gay people–knew we could go to be around other people just like us, and an area where you could go to support gay businesses.”
It’s not just major cities welcoming the LGBTQ+ community by flying the rainbow flag. In 2018, Maplewood, New Jersey became the first town in the Garden State to install permanent rainbow crosswalks. Maplewood Township Committee member Dean Dafis told The Advocate, “We want to do something that would serve as a permanent marker or symbol of our commitment to inclusion. I wanted it to be something you can encounter every day. We want our youth in particular — perhaps those struggling to find their way, those in need of empowerment and affirmation — to proudly cross or walk over their fear and self-doubt.”
While it got its start in San Francisco, the rainbow flag flies high all over the world. In Copenhagen, Denmark, a permanent rainbow flag was placed over Rainbow Square, next to Copenhagen City Hall Square. And in one location, the flag made even further inroads. Time reported in 2015 that the rainbow flag is “the official flag for the micronation of the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, a small group of islands unofficially declared a republic in 2004 by a group of Australian activists protesting for marriage equality.” As you can see, the rainbow flag has a long and storied history and may continue to evolve.
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