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The Cultural Importance of the Rainbow Flag

The Rainbow Flag is one of the most important cultural icons of today. Find out about its history, its origins and the meaning behind it. 

If I look outside my office window right now, I can see rainbow flags billowing in the breeze atop light posts dotting the busy downtown street. They’re raised at the beginning of June as part of the many LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Pride celebrations and parades around the world during this month. The rainbow flag has been synonymous with gay culture for so long, it’s hard to remember that for a long time, the community had no symbol under which to unite. It wasn’t until artist George Baker’s pioneering efforts in the 1970s took place that the LGBT community and its supporters found comfort, strength, and inspiration in the multicolored banner.

How the Rainbow Flag Came to Be
It all started with a phone call Harvey Milk made in 1978 to San Francisco–based artist Gilbert Baker, who sat on the city’s Board of Supervisors at the time. Not only was Harvey Milk the first openly gay man to hold public office, but he was also a champion of the gay rights movement of the 1960s. He worked relentlessly to further gay rights and was highly respected within the community, so when he requested that his friend Baker come up with a logo for San Francisco’s upcoming Gay Freedom Day Parade (today known as Pride), Baker set to work. “I turned that into the idea of a flag,” Baker told UK Gay News in a 2008 interview honoring the flag’s thirtieth anniversary.

The flag’s story of origin varies depending on whom you consult. Some say Baker drew inspiration from the peace-promoting rainbow flags flown across college campuses in the 1960s. Though the rainbow is now associated mostly with LGBT symbolism, it was used across cultures for multiple purposes years before Baker gave it a new meaning. Others say that the flag comes from Judy Garland’s song “Over the Rainbow.” But regardless of how he came up with it, the community quickly accepted his new design.

Baker’s original model had eight stripes, with each color representing an important element of gay life.

  • Pink: sex
  • Red: life
  • Orange: healing
  • Yellow: sunlight
  • Green: nature
  • Turquoise: art
  • Dark blue: harmony
  • Violet: spirit

He and thirty volunteers made the first two large flags, and on June 25, 1978, the flags flew in the city’s Gay Freedom Day Parade. The symbol’s popularity became even more widespread later that year, when fellow supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and Mayor Moscone and the reeling community needed something to hold on to.

When demand exceeded small-scale production, San Francisco’s Paramount Flag Company took over. But because pink wasn’t a readily available color for mass use, the company eliminated it from the flag. That was only the first color change: in 1979, the parade committee asked Baker to remove the turquoise stripe so that the flag’s colors would be distributed evenly on street posts. The six-striped flag is the one that flies in parades around the world today.

The flag played an incredibly important role in bringing together and revitalizing a community shattered by the loss of its fearless leader in 1978, and it continues to be a defining part of gay culture. It was used in 1994 to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a police raid against gays and lesbians in New York in the late 1960s that turned violent. Baker made the world’s largest rainbow flag for the event; it took five thousand people to carry it, and it was eventually cut apart and given to various sponsors and activists afterward. The artist outdid himself again in 2003 to honor the flag’s own twenty-fifth anniversary. He created an even bigger flag, this one long enough to go from the Gulf of Mexico to Key West, Florida. Similar to the last time, he broke up the flag and shipped various pieces to cities all over the world.

What It Means Today
Since its adoption over thirty years ago, the Baker-designed rainbow flag has become the most recognizable symbol of the LGBT community. Variations of the flag exist, such as one with a black stripe added at the bottom in honor of those lost to AIDS. But the six-striped design still holds true today, and people around the world will draw strength, courage, and inspiration from each flag that flies in celebration of the LGBT community and its proponents this month.

But Baker still insists that there’s a long way to go before his original goal for designing the symbol—unification—comes to fruition. “The United States’ GLBT community is more visible than ever before…But we cannot rest on our laurels,” he wrote in a 2007 Metro Weekly editorial about 2008’s Pride and the thirtieth anniversary of the rainbow flag. “Our work to unite the community has only just begun.” I can’t wait to see what the next few years bring, and I can’t wait to look out the window again and see those six simple stripes swaying in the breeze, telling the story of where the LGBT community’s been, how far it’s come, and the victories in store.

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