Every June, houses, businesses and government buildings across the United States and across the world display brightly colored rainbow flags that honor the struggle and history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
But have you ever wondered who designed that flag? Thought about where it came from? Pondered how long it has been around? We’ve got the answers to those questions and more in a short history of the rainbow flag, also known as the pride flag.
The Very Beginning and the Original Design
The flag was originally the idea of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States. Milk was an elected member of the San Francisco board of supervisors: the rough equivalent of a town council in many other parts of the United States.
As the first openly gay elected official, Milk was very aware of his role as a symbol, as a leader and a spokesperson for the gay community. Some noted that Milk was a true “visionary” who had a dream of a U.S. where LGBTQ people could serve in government and live and work freely without fear of prejudice, discrimination or threat of violence.
As part of his vision for a brighter future, Milk sought a new symbol for the LGBTQ community. At that point, the community was still using the upside-down pink triangle that the Nazis had used to identify homosexual, bisexual and transgender people in Germany during the Holocaust.
This symbol, obviously, had a dark past, and Milk wanted something that was more uplifting and hopeful: a forward-looking image.
So in 1978, Milk asked San Francisco tailor and artist Gilbert Baker to come up with a design that would encapsulate the hope that Milk had for a future of LGBTQ freedom and love for all people. Baker was up to the task.
Baker took his inspiration from the American flag, reportedly saying that the stripes of the 13 colonies starting a new nation were similar to the idea of different types of love starting a new “gay” nation.
His first design had eight stripes of different colors. Baker assigned a different positive value to each of the stripes: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for harmony and violet for spirit. He wanted the message of the flag to be empowering and to allow everyone to feel as if they were represented by the flag.
The first version of the flag was large, 30 feet by 60 feet, and Baker sewed it by hand. The flag first flew in the 1978 Gay Freedom Parade in San Francisco, and Baker was stunned and gratified by the reception it received. Encouraged, he removed two of the stripes from the design (the pink and turquoise) to make it easier to mass produce.
How the Flag Became Famous
Sadly, it wasn’t just its appearance at the Gay Freedom Parade that made the flag famous. The flag was popular, yes, but it didn’t really become an in-demand item until the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978.
Milk’s assassination galvanized the LGBTQ community in San Francisco and brought further attention to the problems of violence against LGBTQ people and the need for further work in the community.
When the next year’s Gay Freedom Parade came around, the entire LGBTQ community in San Francisco raised the pride flag in honor of Harvey Milk and his vision of a hopeful and optimistic future for all people.
Today, the flag continues to be a rallying point, a mark of pride and a flag to rally behind. Gilbert Baker, who passed away in 2017, said in a 2015 CNN interview that “we needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that. We’re an ancient, wonderful tribe of people. We picked something from nature. We picked something beautiful.”
The rainbow flag, with six colors, seven, or even the original eight, can be seen in many places and in many forms both during pride month (June) and year-round in communities that want to show support for LGBTQ rights and in the homes and businesses of LGBTQ people. Milk’s vision, while not totally complete, still lives on in Gilbert’s design and in the struggle and work for equal rights for all people.