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By now, you’ve seen it everywhere. Waving proudly. The rainbow flag is a universal symbol for the LGBTQI community.
It represents their love, inclusiveness and strength, all around the world. But it wasn’t always like this.
Prior to the flag, the community was defined by a pink triangle. A symbol used by Nazis to identify the gay community during WWII.
It was a dark and somber symbol. One that had to be replaced in order to progress.
Harvey Milk commissioned the flag to be made before the 1978 pride rally. The first openly gay politician wanted the LGBTQI community to have a positive symbol.
Each color on the flag represents something different. From red being a symbol for life and the orange representing healing.
The original design featured a hot-pink stripe, but difficulty in obtaining hot-pink fabric resulted in it being dropped from the flag.
When Milk was assassinated on November 27th, 1978 the flag rose in popularity. People truly understood how important it was to wave the flag with pride.
And that has continued to this day, all around the world.
The rainbow flag synonymous with the LGBTQ community and gay pride events, along with Pride Month in June, has very humble beginnings as a textile representation of a population that stood in the shadows for generations.
It’s not the only symbol that had been used to identify someone’s homosexuality, however.
Homophobia during WWII:
During the horrible oppression of Jews and other peoples at the hands of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s, gays were forced to wear a bright pink triangle, akin to the yellow Star of David attached to clothing worn by Jews. It was a quick and easy way to identify them, to cast them apart, to make it known that this was someone “lesser” or “different,” a way to brand someone as a target of hatred, ridicule, abuse and to be considered for extermination.
German criminal law section 175 explicitly prohibited men from participating in in homosexual activity (nothing was said about lesbians) and had been on the books since 1871. During Hitler’s regime, they were targeted not only for breaking that particular law but because it was believed homosexuality weakened the Aryan race because they did not contribute to the population.
(Gays weren’t the only ones forced to wear colour-coded triangles, by the way — Roma people were forced to wear brown triangles; red indicated a political prisoner; green was for criminals; purple was used to identify Jehovah’s Witnesses and blue triangles called out immigrants.)
Pink triangles were a signal to concentration camp guards. It’s been said that guards could see pink triangles from a greater distance than other coded patches and they’d single out someone wearing a pink triangle for even worse abuse and treatment than other prisoners.
Heartbreakingly, at a time when being gay was still considered something unholy and a defect, some of the other concentration camp inmates might use the pink triangle as a green light to inflict their own abuse.
Even as the war ended and the camps were liberated, some guards and soldiers kept homosexual inmates back to continue their imprisonment and abuse.
Dark days, indeed.
There’s historic precedent for using colour to indicate someone’s sexual preferences that isn’t quite as disturbing. Oscar Wilde’s green carnation famously served as a calling card: he was out and proud but in a subtle way. If you didn’t know the significance, it was just another guy wearing a flower. Granted, that also got him in trouble – a novel based on his life, published in 1894, landed him on trial for indecency. Brightly coloured socks, typically yellow, were a sneaky nod to being openly gay in Australia for years.
But as has been done many times throughout history, a symbol of oppression gradually was reclaimed and used as a sign of triumph, of resistance, of overcoming hardship and reclaiming an identity.
In the 1960s and 1970s, some in the gay community decided to stake a claim to the pink triangle. If you take ownership of something that had been used to hurt you, you take negate that sad, painful history and make it your own, after all.
Slowly but surely, more people were making the decision to live openly as gay. “Coming out” wasn’t something done in a huge way, with a public announcement, but pockets of communities were coalescing around the world.
The Stonewall Uprising:
The spark that ignited the tinder box was, of course, the Stonewall Riots in New York City. Over the course of several days in June and July 1969, police raided a gay club, beating patrons who were just out for a night of dancing and fun. For six days, police clashed with patrons, neighbors and other citizens up and down Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. The only crime committed by those who hung out at the Stonewall Inn was being gay. This was just months before the peace and love vibe of Woodstock would take over, but it was far from a love-in for gays in New York.
(Fun fact: There was a criminal ordinance in New York City that stipulated a person could face charges if wearing less than three “gender appropriate” pieces of clothing. Can you imagine?!)
When stories from Stonewall started circulating, people protested. They took to the street in anger, looking for ways to unify and show support. It was a call to action that still rings today.
The Gay Betsy Ross:
It was around this time that Gilbert Baker arrived in San Francisco. Baker had enlisted in the U.S. Army as a way to get a little discipline in his life but also as a way to move out of his hometown in Kansas and see more of the world. As was normal at the time, he faced homophobia from those he served with during basic training. He decided to become a medic and was stationed in San Francisco.
It was a revelation to him. San Francisco has a reputation as one of the most liberal cities in the United States, a beacon of acceptance and tolerance and, at the time, one of the few places in the world with a thriving, vibrant and seriously open gay culture. For Baker, it was more than liberating; it was a new start on the life he dreamed of living.
In an interview, Baker said he bought his first sewing machine because he wanted to dress like David Bowie all the time but couldn’t afford to buy the clothes. Instead, he decided to make them himself. Gradually, as he learned more people in the city and became more engaged in activism, he started making banners and flags to use during rallies, protests and special events.
Some of his early banners for gay pride or awareness events featured the pink triangle, but it was a symbol Baker didn’t really embrace.
Shortly before Pride events in 1978, Baker was introduced to Harvey Milk, a city supervisor in San Francisco and one of the first openly gay public officials to hold elected office in the U.S. Milk asked Baker, whose reputation as a seamstress was growing – he called himself the Gay Betsy Ross, a nod to the woman credited with designing the American flag – to design something to be used for the city’s celebrations that year.
Inspired in part by celebrations of America’s bicentennial anniversary the year before but wanting something more colourful, more vibrant and imbued with particular meaning, Baker looked skyward.
“We needed something beautiful,” Baker said. The gay community needed “something from us” that would symbolize their moment in the sun.
“As a community, both local and international, gay people were in the midst of an upheaval, a battle for equal rights, a shift in status where we were now demanding power, taking it,” Baker wrote. “This was our new revolution: a tribal, individualistic and collective vision. It deserved a new symbol.”
Rainbows have a mythical nature. Out of deep, angry storms, colours emerge in the sky out of nothing. Pop culture lore connects Judy Garland and her song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” with the gay community. Being a “friend of Dorothy” was another in-culture nod to being an out gay person.
Baker’s original design featured eight stripes, with each pigment signifying a different element of life. The top stripe, in bright pink, represented sex and sexuality. The following red stripe was for life; orange was for healing; yellow was for sunlight; green was for nature; turquoise represented magic; indigo stood for serenity and the bottom violet stripe indicated spirit.
Working with team of friends in the upstairs floor of the San Francisco Gay Community Center, Baker filled garbage cans with dye to get the colours just right. The pieces of fabric were meticulously sewn together.
And when the flag was unfurled for the first time in public, from the United Nations Plaza in June 1978, the reaction was immediate and emotional.
“We stood there and watched and saw the flags and their faces lit up,” said Cleve Jones, an activist and close friend of Baker’s. “It needed no explanation. People knew immediately that it was our flag.”
Baker was insistent from the beginning that the flag not be trademarked. He wanted it in the public domain, meaning anyone could take the design and recreate it without limitation. He didn’t want any money for it, he didn’t want to control how or when or why it was used.
At the time there was an attempt from an advocacy group to trademark the flag as their own. A civil rights attorney working in San Francisco’s Castro district worked with Baker to ensure the flag would remain free for public use, not just in the United States but around the world.
Given the near-instant adoption of the rainbow flag as a prominent symbol of LGBTQ pride and identity, Baker wanted to start mass producing the flags. Baker worked at the Paramount Flag Company at the time and convinced them to manufacture the flags.
He quickly learned that hot pink wasn’t as easy to obtain as other colours, so that stripe was eliminated. He later dropped the indigo stripe, to keep the flag at an even number of components.
Sadly, the second major public appearance of the flag was later in 1978, when Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in their City Hall offices. When protestors marched through the city to mourn their leaders, they carried Baker’s flag.
Now, 40 years later, the rainbow flag has made its mark around the world.
In 1994, Baker was commissioned to create a mile-long version of the flag to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. It was confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records to be among the largest in the world. After the event, the flag was cut into pieces which were then distributed throughout the world.
In 2003, the flag’s 25th anniversary, Baker recreated the original eight-striped flag in a massive banner that stretched from one side of Key West to the other, from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast. That flag measured 8,000 feet long and 15 feet wide and used more than 14,000 square yards of fabric. Needless to say, that became the longest flag, as verified by Guinness.
During some of the most important moments in LGBTQ rights and equality, the flag has been there. When the Supreme Court threw out part of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, the Empire State Building in New York used rainbow-coloured lighting to celebrate. Two years later, when the court established the national legality of gay marriage, the Obama White House was drenched in the Pride flag to commemorate the momentous occasion.
That same day, millions of people around the globe changed their social media profile pictures with the flag, some with the words “Love Wins” or “Love is Love” written over it. Also bathed in rainbows that day were the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Bridge, Niagara Falls, the World Trade Center and Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World.
An Ongoing Struggle:
Of course, the LGBTQ movement is not static. As the years progressed, some have felt the flag doesn’t fully represent them. In 2017, a pride flag featuring a brown and black stripe at the bottom was used in Philadelphia. Activists say this is to better represent non-Caucasian members of the community, a population that still feels underrepresented and not full accepted within the movement. It’s also a way to reclaim the rainbow flag as some alt-right and neo-Nazi gay groups try to incorporate it as their own following elections in France, the UK and the United States.
In 2017, Gilbert Baker passed away at the age of 65. Just prior to his death, in recognition of the flag’s 39th anniversary, he was working on a series of 39 nine-colour flags, adding back the original hot pink and indigo stripes and adding a lavender strip to signify diversity.
Museums in New York and London were gifted original concepts of the flag in recent years, with the New York Museum of Modern Art describing the flag as an internationally recognized icon, on par with “the @ symbol, the Creative Commons logo and the recycling symbol.”
Even countries where being gay is still persecuted have seen the pride flag raised high over celebrations, including Russia, Uganda, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and more than 60 others.
Baker wanted his flag to be a symbol of a community, a representation of their struggles and their hope. It’s pretty easy to see that his beacon of acceptance, determination and love has become just that.
- The Rainbow Flag
- Pride-Flyin’ Flag
- Unsung Heroes of the Gay World: Vexillographer Gilbert Baker
- The Stonewall Riots
- How the rainbow became the symbol of gay pride
- Flower Power: How Oscar Wilde’s Green Carnation Became a Symbol of Gay Pride
- Rudolf Brazda: Last known survivor of the ‘Pink Triangle’ gay inmates of Nazi concentration camps
- The Pink Triangle
- PINK TRIANGLES AND PRISON SENTENCES: NAZI PERSECUTION OF HOMOSEXUALS
- CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM IN NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS
- How the Nazi Regime’s Pink Triangle Symbol Was Repurposed for LGBTQ Pride
- Gilbert Baker: All you need to know about the man who designed the iconic LGBT flag
- Gilbert Baker, Gay Activist Who Created the Rainbow Flag, Dies at 65
- About Gilbert Baker
- How the rainbow became the symbol of LGBT pride
- What Do The Colors In The Gay Pride Flag Stand For? It’s A Beautiful And Inspiring Message
- A Rainbow Marriage
- The Colorful History of the Rainbow Pride Flag
- Meet the Man Who Kept the Rainbow Flag Free
- The History of the Rainbow Flag
- History of the LGBT rainbow flag on its 37th anniversary
- Philadelphia’s new, inclusive gay pride flag is making gay white men angry
- London’s Design Museum Acquires Original Gay Pride Flag