It’s not uncommon to see rainbow flags flying outside of homes and bars, pinned to shirts and on the back of bumpers—all with the universal and proud proclamation that #LoveIsLove. But who created the rainbow flag, and why did it become a symbol of the LGBT community?
The rainbow flag was created in 1978 by artist, designer, Vietnam War veteran and then-drag performer, Gilbert Baker. He was commissioned to create a flag by another gay icon, politician Harvey Milk, for San Francisco’s annual pride parade.
The decision to enlist Baker proved serendipitous, as the idea of a flag to represent the gay and lesbian community had occurred to him two years earlier. As Baker told the Museum of Modern Art during a 2015 interview, he had been inspired by the celebrations marking America’s bicentennial in 1976, noting that the constant display of stars and stripes made him realize the cultural need for a similar rallying sign for the gay community. And as a struggling drag performer who was accustomed to creating his own garments, he was well-equipped to sew the soon-to-be iconic symbol.
At the time, the most commonly used image for the burgeoning gay rights movement was the pink triangle, a symbol used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals. Using a symbol with such a dark and painful past was never an option for Baker. He instead opted to use a rainbow as his inspiration.
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The different colors within the flag were meant to represent togetherness, since LGBT people come in all races, ages and genders, and rainbows are both natural and beautiful. The original flag featured eight colors, each having a different meaning. At the top was hot pink, which represented sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow signifying sunlight, green for nature, turquoise to represent art, indigo for harmony, and finally violet at the bottom for spirit.
With the help of close to 30 volunteers working in the attic of the Gay Community Center in San Francisco, Baker was able to construct the first draft of the now world-renowned rainbow flag. It was first showcased at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978.
After the design was unveiled, participants of the parade proudly waved the new symbol in solidarity. Baker then took the design to Paramount Flag Company, which sold a version of the flag without hot pink and turquoise, which were replaced with blue for practicality purposes. After the assassination of Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978, demand for the rainbow banner only increased. Popularity spiked again a decade later when a West Hollywood resident sued his landlord over the right to hang his flag outside his residence.
In the years since, the rainbow flag has only grown in popularity and is now seen around the globe as a positive representation of the LGBT community. A mile-long version of the flag was created to celebrate the 25th anniversaries of two landmark events; the Stonewall Riots and Baker’s creation of the flag itself.
Baker died on March 31, 2017, at the age of 65, just two years after the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the U.S. His legacy lives on in the six-colored flag that flies proudly every Gay Pride month, recognizing the lives, and loves, of LGBT people worldwide.