On June 25, 1978, activists hoist a vibrant rainbow flag in the midst of the festivities for San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day parade. According to its creator, Gilbert Baker, the crowd immediately recognized the flag’s significance: “It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightning—that this was their flag,” he later said. “It belonged to all of us.” This was the rainbow Pride flag, now an ubiquitous symbol of queer pride and liberation.
Gilbert, a drag queen and clothing designer, met gay rights activist Harvey Milk, dubbed the “Mayor of Castro St.” for his successful organizing of San Francisco’s gay community, in 1974. After his historic election to the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1977, Milk charged Gilbert to come up with a new symbol of pride for the city’s LGBT community. Gilbert decided to make a rainbow flag, each color with a specific meaning: pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit. Along with a group that included activists Lynn Segerblom and James McNamara, Gilbert constructed the first flag on the rooftop of an LGBT community center, using large trashcans to dye the various stripes.
As Baker observed, the flag resonated immediately with San Francisco’s queer community. Finding it impossible to make enough copies of his original flag to satisfy demand, he contracted a company to mass-produce it. Fabric shortages and other production issues led to the dropping the pink and turquoise segments, as well as the replacement of indigo with a standard blue color. This slightly modified version of Baker’s original flag is now a symbol of pride all over the world, and activists have created a number of variants, each with their own colors and symbolism, to celebrate the entire spectrum of sexuality and gender identity.
“Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth,” Baker later said. “A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, 'This is who I am!'"