The rainbow flag, also known as the gay pride flag and the LGBT pride flag was flown for the first time on this day 1978, in San Francisco at the Gay Freedom Day Parade. It has now become an internationally recognised symbol for the LGBT community.
The flag was designed by Gilbert Baker. Gilbert had grown up in Kansas where his grandmother owned a clothing store. He was fascinated by fabric and clothing, but no one had ever had the inclination to teach him to sew. He served for two years in the US army and afterwards, in 1972, moved to San Francisco just as the city’s gay community was flowering. The first thing he did was buy a sewing machine because, he said, “it’s 1972 and I have to look like Mick Jagger and David Bowie every single second”. Because he knew how to sew, he was soon making banners for protest marches. When the United States celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, he really noticed what a powerful symbol a flag could be. The Stars and Stripes do not have any words on it at all, yet everyone knows it says ‘America’. Then Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay politician, asked Gilbert if he would make a flag for the march he was organizing.
Before Gilbert sewed his rainbow flag, the symbol for the gay movement had been the pink triangle. This was a symbol that the Nazis had used to identify prisoners who had been convicted of homosexuality. The idea had been to reclaim the symbol for themselves, but Gilbert saw that it came from a bad place: “a place of murder and holocaust and Hitler, We needed something beautiful, something from us”. Gay communities across the world had often identified themselves by wearing bright colours. Oscar Wilde and his friends had worn green carnations. In Australia, gay men had often identified one another by wearing bright yellow socks. A rainbow suggested diversity, in terms of race, age and gender. Also it reminded him of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who had also travelled from rural Kansas to a new and colourful world.
Gilbert decided the flag needed a suitable birth place, so he did not make it at home, but at San Francisco’s Gay Community Centre. He gathered a team of thirty volunteers, including a friend called Fairy Argyle who was, he said, “the queen of tie-dye”. They used plain cotton fabric and dyed it all themselves using natural dyes. Two flags were made, each sixty feet long and thirty feet wide, so they needed huge barrels to dye the material. Rinsing the fabric was a bit of a problem and what they really needed to do was take if to a laundromat and use the big machines there. But you really weren’t allowed to put dye in the machines in case it spoiled the next person’s washing. So they waited until really late at night when no one else was there. After they were done, they threw Clorox in the machines to get rid of the dye, and just hoped that the next customer’s underwear wouldn’t all come out pink.
They made two flags, one with eight coloured horizontal stripes and one that was like the Stars and Stripes, but with rainbow stripes instead of the red and white. His friend used her tie-dye skills to make the stars, which were arranged in circles. Each of the colours was assigned a particular significance. Hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit. They also picked the place they unveiled their flag carefully. They chose the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco, because they knew that gay rights were important to people all over the world.
Everyone loved their new flag, loads of people asked him to make one for them. Especially after the shocking assassination of Harvey Milk later that year. When the rainbow flag began to be reproduced commercially, it had to loose its pink stripe, because no one made pink flag material. In 1979, it was modified again and reduced to six colours when the design was split in half and hung on either side of the street for that year’s parade.
In 1994, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Gilbert produced a rainbow flag that was a mile long. It was carried through New York and afterwards cut up. Parts of it were sent all over the world and they were carried in Gay Pride marches the following year. By 2003, he was able to restore the hot pink colour to the flag, which had now become a commercially available colour. He made another giant flag, one and a quarter miles long, which was again cut up and sent all over the world. Gilbert is incredibly proud to see his flag has become such an important and internationally recognised symbol for the LGBT community. But it hasn’t made him rich, it seems you can’t patent a flag. You can see a little video about the flag which features an interview with him here.