This Day in History: Gilbert Baker unfurls world's first rainbow flag at a 1978 gay pride march in San Francisco
In 1978, Gilbert Baker was commissioned by the first openly gay politician in the country, Harvey Milk, to create this flag for the LGBTQ+ community
The rainbow flag is synonymous with LGBTQ+ pride and over the three decades since it's been in use, it has become the symbol of hope for the community. We see it flailing proudly outside homes, bars, clubs and even incorporated in fashion, and in the days leading up to Pride Month and beyond, the colors of the rainbow decorate every nook and corner of the city. But how exactly did the polychromatic flag become the official emblem for the queer community? The flag that boasts the #LoveIsLove sentiment has a history just as colorful.
The rainbow flag was designed by 27-year-old Gilbert Baker, a Vietnam war veteran-turned-artist, drag icon and activist in 1978. He had been commissioned by his friend, politician and fellow gay icon, Harvey Milk, to create a flag for the community that would be unveiled at the San Fransisco Pride, that year. It became the universal symbol for the community on this day — June 25, 1978 — and thereafter. Baker had been struck by the idea of making a flag for the gay and lesbian community in 1976. He told the Museum of Modern Art in an exclusive interview in 2015 that America's bicentennial celebrations had a flamboyant display of stars and stripes, which made him realize that there was a cultural need for a 'rallying sign' to represent the LGBTQ+ community. Baker was a drag performer, accustomed to designing his own clothing, and was thus skilled with needle and thread. He then got to work on the soon-to-be epochal symbol.
Back then, the symbol that was in most use for championing the gay rights movement was the pink triangle, an ideogram that was used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals. Evidently, the symbol was marred by a dark and painful past, which Baker was adamant to do away with it. That's how he came to use the rainbow as a motif. He explained the rationale behind choosing the rainbow as his muse in a 2015 interview with CNN. "We needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that," he said. "We're an ancient, wonderful tribe of people. We picked something from nature. We picked something beautiful."
The original flag had eight colors, as opposed to the present flag that only has six, and each color had been assigned a specific denotation. Starting at the top with 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 at the bottom end. Yet, as a flag, the different colors coming together were meant to represent unity, for the LGBTQ+ community comprised of people regardless of their race, age and gender. The rainbow is a natural embodiment of beauty, which allegorizes the beauty in each person regardless of their sexual orientation.
It took the help of close to 30 volunteers, who worked on the flag diligently in the attic of the Gay Community Center based in San Fransisco, for Baker to construct the draft of the now symbolic rainbow flag. The final product was a hand-sewn flag measuring 30 by 60 feet. "When it went up and the wind finally took it out of my hands, it blew my mind," Baker told CNN in 2015. "I saw immediately how everyone around me owned that flag. I thought: It's better than I ever dreamed." The debut was a success with the parade attendees proudly waving the multicolored flag. Later Baker removed two colors from the design to make mass producing more flags easier, forgoing hot pink and turquoise. The demand for these flags saw an uptick with the assassination of Milk on November 2, 1978. A decade later, the popularity for the flag saw a sudden increase when a West Hollywood resident sued his landlord for the right to hang his rainbow flag outside his home.
Over the years the rainbow flag has become innate to the LGBTQ+ community and is only growing in popularity to become a global symbol. On the 25th anniversaries of the Stonewall Riots and the creation of Baker's flag, a mile-long version of the rainbow bunting was created and flown across the city. Baker died in his sleep on March 31, 2017, at the age of 65 due to coronary heart disease, but his legacy lives on in his creation that revolutionized the LGBTQ+ movement and proudly soars in the skies during Pride month and all through the year, worldwide.