The Rainbow Pride Flag has been a representative of the LGBTQ community for years now. Every pride parade or pride festival is dotted with numerous rainbow flags, and the same shades and pattern is used on banners, placards, posters and sometimes even dresses.
LGBT events are bright affairs and the rainbow flag perfectly exhibits the colorfulness and vivid diversity of the community and its people. But many people have no idea about the flag’s origin or history.
The flag was originally designed and created by an ex-army man from Kansas – a Gilbert Baker, who taught himself to sew as an option of earning bread after his honorable discharge from the US Army. Baker was challenged by Harvey Milk, an influential gay political leader and LGBT rights activist to come up with a symbol of pride and diversity for the gay community.
It is said that Gilbert Baker got the inspiration of making the flag out of rainbow colored stripes from the Flag of the Races which has five horizontal stripes of red, white, brown, yellow and black, each to represent the skin-color of people around the world.
Thirty volunteers dyed and hand-stitched the first rainbow flag, which flew in June, 1978 in the Gay Freedom Day Parade of San Francisco, of which Harvey Milk was a member of the Board of Supervisors from 1977 till his assassination.
The flag originally comprised of eight stripes. Baker explained the significance of each color on the flag specifically.
After the assassination of Harvey Milk in the same year, the community came under a lot of media attention and the demand for this new flag spiked. Baker contacted the Paramount Flag Company for mass production and together they started selling a seven-color version of it, because of unavailability of hot pink fabric for commercial use.
The flag went further modification in 1979, when vertically striped version of the flag was made to be displayed from the angular double bars of the old-style lampposts. The company and Baker together decided to drop the turquoise stripe too and replace the indigo with Royal Blue, so that the flag can be equally divided on each side of the posts.
This six colored rainbow flag is now internationally used, accepted and recognized as the pride flag. A six-stripe Rainbow Flag flies over Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro – the constituency of Milk and arguably the best known LGBT village in the world. It is used globally in every pride parade, festivals and any event related to the LGBT community.
Baker was once again faced with a challenge when he was requested to recreate a giant flag, once for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 1994, and then in 2003 commemorating the 25th year of the flag itself.
In the first case, volunteers planned and coordinated for months to make a thirty-feet wide six-colored rainbow flag which was carried by over 10,000 people in New York’s Gay Pride celebration in 1994 through the streets of Manhattan. The Guinness Book of World Records confirmed it as the world’s largest flag ever.
In the second incidence, Baker was asked to produce a giant flag for the Key West Pride Festival of 2004, but this time the original eight colors were used to make a 2 kilometer long flag measured across Key West, Florida from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf Coast Sea. It was named Sea to Sea Rainbow Flag.
“We lost two of the original colours, pink and turquoise. It’s time, however, to restore the original design. First, it is simply more beautiful and more authentic. Moreover, when we lost the pink, we lost the symbol for our sexual liberation. The missing turquoise honours Native Americans and the magic of life. Both colours are needed to embrace our history.”
After both the events, the flags were cut into portions and distributed among different nations and participating activist leaders to represent the community elsewhere.
We have seen various adaptations and versions of the basic rainbow flag being used in many places.
The Pride Family Flag is a variation of the commonly used pride flag featuring the traditional six colors but adds the elements of Heart & Home in the canton of the flag. It was created by Steven Tesney and Grant Caplan of Houston, Texas. They were inspired to create the flag by the birth of their adopted daughter in 2005. The flag made its first appearance in 2007 in Houston Pride Parade.
Some other varieties include the Greek letter lambda in white in the middle of the flag and a pink triangle or black triangle in the upper left corner. They are significant symbols of the LGBT community. Other colors have been also added to the flag, such as the black stripe representing the members lost to AIDS. In many cases, the country’s national flag has been demonstrated in the rainbow shades to show support and solidarity.
After Gilbert Baker passed away in March this year, the world famous advertising company Ogilvy and Mather came up with a font honoring him and his contribution to the LGBT community, and named the font after him.
Over the years the flag has come up in the news for various reasons – some positive and some negative as well.
In June, 2004 LGBT activists sailed to Australia’s uninhabited Coral Sea Islands Territory and in protest of the government’s denial to same-sex marriages rights, they hailed the rainbow flag there proclaiming the territory independent of Australia, calling it the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands. The rainbow flag is the official flag of the kingdom.
In June 2015, The Museum of Modern Art of New York gave the rainbow flag a place in its design collection.
In June, 2017, Philadelphia adopted another revised version of the flag, adding black and brown stripes to the top to highlight black and brown LGBTQ members within the city’s community. Though a step taken keeping in mind a greater good and include the people of color in the movement, it step has been subject to controversies. Many activists and common people seem to think of this as unnecessarily divisive, while many people with white skin went on to demand a white stripe symbolizing their skin color as well.
Most recently, a group of six men were arrested in Egypt during a music concert for unfurling a rainbow flag. The lead vocalist of the band, Mashrou’ Leila is one of the very few openly gay artists of the country and hence extremely controversial.
Previously around 30 or more were also brought under arrest and trial for showing support for the LGBT community with rainbow flags.