How the Rainbow Flag Became a Universal Symbol of Gay Rights
It was 1978, and San Francisco’s gay community was on the hunt for a symbol that represented their fight for equal rights. So Gilbert Baker, a 27-year-old artist and drag queen, began brainstorming. He felt his people needed an icon that would simultaneously communicate beauty, diversity, and power. It also had to be easily replicable. Then it hit him.
Armed with sewing skills he had honed while assembling costumes for his lady alter ego “Busty Ross,” Baker pieced together the world’s first rainbow flag. It had eight brilliantly saturated stripes—pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for peace, and purple for spirit—that could be flown proudly in the air.
Before long, it would become the most prominent symbol of the international gay rights movement.
This past week, Baker died at the age of 65 at his home in New York City. And while his death was premature, he lived long enough to see the rainbow flag proliferate across the globe as a rallying cry for equal rights—and even enter into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, where it’s been lauded as a crowning example of effective social design.
At the urging of Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, and Michelle Fisher, the department’s curatorial assistant, the museum purchased one of Baker’s flags in 2015. To some, the acquisition was an anomaly for a major museum, where
But Antonelli and Fisher believe the flag’s accessibility—and ubiquity, in some areas of the world—are precisely what make it an influential and historic cultural object. “Baker wanted everyone to have it and to benefit from it,” says Antonelli of the flag. “And from this generosity was born a design success,” continues Fisher.
Indeed when Baker introduced the rainbow flag in 1978, he didn’t trademark it, as many designers and corporations do with logos and brand identities. Instead of restricting its use, he wanted his community to brandish the flag freely, whether at protests or flapping behind cars, bikes, or out of apartment-building windows.
At the time, Harvey Milk—then a city supervisor for San Francisco and California’s first openly gay politician—was encouraging the gay community to come out, and Barker hoped the flag would amplify his friend’s call. “A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility, or saying, ‘This is who I am!,’” said Baker in a 2015 interview with Fisher.
The flag’s bold color scheme and simple layout also served to spread the symbol and its message. Both were easily replicable, whether with strips of colored fabric or a simple marker or paint pack. And it became even simpler several years later, when Baker reduced the flag from eight to six colors.
In the 1970s and early ’80s, pink and turquoise fabrics were pricey, as was eight-color photo printing. Baker knew that the accurate representation of the flag in photographs was essential to its proliferation, and he wanted to ensure that it was easy and inexpensive to recreate.
And even with fewer colors, the flag’s impassioned message of diversity remained clear and strong. The multihued stack of stripes, according to LGBTQ+ scholar Mary Bernstein, “is a powerful and flexible symbol which enables it to represent the movement as a whole, despite the multiplicity of identities and strategy and goal preferences held by movement members.”
Baker and his friends flew the flag for the first time on June 25, 1978, in San Francisco’s United Nations plaza. “We picked the birthplace very carefully,” he remembered. “Even in those days, my vision and the vision of so many of us was that this was a global struggle and a global human rights issue.”
Later that year, rainbow flags flew at gay pride parades in San Francisco—and soon began to pop up at similar protests around the country, and later, the world.
Today, per Baker’s hopes, it is an international symbol for the LGBTQ+ community and its continued fight for equality. It has appeared everywhere from Russia, where same sex marriage is illegal, to Uganda, where homosexuality itself is illegal.
But while Baker’s rainbow flag has traveled far and wide, he acknowledged that it still has work to do. “We are still dealing with huge, massive resistance, even here in our own country, even here in our own city, even in our own families,” he said in 2015.
The reality rings especially true now, in Baker’s home country of the United States, as LGBTQ+ rights are under threat from the Republican administration. And in step, Baker’s rainbow flag again becomes a source of hope and strength, and a crucial tool to rally and organize those who want to fight back.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.