Today In History: The Rainbow Flag

Jim Burroway

June 25th, 2008

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the debut of the Rainbow Gay Pride flag. The original flag, hand-dyed by Gilbert Baker, first flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade on June 25, 1978. The original 1978 flag consisted of eight stripes, with each stripe assigned a specific meaning. From top to bottom, the stripes were:

  • Original Flaghot pink: sexuality
  • red: life
  • orange: healing
  • yellow: sunlight
  • green: nature
  • turquoise: magic
  • blue: serenity
  • violet: spirit

After Harvey Milk’s assassination on November 27, 1978, demand for the flag went up sharply. But since hot pink fabric wasn’t available as a stock color, the top stripe was removed and the flag became a seven stripe flag. Then, the story goes, organizers planned to hang rainbow flags vertically from lamp posts for San Francisco’s 1979 pride celebration and they noticed that the lamp post would obscure the middle stripe. So the turquoise stripe was dropped and the rainbow flag has remained a six-stripe flag ever since.

Rainbow FlagThe rainbow flag is now a world-wide symbol for LGBT communities everywhere, and it has come to mean many things to many different people. For some, it’s a gesture of visibility, a way of saying we’re here. For others, its a reminder of all that we’ve gone through as a community. And some in the LGBT community consider it a silly expression of separatism and self-segregation from society. Last October, Gilbert Baker penned an essay to explain what the flag meant to him. He describes growing up gay in Middle America and being harassed while serving in Viet Nam. He was sent stateside to work as a nurse in San Francisco, where he met Harvey Milk:

Stationed in San Francisco as a nurse, I cared for the wounded. I also met my closet [sic] friend and mentor, Harvey Milk. Harvey had an aggressive charm that attracted the wicked and the wise. His charisma and fearlessness are at the heart of all I hold dear.

Harvey was a pioneer, a trailblazer, and with the community by his side, he became a San Francisco Supervisor. One day he said to me that we needed a logo, a symbol. We needed a positive image that could unite us. I sewed my own dresses, so why not a flag? At Harvey’s behest, I went about creating our Rainbow Flag. I had never felt so empowered, so free.

My liberation came at a painful cost. In the ultimate act of anti-gay violence, Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated. The bullets were meant for Harvey, to silence him, and, by extension, every one of us. Uniting a community cost him his life.

I remember when I was still coming out how important it was for me to see it and know that it marked a place of safety and refuge. And even now, when I go to a strange town and I see a small sticker on a doorway or a car’s bumper, I know that I’m among friends.

Fiona

June 25th, 2008

Happy Flag Day!

Jerry Sloan

June 27th, 2008

In addition to the fact the hot pink fabric was not available and the flagpole obscuring the turquoise, I remember visiting the Paramount Flag Company on Polk Street and talking to the owners about the flag and they told me there was a much more practical reason for the 6 stripe flag and that was the fact that the sewing machines they had could only sew three stripes together at a time and then the two sections would be sown together.

So in reality it was a matter of labor costs that gave us the 6 stripe Rainbow Flag.

It was also the labor costs that discouraged the addition of the Lambda to the flag as was urged many years ago by Christopher Street West and adopted by the Gay Pride Coordinators Association.

[Note: This comment was originally written on June 25, but got caught in our spam filter. I have republished it and changed the date in order to increase its prominence. — Jim B.]

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