The rainbow flag has been an iconic symbol for the gay-rights movement, and now the LGBTQ community, for going on four decaes now. And for all intents and purposes, it has always been part of the gay rights movement as an original work, though even the original maker of the flag may admit that it was a variation of another rainbow-like flag that was prominent in the 1960s Hippie movement.
But the rainbow flag as it has been known in the gay community has always been part of the movement and hasn’t varied much, except when certain colors of fabric were not available (or so it’s said).
While the rainbow flag has always been part of the gay-rights movement since its original use in the late 1970s, how did it become the predominant symbol of the movement?
It started with an openly gay artist in San Francisco named Gilbert Baker, and the San Francisco City Council member, Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay elected official and was a staunch gay-rights activist.
The story goes that Baker met Milk in 1974, while Milk was an influential gay-rights advocate in the Bay Area, and the two began a friendship. In 1977, as Milk was ascending in state and national prominence with his dabbing in local politics, Milk asked Baker to come up with a symbol of gay rights that could be included in the upcoming Gay Rights Parade that was going through the streets of San Francisco the following year.
Baker , in looking for inspiration, was aid to have been partially inspired by Judy Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” (Garland was reportedly one of the first gay heroines), and was partially inspired by a rainbow-themed flag of the Hippie movement of the 1960s, which featured five horizontal stripes representing the human races (red, white, brown, yellow, black).
From those two motivations, Baker came up with a rainbow flag with eight horizontal stripes to serve as the symbol for gay pride. Baker even gave all eight stripes specific meanings:
- Bright pink: Sex
- Red: Life
- Orange: Healing
- Yellow: Sunlight
- Green: Nature
- Turquoise: Magic or Art
- Indigo: Serenity
- Violet: Spirit
The rainbow flag gained widespread popularity following Milk’s assassination in 1978, but the flag went through a couple of modifications. As demand for the rainbow flag surged, the flag company which made the flags found very low supply of bright-pink fabric, so the company dropped the top stripe and sold a seven-striped rainbow flag.
Then in 1979, the flag was modified again, as the turquoise stripe was dropped, resulting in a six-stripe flag – mainly because the turquoise stripe was always obscured when the flags were hung from street lamps along Market Street in San Francisco.
The eight-striped flag celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2003, and a movement tried to establish the original flag as the symbol of the wider LGBT community. However, the six-striped design has remained the choice of the general community, while the eight-stripe version is still used in some parts to represent gay pride and the gay and lesbian community specifically.