The Origin of The Rainbow Flag

National Geographic looks back at the iconic rainbow symbol, the freedom it means to those who fly it and the significance it holds today.

You’ve seen it around, hanging from windows, waved proudly in the air or pinned to lapels, accompanied by the motto #loveislove, the rainbow is the universal symbol for the LGBQTI community.

The beautiful, inclusive symbol of love and freedom is used all over the world, but who first introduced the rainbow as a symbol for LGBQTI pride and for that matter, who was responsible for making the first flag?

The first rainbow flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. Baker, an artist, designer, drag performer and Vietnam War veteran was commissioned by the famous and unforgettable Harvey Milk who saw the need for a rallying symbol ahead of San Francisco’s next pride parade. Baker, who had been inspired by America’s patriotism and the constant waving of stars and stripes felt compelled to find a symbol as meaningful and inclusive for the gay and lesbian community.

Image: Harvey Milk, at the city's annual gay freedom parade in 1978, the year he was killed. Associated Press, National Geographic

During and before the 1970s the gay community was defined by a pink triangle, a symbol initially used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals during world war two. It was a dark and solemn symbol; one Baker was determined to shatter.

“Even though the pink triangle was and still is a powerful symbol, it was very much forced upon us.”- Gilbert Baker

The flag was all-inclusive and symbol of togetherness and community. As Baker explains:

"Our sexuality is of all colours. We are all the genders, races, and ages.” – Gilbert Baker

Baker’s original flag was made up of eight different colours, each colour having a different meaning. Hot pink at the top of the flag was for sex, red was a symbol for life, orange meant healing, yellow was a symbol for sunlight, green represented nature, turquoise represented art, indigo was for harmony and at the bottom, indigo for spirit.

Baker’s design was first waved at San Francisco’s gay freedom Day Parade on June 25th, 1978. The flag was patented with only two changes made, the turquoise and hot pink were replaced with blue. 

When Harvey Milk was assassinated on November 27th, 1978 demand for the new flag increased.

Since its creation in the late 70s’ the flag is now known globally as a symbol for the LGBQTI community. Baker died earlier this year, but the love and optimism he was synonymous with lives on in the flag and hearts of the LGBQTI community.

And besides, isn’t the sky a lot prettier when there’s a rainbow in it?

“A true Flag is not something you can really design. A true flag is torn from the soul of the people. A flag is something that everyone owns, and that’s why they work. The rainbow flag is like other flags in that sense: it belongs to the people” –Gilbert Baker.

Lead Image: Rainbow Flag, National Geographic.

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