These days, the rainbow flag is a symbol for the LGBTQ community and thousands of people march with the flag through streets all over the world during Pride month. But the flag has a decades long history, as today happens to be the rainbow flag’s 40th anniversary. June 25th, 1978 was the first time the flag made an appearance! It flew over San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade after a group of activists in the area worked towards creating a new symbol for the community.
Gilbert Baker is often credited for creating the flag and he did play a huge role in how the flag looks and what it represents. But he also had a team and community that helped him. Harvey Milk and Artie Bressan Jr both encouraged him to create another symbol for the LGBTQ community to celebrate what the community was becoming. During that time, the pink triangle had been reclaimed but was steeped in the history of Nazi Germany using it to identify gay men in concentration camps during the late 1930s and early 1940s. (Many gay men were imprisoned, forced to work, and killed along side many Jewish people and others during the Holocaust.)
Lynn Segarblom and James McNamara both played an instrumental role in the actual creation of the first flags, as they both helped to dye and sew the large flags. There has been some controversy lately over who came up with the idea for the flag, as Segarblom says the design and the actual creation was a collaborative process while the estate of Gilbert Baker challenges the notion that Baker wasn’t the only one to come up with the idea. The estate did say that there were others, including Segarblom, who made the first flags with Baker but he was the one who initially thought of it.
There is a lot of meaning that goes into the rainbow flag, as Baker said it was to represent all the different folks that also make up the community. Plus, each color represents something: red means life, orange means healing, yellow means sunlight, green means nature, blue means serenity, and lilac means spirit. The first flags had two more colors but they were eliminated on later flags for practical production reasons. Baker eventually worked at the Paramount Flag Co. in San Francisco and he was able to convince the company to produce the flag on a larger scale.
During the first couple years of its existence, the flag was popular in San Francisco but over the decades, it started showing up in other parts of the world as a symbol for the LGBTQ community. In 1994, for example, Baker helped to create a mile long rainbow flag in New York City to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots. And in 2003, the flag celebrated 25 years with a 1.25 mile flag that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Florida Strait in Key West. The MoMA even acquired the flag in 2015 as a part of its design collection.
Gilbert Baker was a long time antiwar, gay rights,and AIDS activist. He died in March of 2017 at the age of 65.