The Rainbow Flag Est. 1978.
The first Rainbow Flag was designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker, a San Francisco artist, who created the flag in response to a local activist’s call for the need of a community symbol. (This was before the pink triangle was popularly used as a symbol of pride.) Using the five-striped “Flag of Race” as his inspiration, Baker designed a flag with eight stripes. Baker dyed and sewed the material for the first flag himself — in the true spirit of Betsy Ross. Designed by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978, the design has undergone several revisions to first remove then re-add colors due to widely available fabrics. As of 2008, the most common variant consists of six stripes, with the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. The flag is commonly flown horizontally, with the red stripe on top, as it would be in a natural rainbow.
Gilbert Baker, an openly gay activist born in 1951, grew up in a small Kansas town, and went on to serve in the US army for about two years in 1970. After an honorable discharge, Gilbert taught himself to sew. In 1974, Baker met Harvey Milk, an influential gay leader, who three years later challenged Baker to come up with a symbol of pride for the gay community. The original gay pride flag flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. It has also been suggested that Baker may have been inspired by Judy Garland’s singing “Over the Rainbow” and the Stonewall riots that happened a few days after Garland’s death (she was one of the first gay icons. Another suggestion for how the rainbow flag originated is that at college campuses during the 1960s, some people demonstrated for world peace by carrying a Flag of the Races (also called the Flag of the Human Race) with five horizontal stripes (from top to bottom they were red, white, brown, yellow, and black. Gilbert Baker is said to have gotten the idea for the rainbow flag from this flag] in borrowing it from the Hippie movement of that time largely influenced by pioneering gay activist Allen Ginsberg. The flag originally consisted of eight stripes; Baker assigned specific meaning to each of the colors.
The design may have been influenced by flags with multicolored stripes used by various left-wing causes and organizations in the San Francisco area in the 1960s. The Rainbow Flag originally had eight stripes (from top to bottom):
- hot pink for sex,
- red for life,
- orange for healing,
- yellow for sun,
- green for serenity with nature,
- turquoise for art,
- indigo for harmony, and
- violet for spirit.
Handmade versions of this flag were flown in the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade. Use of the rainbow flag by the gay community began in 1978 when it first appeared in the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. Borrowing symbolism from the hippie movement and black civil rights groups, San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag in response to a need for a symbol that could be used year after year. Baker and thirty volunteers hand-stitched and hand-dyed two huge prototype flags for the parade. The flags had eight stripes, each color representing a component of the community.
Soon the six colors were incorporated into a six-striped version that became popularized and that, became popularized today.
March 31, 2017…. RIP.
A native of Kansas, Gilbert lived in San Francisco from 1970 to 1994, contributing his distinctive designs for countless events. In 1994, he… moved to New York City, where he spent the rest of his life. He remained active as an artist, with his work commemorating gay victims of the Nazi regime recently displayed in San Francisco.
Gilbert generously donated to The GLBT Historical Society one of the sewing machines he used to create the 1978 flags. The original flags no longer exist, but the archives of photographer Crawford Barton in our collection include this color photo showing one of the flags on June 25, 1978. Gilbert also donated one of the 100 hand-dyed reproductions of the flag he made several years ago.
Gilbert’s longtime friend Cleve Jones reported his death this afternoon. We have lost one of the greats of our community. Our thoughts are with his loved ones. Let us lower rainbow flags worldwide to half mast in Gilbert’s memory.