The original rainbow 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:
- hot pink: sexuality
- red: life
- orange: healing
- yellow: sunlight
- green: nature
- turquoise: magic
- indigo: serenity
- violet: spirit
After Harvey Milk’s assassination on November 27, 1978, demand for the flag went up sharply. But since Gilbert had hand-dyed his flag and hot pink fabric wasn’t available as a commercially available 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. Another version of the story had it that it was cheaper to produce a six-stripe flag because flag makers could sew two stripes together, and then sew together three two-stripe blocks. Whatever the explanation, the turquoise stripe was dropped, the indigo was changed to royal blue, and the rainbow flag became the familiar six-stripe flag we’ve come to know ever since.
The 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.
In 2007, 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 Vietnam. 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.”
What does the rainbow flag symbol mean today? Many will tell you that they remember when they were still coming out how reassuring it was to see it and know that it marked a place of safety and refuge. And even now, when you go to a strange town and see a small sticker on a doorway or a car’s bumper, you know that you’re among friends.