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History of the Gay Pride / Rainbow Flag

Last modified: 2013-12-09 by antónio martins
Keywords: rainbow flag | gay pride | baker (gilbert) | steve (tyson) | international congress of flag makers | flag of the race | stripes: 8 | stripes: 7 | stripes: 6 | stripes: 5 |
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Eight striped version

Rainbow flag
image by António Martins, 20 Apr 1999

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 the 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.
Christopher Pinette, 12 Jun 1996

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.
Steve Kramer, 24 April 1998

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.
Marcus Schmöger, 26 Aug 2001,
quoting from this page


Seven striped version

Rainbow flag
image by António Martins, 20 Apr 1999

After the November 1978 assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and the subsequent lenient sentence given to their killer, former Supervisor Dan White, the Rainbow Flag began to be used in San Francisco as a general symbol of the gay community. San Francisco-based Paramount Flag Co. began selling seven-striped (top to bottom: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) flags from its Polk Street retail store, which was located in a large gay neighborhood. These flags were surplus stock which had originally been made for the International Order of Rainbow for Girls, a Masonic organization for young women. When Baker approached Paramount to make flags for the 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade, Paramount informed Baker that fabric for hot pink was not available for mass production, and Baker dropped the hot pink stripe.
Steve Kramer, 24 April 1998

The reality was that the gay community at this time (1978-1979) used almost any flag with a rainbow of stripes, including the Cooperativist flags, Buddhist flags, Sufi flags, Tibetan flags… in short, anything — even vertically striped flags.
Jim Ferrigan, 10 Feb 2003

During the early days of the use of the rainbow as a symbol of gay pride (as opposed to gay liberation, which used the pink triangle on various colored fields) customers bought almost anything striped. At the Paramount Flag Co, the need for striped flags became acute and until the design was standardized we sold a wide variety of flags.
Jim Ferrigan, 10 Feb 2003


Current version

Rainbow flag
image by António Martins, 20 Apr 1999

Baker also asked Paramount to make vertical banners that would be split and displayed from the angular double bars of the old-style lamp posts on Market Street. Baker and Paramount’s vice president Ken Hughes agreed to drop the hot pink and turquoise stripes and replace the indigo stripe with royal blue — resulting in three stripes on one side of the lamp post and three on the other.
Steve Kramer, 24 April 1998

Soon the six colors were incorporated into a six-striped version that became popularized and that, today, is recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers.
Christopher Pinette, 12 Jun 1996

The article at sfWeekly.COM says that «Old Glory Red was replaced with Canadian Red, and Emerald Green simply became Bright Green.»
António Martins, 17 Jun 2000


An alternative origin?

Regarding the gay pride rainbow flag there was a good article in the Flag Bulletin [tfb] some years ago that gave a long history of rainbow flags and their use as a symbol of hope for difficult causes. At the NAVA conference in Sacramento, Steve Tyson, a former employee of the former flag company, Paramount Flag Co., in San Francisco presented a lecture on the origins of this particular flag. Apparently, he had taken remnants, scraps of flag material and gone to the production department to make decorative flags to use up the scrap material. He showed several variations. The horizontal stripes (with white in the center) become popular. The company chose to produce it (without the white stripe) and from there it was adopted as a gay pride flag. I am not familiar with the actual procedure of the adoption by the gay community although I think Mr. Tyson did make some reference to that.
Herold Lee, 08 Jan 1998


The “International Congress of Flag Makers”?

There is no “International Congress of Flag Makers” that “recognizes” flags. This is a suppositious organization. It has never existed. We see it often in association with the Rainbow Flag in San Francisco. What this is a contraction of two names, the English version of FIAV, or the International Association of Vexillological Associations, and Flag Congress. The term Flag Congress was the meeting name of the joint meetings FIAV XII and NAVA XXI, held in San Francisco, CA in the Summer of 1987. The largest such meeting ever held, hosting over 150 vexillologists from 16 nations. The “International Congress of Flag Makers” was inadvertently created by Gilbert Baker when he was interviewed by the representatives of the Gay press in San Francisco, during Flag Congress. During that interview Mr. Baker confused the organization FIAV and the event Flag Congress. The result was this supposed organization. By "recognition" he was in fact referring to the paper I presented at Flag Congress entitled “The Evolution and Adoption of the Rainbow Flag in San Francisco”, in which the full details of the Rainbow Flag are chronicled. It was published as [fer89].
James Ferrigan, 25 Mar 1999


Striped flag of the race?

What’s this “five-striped Flag of the Race”, which supposedly inspired the gay rainbow flag?… The only such flag I know, la bandera de la raza, shows three purple crosses and a sun — no stripes at all…
António Martins, 20 Apr 1999


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