How The Rainbow Flag Came To Be

Last year at this time, the LGBTQ community was in the throes of rejoicing over a historic win for our people.

Today, as Pride Month comes to an end, we wrap a bittersweet moment in queer history. In one palm, the ban of trans persons in the military is being lifted and Stonewall was designated as a national monument. On the other? The weight and devastation of the Orlando tragedy still looms, as we’re constantly reminded with every update on the story that this happened to us and it could happen again.

But: take that step back to last year. Rewind yourself, reliving the mind of the baggage of the now. Something happened that seemed to be forgotten in the mix of hashtag pride stories and marriage equality sweeping the nation in 2015: the Rainbow Flag was acquired by MoMA as a universal design symbol. The taking in of this object was an acknowledgement of our culture in a different way, that our ways of speaking and expressing ourselves are legitimate, real, and important. Placing an artifact of our being into a museum context highlighted this.

The story also gathered buzz around the origin of the flag. Where did it come from? Who made it? What does it mean? While the symbolism has been well covered, the origin seems to be overlooked. The flag was made by San Francisco based artist Gilbert Baker in 1978. Baker created the eight color—Not six!—rainbow flag as a reaction to the 1976 bicentennial, when he was seeing American flags everywhere as a means to celebrate American pride.

He wanted to make something like the American flag but for us. With prior flag making experience—or dabbling in vexillology, the study of flags—Gilbert set out to make something. Remarkably, it was his tie to drag that helped him land on the flag we have now. He explains

I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco. I knew how to sew. I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the Rainbow Flag because up until that we had the pink triangle from the Nazis—it was the symbol that they would use [to denote gay people]. It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag—it’s from the sky!

The creation of the flag was a semi-public event, as Baker didn’t want to make it alone or at home. The flag was hand-dyed and made from organic cotton, coming to be on June 25, 1978, a date chosen as the intentional “birthing.”

While a lot has changed since the time of the flag’s creation, the symbol folds time, uniting the past and present together. Baker explains.

What the rainbow has given our people is a thing that connects us. I can go to another country, and if I see a rainbow flag, I feel like that’s someone who is a kindred spirit or [that it’s] a safe place to go. Its sort of a language, and it’s also proclaiming power. That’s the phenomenal [aspect] of it. I made it in 1978 and I hoped it would be a great symbol but it has transcended all of that—and within short order—because it became so much bigger than me, than where I was producing it, much bigger even that the U.S. Now it’s made all over the world. The beauty of it is the way that it has connected us.

That mission was certainly accomplished and, while we think this flag is something that’s always been, it came from a guy who wanted to bring us all together. He still works with the flag and has even created mile long versions of the symbol. He’s quite the icon himself.

If interested—and with the available purse—Baker still makes his version of the flag. It can be purchased on his website for $3500. If only I had the money, his flag would be in my home. For now? The Gasden Pride Flag, the pseudo-gay pride flag to rise out of Orlando.

Photo via.

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