July 4, 2020
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The history of the Rainbow Flag

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
January 24, 2020

Sonoma County Pride is a non-profit organization serving Sonoma County’s LGBTQ community, friends, and family. Perhaps most visible within the local community during the annual Pride Parade during June’s Pride Month activities. The 32nd annual parade was held in the vicinity of Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, CA. last year. Along the parade route, on the floats, and carried by parade participants or waved and worn by spectators you could see the rainbow flag. So, let’s explore the history of this iconic symbol of LGBTQ Pride. 

Harvey Milk was California’s first openly gay official when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He saw a need for a rallying symbol before San Francisco’s next pride parade so in 1978 he commissioned Gilbert Baker to create that symbol. Baker was a Vietnam War veteran, artist, and drag performer living in San Francisco after his discharge from the Army. Inspired by patriotic American’s constantly waving and displaying of the “Stars and Stripes,” he wanted to design a symbol as meaningful and inclusive for the gay and lesbian community. The result was the rainbow flag.

The original flag was made up of eight different colors. Baker was quoted as saying the reason he chose a rainbow symbol was because “Our sexuality is of all colors. We are all the genders, races, and ages.” Each color had a different meaning. On top was Hot Pink standing for sex then red symbolizing life. Orange was next for healing then yellow for sunlight. Green was said to represent nature and turquoise art. The last two colors of the original design were indigo for harmony and at the bottom was violet for spirit. This was the flag first waved at the Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco on June 25th, 1978.

Baker refused to trademark his design stating it was a symbol for the LGBT community. The flag as a symbol of this community increased in demand after Harvey Milk was assassinated in November 1978. The original design has been modified since its debut due to manufacturing and cost concerns. For example, the hot pink and turquoise colors were replaced with blue (or Cyan). The most common flag now consists of six stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Typically flown horizontally with the red stripe on top the colors are in order of a natural rainbow.

While the original use of this flag came out of San Francisco, the flag and its variations are now in worldwide use. Its popularity also has influenced the creation and adoption of a wide variety of multi-color, multi-striped flags that identify specific sub-communities within the LGBTQ+ community such as the transgender, pansexual, and bisexual pride flags. One recent variation is the Philadelphia Pride Flag which added a black stripe at the top and a brown strip at the bottom of the six-striped rainbow flag to represent people of color within the community. It was first flown in Philadelphia during their 2017 pride events. Whether that flag becomes more widespread or will replace the more traditional rainbow flag is not yet determined. So far it appears the Rainbow Flag remains the favorite and most iconic symbol to represent the diversity within the LGBTQ+ community. So, if you intend to participate in this year’s Pride activities in Sonoma County, make sure to have your rainbow paraphernalia ready!