When I was in seventh grade, I was obsessed with rainbows. I had no idea they were associated with the LGBTQ community until the day I was wearing my favorite rainbow baby tee (RIP) and some girl waltzed up to me and announced, "Rainbows are gay!"
I felt shamed and confused. In the end, it would turn out that I am bisexual, but at the time, I hadn't even begun to consider my sexuality and I just really loved that shirt. I also remember feeling frustrated that rainbows were associated with any sexuality — I just wanted to wear my Contempo Casuals special in peace. Obviously, I feel differently today. I still love rainbows, and I love even more that rainbows are a symbol of LGBTQ pride. But — why? When and how did it start?
According to the History Channel, the first rainbow flag was made by Gilbert Baker in 1978, and commissioned by Harvey Milk, for San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade. Back then, the common visual association for the LGBTQ community was the pink triangle, a symbol the Nazis had used to call people out for their sexuality. Baker instead created the rainbow flag to represent diversity and harmony.
Baker knew the symbol for pride had to be the rainbow. “Until we had a flag, the symbol for our movement was the pink triangle, which was put on us by Hitler and the Nazis,” Baker told Refinery29 in 2015, two years before he passed away. “The triangle came from a very negative, terrible place. We needed something that expressed our beauty, our soul, our love — that came from us and wasn’t put on us.”
"I remember in 1980 or 1981, putting a rainbow flag on my dorm room door, and only the queers understood what I was doing. By ’85 or ’86, everyone knew."
There is some debate as to whether Gilbert really was the first person to come up with the idea of a rainbow flag to express queerness. “Gilbert is the one who has been credited with it,” Jonathan David Katz, an American activist, art historian, educator, writer, and expert on queer history, tells Bustle. “He claimed it. He was insistent that it was his.”
What’s more, Gilbert didn’t get any direct financial gain out of it — he actually fought to keep it free for public use. “[But there are some] "who say Gilbert copied it from others,” says Katz, who's an associate professor of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Buffalo. “I am studiously agnostic here.”
One thing is for sure: The flag hails from San Francisco and it quickly became the major symbol for LGBTQ culture, Katz says. “I remember in 1980 or 1981, putting a rainbow flag on my dorm room door, and only the queers understood what I was doing. By ’85 or ’86, everyone knew.”
The OG rainbow flag was dyed and sewn by hand, and featured hot pink at the top and two shades of blue, instead of just one. With the help of his roommate, gay rights activist Cleve Jones, and others, he also designed and created an American flag with rainbow stripes instead of the usual red, white and blue, and both flew over the pride parade.
Hot pink represented sexuality; red was for life; orange was for healing; yellow was for sunlight; green was for nature; blue was for art; indigo was for harmony or serenity; and violet was for the human spirit. The flag’s first evolution was when it lost its pink stripe, for purely practical reasons: “The hot pink stripe was dropped because when [Gilbert] went to mass produce the flags, the material wasn't available,” Erica Smith, a queer sexuality educator based in Philadelphia who specializes in LGBTQ issues, tells Bustle. The flag later dropped the indigo and turquoise stripes for a parade in protest of Harvey Milk’s assassination and replaced the with a single strip of royal blue, so it would have even colors on both sides of a parade lined with the colors of the flag.
In 2017, Philadelphia unveiled an updated pride flag, adding brown and black atop the traditional six-color spectrum to represent diversity and inclusivity for all.
“Historically, there has been a racial divide in the LGBTQ+ community, and queers of color have not always been welcome in white queer spaces,” Smith says. “Queers of color deal with multiple marginalizations, and our community here in Philadelphia has a history of racism in queer spaces, most notably businesses and bars.”
While Smith says the update caused controversy initially — especially among white gay men — it has proven to be an important symbol.
The classic flag has not been without its naysayers over the years. “The particular power and strength of the rainbow was its refusal of any kind of easy or simple binary,” Katz says. “What makes the rainbow work is its presumption of all-inclusiveness.” But it’s easy to forget that the rainbow flag was originally meant to include everyone. “That’s often lost in all of this,” Katz says. The flag can become “this emblem of gay versus straight,” which he says misses the point.
"What needs to be constantly brought forward as the point of the rainbow flag was that we were all together — all colors, types, and sexualities were represented."
“What needs to be constantly brought forward as the point of the rainbow flag was that we were all together — all colors, types, and sexualities were represented,” Katz says. “Gilbert’s initial thinking of the rainbow flag was that it would serve as an absolute marker of inclusiveness.” But 40 years from its debut, perhaps sometimes those colors can get a little watered down, their initial intent forgotten.
“I absolutely think the black and brown stripes are important,” Smith says. “Everyone deserves to feel welcome in the queer community and in queer spaces and if it takes a signifier that specifically notes black and brown people, then it's necessary and important. I think they should be added to pride flags in any other areas where black and brown folks experience marginalization within queer communities and the community wants to step up and address it.”
No matter the iteration of rainbow flag — with hot pink or without, with brown and black stripes or without — many people in the LGBTQ community see the flag as vital. “I see the rainbow flag as a welcome sign,” LGBTQ expert Kryss Shane tells Bustle. “I know that the rainbow flag in public spaces indicates acceptance and an invitation for LGBT+ and all people to come in and be themselves.”
But Shane echoes Smith, and challenges us all to do better. “LGBT+ people of color, LGBT+ people with disabilities, and LGBT+ immigrants are often not welcomed or included as much as LGBT+ classically attractive people of majority,” Shane says. "I do hope that anyone and anywhere using a rainbow flag to welcome folks in will also be mindful to welcome everyone in, not just the version of LGBT+ people that is most commonly seen in the media.”
The flag has evolved to be a marker, however small, of safety. “I wear rainbow often,” Shane says.
“There are definitely times when the rainbow flag is important to me and I sport it,” Smith says. “Most notably, I work with queer youth in medical and juvenile detention settings, and the quickest way I can signal to youth that I'm a safe person to be out to is by wearing a rainbow lanyard, button, sticker, or pin.”
Today, there’s a whole rainbow of queer pride flags. Smith says she uses the trans flag colors (pink, blue and white, symbolizing the transition and fluidity between genders) to denote her queerness and allow others to feel safe to express themselves around her. And she keeps her Philly roots close to her heart. “I wear a small button on my purse that is the Philly pride flag with black and brown stripes,” she says.
The flag and its colors have come to claim their places in art history. “There are artists who have taken Jasper John’s American flag and recreated it as a rainbow,” Katz says, referencing the artist Jonathan Horowitz, who makes “not just rainbow flags, but they’re actually made with glitter,” claiming queer visual cues on two levels. “His work is decidedly political,” Katz says.
But is a rainbow ever really just a rainbow? In art, Katz says no: “I would say in this regard, the train has left the station.” Even 15 years ago, he said that might not have been the case, but “the key determination here is how it’s deployed.”
In 2019, the flag has come to signify much more than one’s own sexuality — it has come to represent a way of life, and can also be a source of anxiety for those who aren’t ready to come out yet. It seems that if one thing is for certain about the flag, it is that it is ever changing, both literally and in the eyes of the beholder.
“Growing up, it felt more like a quiet connection because I was afraid to be out,” Angelic, 29, tells Bustle. When she was younger, she realized when she was about six that the rainbow flag was associated with queerness, because a neighbor who identified as gay had a flag outside of his house.
As she has embraced her sexuality, her link to the flag has grown. “Today I feel a much stronger connection with the flag,” Angelic says. “Whether it’s personal pride I feel, or I’m just happy to see it in a storefront, it’s always a welcome sign.”
Tyler, 27, had a similar experience. “[The pride flag] was definitely a little scary to me in my younger years,” she tells Bustle. "I avoided associations with it because I was very much closeted, although openly an ally, and jealous of the people who wore it proudly.”
When she was about 15 years old, she realized her queerness, and had a hard time accepting it, she says. “I was afraid to wear anything with the rainbow flag because it begged a question I wasn't ready to answer to anyone's face yet.” Back then, if it had a rainbow it was off-limits.
“I definitely avoided wearing anything that signaled too strongly that I was gay, like rainbow-printed t-shirts with slogans, ribbons, even the button pins,” Tyler says. Though she went a high school that was LGBTQ-friendly, she still wasn’t ready to align herself with rainbows. “There was a burden associated with the rainbow flag,” she says. “Wearing this meant that I had to look everyone in the eye and lie or tell them the absolute truth. Both of those options were terrifying and really heavy for a 15-year-old kid to grapple with.”
These days, rainbows can be a quick shorthand to identify herself as queer as she moves through the world. “Femme invisibility is a real thing in the dating world, so it was really important for me to add an overtly gay rainbow detail to my outfits when I was dressing femme,” Tyler says. Smith does the same thing to indicate she's queer in a small way.
The rainbow flag can represent a turning point, a small or great act of defiance and self-identification that can last a lifetime. “I came out to my mom and went to my first pride parade when I was 23,” Tyler says. “Carrying the rainbow flag in public was my first initiation into a bigger community and once it started, I continued to wear rainbow at queer events.”
Around the world, those six colors together have become an international symbol of unity. “When I travel to a new city or country, if I see the flag flying I automatically think, ‘My people,’ and am really happy to see it,” Smith says. The same is true for Tyler. “My partner and I look for the rainbow flag when we travel to new places,” she says. "The rainbow flag is now a way of knowing where my queerness is welcome and safe in unfamiliar environments.”
Chloe, 23, finds the international element of the flag striking. “I think that the flag has a certain weight and meaning in communities worldwide,” she tells Bustle. “It has meaning that speaks when words fail us.”
Katz points out that the flag means something different in this country than it does in some others. "[In the U.S.] banks can use it and not worry about pushback from the audience,” Katz says. But in some nations, it can send you to jail.
Though it may just be a formation of colors, the flag can be an affirmation of oneself and others. “Over the years, the rainbow flag was not only a symbol that meant acceptance for me,” Chloe says. “It was and still stands as a symbolic gateway that can be utilized as a platform.”
Above all, the rainbow represents what Baker first envisioned back in 1978: togetherness. “It provides us, and others, a sense of community and peace … regardless of who you are and what you come from,” Chloe says. And there is nothing more valuable than that.