Whether it’s an emoji in a Twitter bio, a poster hung up in a local shop window, or vibrantly facepainted on Pride parade goers, the rainbow flag is an instantly recognizable symbol of queer culture. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Not long ago, the pink triangle was actually the most identifiable symbol of the queer movement. Though innocent-looking enough, it represented the dark history of queer rights. Adolph Hitler conceived the pink triangle as a way to mark gay prisoners within concentration camps, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that reclaimed the symbol as one of liberation.
Then, in early 1978, political activist, designer, and drag queen Gilbert Baker was a screening of Citizen Kane at leaving the Strand Theater accompanied by friends and fellow Artie Bressan, Jr. and Clive Jones. As they looked at the flags flying on the various government buildings around the Civic Center, Bressan pressed Baker to come up with a new symbol for the gay flag. This wasn’t the first time Baker had been urged to do so — both Bressan and Harvey Milk, one of the first openly elected gay officials in the US, had encouraged him to create one that represented “the dawn of a new gay consciousness and freedom,” as Bressan put it.
Following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the ’70s marked a time of upheaval for gay people battling for equal rights. This was a revolutionary time and it deserved a new symbol to mark it as such. “I thought a gay nation should have a flag too, to proclaim its own idea of power,” Baker wrote in his memoir, “Rainbow Warrior.”
Later that week at the Winterland Ballroom, as Baker and Jones were dancing, the idea for the flag came to him. He looked around the ballroom and saw how the myriad of groups looked like a whirl of color and light — like a rainbow. He designed the rainbow flag for the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Celebration, and today the rainbow flag remains the most recognizable symbol for the LGTBQ+ pride community.
With efforts to be more inclusive and acknowledge intersectionality, progressive flags are beginning to include black and brown lines to support Black Lives Matter, as well as the trans flag colors blue, pink, and white. But as the fight continues and more sexual and gender identities are becoming recognized, how does the rainbow flag fit into the modern LGTBQ+ landscape? Is the color story complete, or something still missing?
“There’s such an interesting relationship between queerness and nationalism — as if we’re supposed to have an allegiance to it like an American flag or like a nation’s flag,” says gender educator and consultant Matisse DuPont. “I get that it’s the symbol people chose in the ’70s, and okay, we’re modifying it. But it’s more that it’s convenient because people know what it means versus being this thing I’m madly in love with.”
Ironically, Baker had also originally considered flag-waving and patriotism of all kinds to be a dangerous joke. He felt they were often nationalistic, territorial, iconic propaganda — all things people were question in the ’70s.
But something about the United States Bicentennial changed his mind. The celebration put a massive focus on the American flag. It was everywhere: pop art, fine art, bad advertising, even little souvenirs. Somewhere in the midst of the commotion surrounding the Bicentennial, Baker realized something about the depth of power in a flag.
“I discovered their transcendent, transformational quality. I thought of the emotional connection they hold,” he wrote. “Gay people were tribal, individualistic, a global collective that was expressing itself in art and politics — we needed a flag to fly everywhere.”
Similarly to the Bicentennial effect on the American flag, the pride flag has become commodified over the years, and easy to roast come June when there’s suddenly a rainbow section in every retail store. But despite its commercialization, it’s hard not to recognize the impact of that exposure.
Organizer and multi-disciplinary artist Emily Gorner recalls a moment when they were organizing in the early days of pride for Fogo Island in Newfoundland and Labrador. “One of my friends on the committee who was from rural Newfoundland said, ‘I know, it’s corporate, but when I was a kid, if I’d seen that as a corner store, it would have meant a lot to me.’ And I was like, yeah, I hate capitalism, but representation is really, really important,” Gorner says.
They say it’s one of those kinds of rural-urban divides that are important to keep in mind when we think about access. “In a way the flag iterations remind me of the [LGTBQ+] acronym — there’s so many different iterations of it now. Some people kind of laugh at adding more and more, but I don’t think it makes it less impactful,” they say.
DuPont also points out that the original flag was not about all the different gender identities — Baker assigned each color a significance within queer culture. In his original eight-color design, pink stood for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the soul.
Today, young people in particular harness the power of these colors in new ways by using specific identity flags, like the pink, purple, and blue striped bi flag or the pale blue, pink, and white trans flag. These are valuable for affirming and gaining clarity about these identities in the world. But DuPont also comments that there’s a tendency for some people to think about these identities as if they have hard barriers. “The flag part isn’t the mechanism through which that’s done, they’re just happening concurrently. And it’s hard not to look at them as convoluted,” she says.
DuPont says if they had to guess what the next flag would look like, it might be the Progress Pride Flag but with the intersex symbol in the middle. “But I don’t know,” they say. “It’s at a point where we’re like how do we release the boundaries of all this? There are ways to use this symbol and make these references without needing to keep tacking things on.”
Gorner agrees there will likely be more iterations. When they first saw the Progress Flag including the Black Lives Matter black and brown stripes, they immediately thought they should use it.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s official or not. Someone created this version, and it means something to them. One of the good things about iconic symbols is they’re an identifier, but they can also serve as a reminder,” Gorner says. “The next iterations will probably be messy for a while, but [let’s] lean into how transient it’s been, because it’s a collaboration between a giant community.”