Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Gilbert Baker and the Rainbow Flag

You may have never heard the name Gilbert Baker, but you've definitely seen his work. Baker was fashion designer, drag queen, and the creative genius behind the rainbow flag.

Image result for original rainbow flag
An original design pride flag, including hot pink and turquoise.
San Francisco of the 1970s was a haven for LGBT people of every stripe. With the groundbreaking election of Harvey Milk in 1977, the Gay Rights Movement was gaining momentum. As more and more legislation to protect LGBT people was introduced, and as more and more legislation to oppress LGBT people was being fought, the need for a unifying symbol of the greater Gay Rights Movement was needed.

Previous to 1978 the pink triangle had been used as the symbol for the movement. The pink triangle was introduced in the 1930s as an identifying mark for gay men in Nazi concentration camps.¹ Activists in the 1970s attempted to reclaim the symbol, but the pink triangle still held (and still holds) negative connotations, and memories of pain.

Enter Gilbert Baker, drag queen and sewing machine wiz. He was asked by Milk and other members of the San Francisco LGBT community to create a better symbol for the movement. In a moment of inspiration, Baker decided on a rainbow--a cross cultural symbol of hope.

Creating the first flag was an enormous undertaking. Gilbert had to hand dye the individual strips of cotton, filling several metal trash cans with dye, and soaking the fabric at the local gay community center. Baker recruited several friends to help with the dyeing process, and his flag made its debut at the 1978 Gay Liberation Parade.

The rainbow flag commonly used today has six stripes--on for every color of the rainbow excluding indigo. Baker's original flag had eight colors--hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, purple. The hot pink was dropped from the flag a few months after its inception. After Harvey Milk's assassination in November of 1978 demand for rainbow flags was high, and there was a shortage of hot pink fabric. The turquoise was dropped in 1979 in order to make the flag more symmetrical.

Each color in the flag has an assigned meaning. The meanings assigned to the original eight colors are:
Image result for rainbow flag moma
Gilbert with his flag after its acquisition by the Museum of
Modern Art in 2015.

  • Hot pink for sex
  • Red for life
  • Orange for healing
  • Yellow for sunlight
  • Green for nature
  • Turquoise for magic
  • Blue for serenity
  • Purple for spirit
The modern flag has kept many of the same meanings, with only the meaning of blue changed from serenity to harmony.

Today, Baker's original flag resides in the Museum of Modern Art, and replicas of his flag fly in all countries of the world, creating a common symbol for a diverse, worldwide community.




¹Unfun fact: Lesbians put into concentration camps were given a black triangle, as Hitler refused to acknowledge that lesbianism might exist. These ladies were, instead, labeled as 'anti-social', or as living a way contrary to the norms of society.


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Sources
When We Rise by Cleve Jones
Gilbert Baker Official Website
Gilbert Baker Biography

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