The rainbow flag has become an iconic symbol of the LGBT community. Fittingly, its creator once dressed in drag as a busty Betsy Ross, the maker of the US “stars and stripes” flag.
With a budget of $1,000, artist and drag performer Gilbert Baker designed the first rainbow flag in San Francisco 37 years ago. Baker sewed two giant banners at the Gay Community Center on Grove Street and first unfurled them during the Gay Freedom Day parade in United Nations Plaza on June 25, 1978.
During a lively conversation (audio) with Michelle Millar Fisher of the Museum of Modern Arts—which recently acquired the rainbow flag into its permanent collection—Baker explained that, prior to the rainbow flag, the dominant gay symbol was a pink triangle that originated as a badge for tagging homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps.
When it was adopted as a gay rights symbol, the pink triangle was set pointing up, reclaiming a symbol of shame to one of pride.
But Baker had a problem with the symbol’s tainted history. “We needed something beautiful, something from us,” said Baker who was a friend of influential politician and gay-rights activist Harvey Milk. “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!”
Baker’s original design had eight colors: Hot pink stood for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise blue for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit.
He would later simplify this to the six-stripe version in use today, nixing hot pink and indigo as a cost-saving measure during mass production. “In 1978, eight colors was expensive,” he said to MoMA. “I realized I would have to make some compromises in order for this to really function as a symbol.” Baker worked with Paramount Flag Company, who produced and sold the flags. He would also transition to a more practical waterproof nylon Oxford weave fabric made by Dupont.
Inspired by the design of the American flag, which had just celebrated its bicentennial two years prior, Baker’s original concept included eight tie-dyed stars arranged in a circle on a blue patch, much like the layout of Old Glory. “I wasn’t sure that people were going to get that this was a flag, that it wasn’t just some decoration up there in the air,” he explained.
Born in rural Kansas, Baker mastered sewing by making his own drag costumes. He had about 30 volunteers to help him dye, stitch, and iron the cotton fabric for the original flags. Baker and his conspirators even finished the dye process in a public laundromat, against regulations.
“We wait until everyone is gone late at night and run into a Laundromat and fill every machine with quarters and blast them all—and [the machines turn] every color of the rainbow,” recalled Baker gleefully. “We threw Clorox in [the machines] afterwards hoping that the next customers weren’t walking out of there with pink underwear!”
Though versions of the rainbow flag are used by other causes, like the peace movement in Italy or as a symbol for the native peoples of the Andes region in South America—and there are other symbols in use like the transgender pride flag—but Baker’s Americana-inspired rainbow flag design remains the representative banner for LGBT people around the world. The design came particularly handy as a victory banner after the historic decision of the Supreme Court to allow same-sex marriage in the US last week.
“What the rainbow has given our people is a thing that connects us,” said Baker, who is 64 and now lives in New York City.
“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,” he added. “It’s sort of a language, and it’s also proclaiming power.”