The rainbow flag as we know it today is the most widely recognised symbol of the LGBT pride movement. Its colours are vibrant and varied, and so are widely interpreted as representing these same qualities in the LGBT community, but Gilbert Baker (an activist and artist born in 1951) designed the flag with a specific meaning in mind for each stripe. In its original iteration, the flag had eight stripes:
Turquoise: magic and art
Gilbert Baker was no stranger to sewing for the sake of activism, having previously made many banners for gay rights and anti-war marches. In 1974, his friend Harvey Milk, another gay activist, asked him to make a new symbol for the LGBT movement, as the previously used pink triangle was falling out of favour due to its dark past as a Nazi tool of oppression. It has been said that Baker took inspiration both from Judy Garland’s ‘Over the Rainbow’, as she was a contemporary gay icon, and the red, white, yellow, brown, and black striped ‘Flag of the Human Race’ which was flown on college campuses in the 1960s in demonstrations for world peace.
The first two pride flags were hand-dyed and stitched by thirty volunteers in preparation for the San Francisco Pride parade of 1978. After this, demand increased for the rainbow flag and so the pink striped was dropped due to the expense of the dye being a limiting factor of mass production. The flag lost another stripe in 1979 when the organisers of that year’s San Francisco Pride wanted to hang the flag in halves on either side of the road. For this to be achieved, the flag needed to have six stripes, and so the turquoise and indigo stripes were merged into the royal blue stripe of the flag we know today.
By the time the flag had its 25th anniversary in 2003, it was recognised worldwide. At this time, Baker advocated for the flag to be restored to his original eight stripe design, but to little avail. In 2017, the flag’s 39th anniversary and the year of Baker’s death, he added a lilac stripe at the top of his original design to represent diversity, allegedly in response to Trump’s election the year before. However, this nine stripe version is recognised even less today than the original eight stripe design, as the LGBT community has been favouring the six stripe version since its 1979 unveiling. Indeed, its recognition is so widespread that in 2015 curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York deemed the flag to be a symbol of the same level of importance as widely known designs such as the recycling symbol.