I watched the various LGBT Pride celebrations fill my social media feeds with rainbows this past weekend and thought about how powerful that flag is. Lots of communities have symbols, but few have the kind of resonance of the rainbow, and the ability to bind a community in a joyful way. It made me curious about the history behind it.
I discovered that the rainbow flag has long been associated with peace movements, even before becoming the symbol of pride. In 1978, the artist Gilbert Baker was asked by Harvey Milk to come up with a symbol for the gay community. There’s some suggestion that Baker was inspired by the rainbow peace flags carried by anti-war hippies. Baker created a design that had eight stripes, each color having a specific meaning (red for life, orange for healing, and so on). Eventually the pink and turquoise stripes were dropped, resulting in the simpler version that’s in use today. The first flags were hand-dyed and stitched by thirty volunteers for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25th, 1978. After Milk was assassinated that November, demand for the flags grew rapidly.
It’s a wonderful choice for a symbol. It has such an inviting quality. What kind of person could hate a rainbow? Rather than create distance out of difference, it reaches out to bridge the divide. And for those who for too long were compelled to hide their identities, it does the opposite of camouflage — it creates a sanctuary that is vibrantly, beautifully visible.
Image: Human-Etisk Forbund (via Flickr, under a CC license)June 30th, 2016