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Steve Pafford’s colourful potted history of the Rainbow Flag, ft. Gilbert Baker, Harvey Milk… and Paul McCartney?

“We’re an ancient, wonderful tribe of people. We picked something from nature. We picked something beautiful.” — Gilbert Baker

It’s June. It’s Pride Month, and it’s not uncommon to see rainbow flags flying outside of homes and bars, stretched across balconies, pinned to shirts and on the back of bumpers the world over—all with the universal and proud proclamation that #LoveIsLove. It’s a moving display of solidarity with a community that is still subjected to discrimination as well as mindless acts of violence and terrorism, from Russia to the Orlando nightclub massacre to a vicious assault on a lesbian couple just last month, in my birthplace, London, of all places, and in the very neighbourhood I called home for 15 years.

But who created the rainbow flag, and why did it become a symbol of the LGBT community?

Unfurl the flag: setting up the original Rainbow declaration in San Fran, June 1978

Gilbert Baker, a self-described “geeky kid from Kansas,” turned Californian-based artist, designer, Vietnam War veteran and then-drag performer, was commissioned to create a flag in 1978 by another important gay figure, politician Harvey Milk, for San Francisco’s annual pride parade.

The decision to enlist Baker proved serendipitous, as the idea of a flag to represent the gay and lesbian tribes had occurred to him two years earlier. As Baker told the Museum of Modern Art during a 2015 interview, he had been inspired by the celebrations marking America’s bicentennial in 1976, noting that the constant display of stars and stripes made him realize the cultural need for a similar rallying sign for the gay community. And as a struggling drag performer who was accustomed to creating his own garments, he was well-equipped to sew the soon-to-be iconic symbol.

At the time, the most commonly used image for the burgeoning gay rights movement was the pink triangle, a symbol used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals. Using a symbol with such a dark and painful past was never an option for Baker. He instead opted to use a rainbow as his inspiration.

Baker at San Francisco City Hall in 2014

The different colours within the flag were meant to represent togetherness, since LGBT people come in all races, ages and genders, and rainbows are both natural and beautiful. The original flag featured eight colors, each having a different meaning. At the top was hot pink, which represented sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow signifying sunlight, green for nature, turquoise to represent art, indigo for harmony, and finally violet at the bottom for spirit.

With the help of close to 30 volunteers working in the attic of the Gay Community Center in San Francisco, Baker was able to construct the first draft of the now world-renowned rainbow flag. It was first showcased at San Fran’s Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978, the day before my ninth birthday.

After the design was unveiled, participants of the parade proudly waved the new symbol in solidarity. Baker then took the design to Paramount Flag Company, which sold a version of the flag without hot pink and turquoise, which were replaced with blue for practicality purposes. After the assassination of Harvey Milk in November of the same year, demand for the rainbow banner only increased. Popularity spiked again a decade later when a West Hollywood resident sued his landlord over the right to hang his flag outside his residence.

In the years since, the rainbow flag has only grown in popularity and is now seen around the globe as a positive representation of the LGBT community. A mile-long version of the flag was created to celebrate the 25th anniversaries of two landmark events; the Stonewall Riots and Baker’s creation of the flag itself.

Baker died in 2017, at the age of 65. But at least he lived to see the legalisation of same-sex marriage throughout the US, on 26 June 2015, a day that happened to be my 46th birthday. Though the timing was no coincidence: 26 June 1969 was the day the first stirrings of the Stonewall riots started in New York City, when NYPD thought it would be nice to brutalise the campers out in the Village hoping to bag a vantage spot to view the passing of Judy Garland’s funeral cortege.

Baker’s legacy lives on in the six-coloured flag that flies proudly every Gay Pride month, recognizing the lives, and loves, of LGBT people worldwide. Quite right too.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: On that same 26 June 2015 day, Facebook celebrated Barack Obama’s announcement by giving you the option of a rainbow flag filter over your existing profile picture, which already happened to be my seventh birthday portrait.

Gilbert would have loved that.

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