Castro and 18th Streets (2017) by Lenore ChinnGLBT Historical Society
In late 1977, Kansas-born drag queen, artist and activist Gilbert Baker was tasked with designing vivid, joyous iconography for the LGBTQ+ community. Harvey Milk had just been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with a campaign centered on gay rights, and the city’s Castro Street was fast becoming – and is still known today as – an international hub for LGBTQ+ activism.
Gilbert Baker memorial at The Castro Theatre (June 2017) by Mitch AltmanOriginal Source: Mitch Altman
Gilbert Baker was born in 1951 and raised in Kansas. In 1970, eager to escape what he saw as the city’s conservative aura, he moved to San Francisco to serve as a military medic. He was honorably discharged in 1972, but decided to stay in the city – by then gaining a reputation as somewhat of a queer mecca – and dedicate himself wholly to drag, art and activism.
Design: Vignelli exhibition, Rochester, NY. Poster Design (2010) by Vignelli, LellaVignelli Center for Design Studies
The inspiration for Baker's Rainbow Flag came in 1976, when he increasingly saw American flags displayed to mark the country’s bicentennial. “I thought a flag is different than any other form of art,” he explained to New York’s MoMA Museum in 2015. “It’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not just a logo – it functions in so many different ways. I thought that we needed that kind of symbol, that we needed, as people, something that everyone instantly understands.”
LGBT 8 stripes flag (2020-11-07) by Lessly.cortesOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons
Rainbow motifs have been used for various reasons over the last few centuries, but Baker’s rainbow was conceived to represent the diversity of the LGBT+ community. It’s also thought to be a reference to Judy Garland, whose recording of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ had been claimed by the LGBTQ+ community. The initial design had eight stripes, with each colour representing a different value: pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art and magic, indigo for serenity, and violet for spirit.
Letter from San Francisco Board of Supervisor Member Harvey Milk to President Jimmy Carter Letter from San Francisco Board of Supervisor Member Harvey Milk to President Jimmy Carter (1978-06-25/1978-06-28) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives
After securing $1000 in funding from San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day decoration committee, Baker teamed with “tie-dye queen” Lynn Segerblom, also known as Faerie Argyle Rainbow, and fellow seamster James McNamara to create the rainbow flags hoisted above the UN Plaza in 1978.
That year’s parade became famous for Harvey Milk’s rousing speech, which led to the defeat of the anti-gay Briggs Initiative.
Rainbow Pride Flag Rainbow Pride Flag (2010)The Valentine
These initial flags were made by a team of 30 volunteers, all of whom worked tirelessly in the top-floor attic gallery of San Francisco’s Gay Community Center (then located at 330 Grove Street) to cut, dye and stitch the flags, which were so heavy that they required several people to lift them and a pick-up truck to transport them.
Rainbow Pride Flag On Display at Federal Reserve Bank (2010)The Valentine
Harvey Milk was assassinated just five months later, skyrocketing demand for the flags to be mass-produced. Dye in certain colours was hard to find, so the eight-stripe version was streamlined to the six-stripe version now seen around the world.
Jake Hall is a U.K.-based freelance journalist, and author of 2020 book ‘The Art of Drag’. They also dabble in consultancy and curation, homing in frequently on all things sexy, weird and queer.