History of Pride Flags in Protest

Jake Hall, a queer freelance journalist, selects key examples of the rainbow Pride flag being used as a protest symbol

By Google Arts & Culture

Author: Jake Hall

Rainbow Pride Flag On Display at Federal Reserve Bank (2010)The Valentine

In 1978, Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag flew poignantly atop San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza as activist-turned-politician Harvey Milk gave a rousing speech calling for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights.

In the decades since the colourful design was debuted, the six-striped variation has become the most recognisable symbol of LGBTQ+ activism. Key moments like Milk’s speech have helped to consolidate the Pride flag’s history not only of joy and celebration, but of continued struggle and protest

Although the rainbow flag remained a staple of Pride parades throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, LGBTQ+ activists worldwide primarily used stark imagery and powerful slogans to protest lethal institutional homophobia, which hugely exacerbated the death toll of the AIDS crisis.

Collectives like ACT UP staged “die-ins” and chained themselves to the desks of politicians, furious at the combination of stigma and inaction which prevailed throughout the peak of the crisis. Advocates began adding a black stripe to the bottom of the rainbow flag, intended to acknowledge and commemorate the lives lost to AIDS.

Lady Gaga with Rainbow Flag by evil robot 6

The last few decades have seen hugely ambitious Pride flags created to mark important anniversaries. In 1994, a mile-long rainbow flag signalled the 25th anniversary; in 2003, Gilbert Baker watched tearfully as a 1.25 mile “sea-to-sea” version stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Elsewhere, pop superstars have carried their own rainbow flags to display in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, creating poignant photo-ops which have cemented the symbol’s enduring legacy.

Parada do Orgulho LGBT by Manuela d'Ávila

Progress has undeniably been made over the last five decades, but Pride parades around the world remain under threat. Each year brings a fresh wave of news stories detailing plans cancelled by homophobic institutions, but when activists do resist and march for their rights anyway, the rainbow flag becomes a poignant symbol of resilience. In 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was elected in Brazil on a platform of far-right views, and a determination to roll back LGBTQ+ rights.

That year’s São Paulo Pride became one of the largest in world history, and the rainbow flag remained at its centre.

LGBT activists hang the flag on the Maria Konopnicka monument in Krakow during the Polish Stonewall 2020 by Franciszek Vetulani

Bigoted attacks aren’t reserved solely for Pride month. Homophobia in Poland has increased sharply over the last few years, but it was in 2020 that the arrest of non-binary activist Margot Szutowicz. The resulting protests were met with violence from the country’s police force, sparking mass arrests and aggressive detentions now known as the ‘Polish Stonewall’. The rainbow flag became a key symbol; Polish nationalists set Pride flags alight, whereas fearless activists draped them across monuments in acts of defiance.

Turkey - Stop Hate Crimes Against Trans People - Solidarity with Turkey's LGBT community at the London Pride Parade by Alisdare Hickson

As Pride becomes increasingly commercialised, some LGBTQ+ activists have called its purpose into question. Despite progress, the burning desire for change which drove the Pride flag remains necessary, especially in countries which still criminalise LGBTQ+ communities. Today’s parades are a fusion: the joyous symbolism of the rainbow is mixed in with urgent appeals for justice in less-privileged countries. Those of us who can fly the flag freely do so in solidarity with those who can’t.

Credits: Story

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. 

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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