The Original Rainbow Flag

“I thought of flags in a new light. I discovered the depth of their power, their transcendent, transformational quality. I thought of the emotional connection they hold.”

The two original eight-color rainbow flags flying at United Nations Plaza during San Francisco Gay Freedom Day 1978 by Mark RennieGLBT Historical Society

In April 2021, the GLBT Historical Society received an archival donation of an extraordinary, unique piece of history that we are unveiling during the Pride season: a fragment of one of the two monumental rainbow flags first raised on June 25, 1978 in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade.

Displaying the original design’s eight colored stripes, it was created by Gilbert Baker and hand-stitched and dyed with the help of volunteers and friends, including Lynn Segerblom (Faerie Argyle Rainbow), James McNamara, Glenne McElhinney, Joe Duran and Paul Langlotz. Thought to have been lost for over 40 years, the fragment, shown in the banner above, was recently rediscovered and is the only known surviving remnant of the two inaugural rainbow flags.

Gilbert Baker wearing a white sequined dress (right) by Charles BealGLBT Historical Society

Gilbert Baker arrived in San Francisco in 1972 during the early years of the Gay Liberation movement. He quickly became well known for his sewing skills and flamboyant creations, such as drag costumes and political banners for street demonstrations. In 1978, while preparing for that year’s Gay Freedom Day celebration, City Supervisor Harvey Milk (1930–1978) and other local activists appealed to Baker, the co-chair of the Decorations Committee, to create a new symbol for the LGBTQ community to be unveiled at the event in June.

Graphic with the flag's symbolism by Jeff RabyGLBT Historical Society

Using color to establish meaning, Baker conceived a flag that would empower his “tribe” and a “rainbow of humanity” motif to represent the community’s diversity. He assigned symbolic meaning to each of the flag’s eight colored stripes: 

Segment of one of the original eight-color rainbow flags by Matthew LeifheitGLBT Historical Society

The first 30-feet-high by 60-feet-wide design subsequently underwent several revisions due to cost and display considerations. In 1979 the hot pink stripe was dropped due to the unavailability of flag fabric in this color. Baker also removed the turquoise stripe to create an even number of stripes for display on each side of the streetlamps on Market Street for the 1979 Gay Freedom Day parade. This resulted in the popularly known and still most common six-stripe variant of the flag.

Volunteers hoist one of the two original rainbow flags created for San Francisco Gay Freedom Day 1978 by James McNamaraGLBT Historical Society

This iconic symbol and its evolution have become an intrinsic part of LGBTQ identity, culture, politics and society. Gilbert Baker worked tirelessly to ensure that the rainbow flag would become a universally recognized, global emblem of the LGBTQ community and its proud legacy.

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