The rainbow flag has been a symbol for LGBTQ communities for more than 40 years. As such, it is sometimes called the “pride flag.” The most common iteration of the flag has six horizontal stripes of equal height in red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.
How did the flag come to represent LGBTQ communities?
In 1978, LGBTQ activists asked San Francisco activist Gilbert Baker to come up with some sort of symbol or icon that could help represent queer communities and activists. According a 2017 New York Times obituary for Baker, he had used his creative talents throughout the 1970s to make banners and posters for activists. One of the people who had approached Baker about creating a symbol was San Francisco city supervisor and LGBTQ rights leader Harvey Milk, who was among the earliest out elected officials in the US. Baker, Lynn Segerblom, James McNamara, and others created two large rainbow flags over the period of a month ahead of the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade, The Los Angeles Times reported in an article about the 40th anniversary of the flag.
OK, so why the rainbow?
From that Los Angeles Times article:
Before 1978, there was no agreed-upon symbol for LGBTQ rights. Among the most common signs at the time was the pink triangle, which had been reappropriated from its use by the Nazis, who forced gay concentration camp prisoners to wear it.
Other activists encouraged Baker to come up with something more positive, and the rainbow was “a conscious choice” that represented the diversity of the LGBTQ community and was one of the oldest symbols of hope, dating back to the biblical book of Genesis, where it represents a covenant between God and all living creatures, [Charley Beal, manager of creative projects for the Gilbert Baker Estate] said.
Was there any deeper meaning?
Not necessarily at the beginning. Segerblom told the Los Angeles Times, “My idea was just — color. People love color. They love the rainbow.” But the colors were eventually assigned meanings, the Los Angeles Times reported:
At some point, the eight original colors of the flag were assigned meanings by Baker: Pink for sex. Red for life. Orange for healing. Yellow for sunlight. Green for nature. Turquoise for magic. Blue for serenity. Purple for spirit.
Initially, though, it was more simple than that, and “we didn’t say it was about anything,” Segerblom said.
“Really, they were just kids who were making pretty rainbow flags,” [Paul Langlotz, Baker’s former roommate] said. “The intentionality changed over the years when people started seeing this as an international symbol.”
Eight original colors? I thought the flag had six colors?
The most common iteration of the flag does have six colors. But the original had eight. From the 2017 New York Times obituary for Baker:
Pink fabric was too expensive, Mr. Baker said, so it was removed, and turquoise and blue were combined into one color, royal blue.
And it’s been the same ever since then?
For the most part, but there have been some variations. In 2017, Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs launched the #MoreColorMorePride campaign “in support of racial diversity, equality and inclusion in the LGBTQ neighborhoods of the city,” according to the office’s website. This included a new flag that had the six colors that had endured for decades, plus black and brown stripes that were meant to represent people of color.
The retooled design takes the traditional rainbow flag, created by Gilbert Baker, and adds arrow-shaped stripes that incorporates the transgender Pride flag, as well as adds brown and black stripes to represent queer people of color.
In a Facebook post, Quasar explained the reasoning behind the redesign:
Background: LGBT 6 full sized color stripes representing life (red), healing (orange), sunlight (yellow), nature (green), harmony/peace (blue), and spirit (purple/violet)
Hoist: 5 half sized stripes representing trans identity (light blue, light pink, white), marginalized POC communities (brown, black), as well as those living with AIDS, those no longer living, and the stigma surrounding them (black).
Explanation: When the Pride flag was recreated in the last year to include both black/brown stripes, as well as the trans stripes, I wanted to see if there could be more emphasis in the design of the flag to give it more meaning.
The 6 stripe LGBT flag should be separated from the newer stripes because of their difference in meaning, as well as to shift focus and emphasis to what is important in our current community climate. The main section of the flag (background) includes the traditional 6 stripe LGBT flag as seen in its original form so as not to take away from its original meaning (seen above).
The trans flag stripes and marginalized community stripes were shifted to the Hoist of the flag and given a new arrow shape. The arrow points to the right to show forward movement, while being along the left edge shows that progress still needs to be made.
So is that new flag — Quasar’s “progress Pride flag” — the current flag to be used for the LGBTQ+ communities?
Not necessarily. Like all topics pertaining to people who might fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, there is no one unified perspective or consensus. Some people still use the flag of six colors. Some people use the flag that Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs launched in 2017. Some use Quasar’s flag. Some use any combination of the three, or other flags.
That will depend. For some people, they like flags that address a specific community under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, whether it’s the transgender flag, the bisexual flag, the pansexual flag, the intersex flag, the non-binary flag, the genderqueer flag, or any other flags that represent a specific group within the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
In a 2018 article for Quartz, Anne Quito said Quasar’s flag is “noble” but “misses the mark” but violates the rules of flag design in that it is too complicated and could be simpler. But Quito also said that the idea of redesigning the flag is not a bad one and that Baker wouldn’t necessarily object:
But curator Michelle Millar Fisher, who interviewed Baker when MoMA acquired his original flag, says there’s utility in continuously interrogating its symbolism. “Gilbert [Baker] was an incredibly generous person in general, and as an artist he deliberately did not trademark the Rainbow Flag…I think he definitely left the door open for reinterpretation,” she explains. “If new design provocations like this flag can help important conversations happen, then it is a demonstration of the continuing power of the discipline of design to effect change. More power to that!”
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