Milk, Stonewall, San Fran: The story behind the rainbow flag

How many times have you seen a shop with a rainbow flag hanging outside the door? Dozens, for sure.

We all know what it means, a symbol that represents and identifies the gay movement, but what’s the story behind it?

As any good story, it has a bit of emotion, drama, historical facts and, in this case, lots of queer activists.

It all started in 1974, when a 23 year old guy called Gilbert Baker, who dreamt to be an artist, met and felt touched by the legendary Harvey Milk in San Francisco. Three years after, Milk was elected at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and became the first openly gay person to hold a high public office in a major American city.

After winning the election, Milk challenged Baker to invent a symbol of pride for the gay community and to “give hope” to the young gay people. It had to be a positive alternative to the pink triangle that was used by Nazis to identify and persecute the homosexuals and had been readapted during the seventies as a symbol of action against and discrimination.

rainbow flag 8 colors 1978With this message in his head, Baker designed the first flag. It consisted of eight strips. Eight colours, each of them with a meaning: hot pink stood for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise blue for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit.

According to reports, he truly enjoyed the moment he saw his flag blowing in the wind for the very first time. It was 1978, and a few of his handmade flags were flown in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Soon, Baker got in touch with a company to mass produce the flags, and they started to sell the flag using stock rainbow fabric consisting of seven stripes, and also erased the hot pink stripe because of the unavailability of the fabric.

The same year, on the morning of November 27 of 1978, Harvey Milk and the mayor George Moscone were murdered at the City Hall, an event that changed the course of the gay activism, and also empowered the meaning of the flag.

In 1979 there was another modification, and the turquoise colour disappeared, which resulted in a six stripes version of the flag; red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. It’s a simplified version of the original rainbow that has seven colours. That year, hundreds of flags were hanged from the light poles along both sides of Market Street for the Gay Parade, as a symbol of celebration and in memory of Milk.

Soon, the six-stripes flag was shown outside many homes and businesses, and it became an icon of pride and hope, and also a souvenir.

During the 80’s, there were several trials to people for putting the Rainbow Flag on their houses or cars, but the symbol, and the movement, remained intact.

Through the years, Baker has designed flags for other events, such as the visits to San Francisco of the president of France or Italy.

harvey milk supervisorOne of his biggest achievements took place in 1994, when he created the history making, mile-long Rainbow Flag for Stonewall 25th Anniversary of the movement. He got the Guinness for the world’s largest flag, and he did the same in 2003, this time with an eight-stripes Rainbow Flag, as he had originally planned 25 years ago.

A story of colours and stripes in and out of piece of cloth…. A piece of cloth that has meant and marked the life of many people.

This June that is about to start, many Gay Parades will be taking place all around the world. We will be surrounded by rainbow flags, rainbow T-Shirts, and rainbow balloons. And for the very first time in my life, I’ll know where this flag comes from.

I never thought that names like Harvey Milk or movements like Stonewall would be related to it. Honestly, I imagined it was all about Garland… you know, Judy and her ….

“Somewhere over the rainbow…. Way up high….”


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