QUEER VOICES
06/07/2018 15:13 EDT | Updated 05/29/2019 11:25 EDT

The History And Meaning Of The Rainbow Pride Flag

Over 40 years, the iconic, six-stripe flag has generated a mythology of its own.

ILLUSTRATION: ALYSSA SPATOLA/HUFFPOST PHOTO: GETTY
The rainbow pride flag was the creation of San Francisco queer artist Gilbert Baker. 

Stroll across any number of cities throughout June, and you’ll find the near-ubiquitous presence of the rainbow pride flag, which has come to represent the LGBTQ community worldwide. This year alone, the iconic, six-stripe pattern has been seen in children’s books, at theme parks and on a seemingly endless series of clothing lines; a revamped version of the design was worn by “Master of None” writer and star Lena Waithe as a “queer superhero” cape at the Met Gala last month in New York.

The original rainbow pride flag dates back to 1978, when it was created by San Francisco-based queer artist Gilbert Baker for a mere $1,000. A self-described “geeky kid from Kansas,” Baker relocated to San Francisco as an Army draftee in 1970. After an honorable discharge from the military, he decided to remain in the City by the Bay to pursue a design career.

In 1974, Baker’s life changed forever when he was introduced to rising queer activist Harvey Milk, who owned a camera shop in San Francisco’s Castro district. Milk, of course, would go on to win a seat as a San Francisco city supervisor in 1977, becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in California in the process. Along with writer Cleve Jones and filmmaker Artie Bressan, Milk pressed Baker to create a recognizable emblem of empowerment for the queer community. The artist looked back to America’s bicentennial celebrations over the previous year for inspiration.

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"I thought a gay nation should have a flag too, to proclaim its own idea of power,” Gilbert Baker, who died in 2017, wrote. 

“As a community, both local and international, gay people were in the midst of an upheaval, a battle for equal rights, a shift in status where we were now demanding power, taking it. This was our new revolution: a tribal, individualistic, and collective vision. It deserved a new symbol,” Baker wrote in his as-yet-unpublished memoir, excerpts of which have appear on the Gilbert Baker Estate’s website.

“I thought of the American flag with its thirteen stripes and thirteen stars, the colonies breaking away from England to form the United States,” he wrote. “I thought of the vertical red, white, and blue tricolor from the French Revolution and how both flags owed their beginnings to a riot, a rebellion, or revolution. I thought a gay nation should have a flag too, to proclaim its own idea of power.”

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“He purposely never copyrighted the flag because he wanted it to be owned by everyone," Baker's friend Charles Beal said. 

Milk went on to ride under the original, eight-striped rainbow pride flag at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in June 1978, just months before he was assassinated. Over the next two years, the design was altered to its current, six-stripe version, but the flag’s all-inclusive message remained intact.

Baker, who died in 2017, never became rich from his design, but it has since been used to symbolize solidarity with LGBTQ movements not just in the U.S. but around the world.

In the years since its creation, the flag has generated a mythology of its own, which Baker “understood was something beyond his control,” according to close friend Charles Beal, who is also manager of creative projects at the Gilbert Baker Estate. “He purposely never copyrighted the flag because he wanted it to be owned by everyone.”

In honor of LGBTQ Pride month, Beal spoke with HuffPost to discuss the history of his friend’s flag. 

#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.