This blog post is a guest submission from Jen Grant of American Flags.
History of the Gay Pride Flags
The Gay Pride Flag as we know it today is a very unusual thing. Much like the flag used in the Olympic Games, it knows no boundaries and accepts all, no matter what their race, religion, origin, background, or orientation may be. It is a celebration of unity while still delighting in the infinite diversity present in all people. The flag itself is often used as a form of protest, but with the ultimate goal of peace and tolerance.
It is important to recognize that the Gay Pride Flag doesn’t exist to celebrate being gay. Truthfully, it celebrates the fact that people in the LGBTQ+ community can embrace their true selves after facing immense hardship and adversity. People of different sexual orientations and identities have been persecuted for time beyond remembering (and they still are today), yet they still come out in acts of incalculable bravery. It is this kind of raw courage that the flag was created to celebrate.
San Francisco: The Early Years
The cradle of the Gay Rights movement started in San Francisco as an offshoot of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. The universal themes of love, peace, acceptance, and tolerance resonated with the vibrant gay community. San Francisco in these years was a hotbed of artistic talent and experimentation, and the perfect birthplace for a new idea.
The city was so compelling that it drew a simple Kansas country boy by the name of Gilbert Baker. Having served two years in the army and received an honorable discharge in the 70s, Baker moved to San Francisco to learn to sew and pursue his passion for artistic design. As an openly gay man, Baker soon became part of the Gay Rights movement, contributing time and artistic ability to the cause.
Four years later, he met San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to ever hold high office in a major U.S. city. He leveled a challenge to Baker: Create a flag that encompasses all it is to be gay—a symbol for the community to rally under. He came up with a rainbow colored flag with eight stripes, each with its own special significance.
Hot Pink – sexuality
Red – life
Orange – healing
Yellow – sunlight
Green – nature
Turquoise – art
Indigo – harmony
Violet – spirit
There is some dispute over the inspiration for the Rainbow Flag—some people say the rainbow peace flag used in the Hippie Movement; others say it came from the famous Judy Garland song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” No matter which is true, the flag was instantly popular and easily adopted as part of gay society.
Thirty volunteers hand dyed and sewed the first two flags for the Gay Freedom Parade in San Francisco. When Harvey Milk was assassinated in November of 1978, the demand for Pride Flags spiked dramatically, outstripping the ability to produce them. Through 1979 the flag changed again: hot pink flag material simply wasn’t available.
With the demand came a commercial response. The seven striped flag (minus the hot pink) began to be mass produced by the Paramount Flag Company, which, despite commercial facilities, also had trouble keeping up with the demand. In a moment of desperation, they started selling surplus Rainbow Girls flags. The International Order of the Rainbow for Girls is a youth community service organization run by the Freemasons and is represented by a six-striped rainbow flag. It is this one that people most commonly recognize today as the Gay Pride flag.
In 1994, an enormous flag was commissioned from Gilbert Baker to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot in New York. Fully a mile in length, the flag was 30 feet wide, and, at the time, was registered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest flag ever made. An undertaking of this size was no small feat, and required months of planning and hundreds of volunteers to get the job done.
In 2003 Baker was at work again with even more volunteers, this time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the flag itself. This time created in its original eight colors, it was even larger than the first. Covering the greater part of Key West, Florida, it was 1.25 miles in length.
Even though there are laws in place in the U.S. that largely protect people who manifest as different, there are still widespread cases of discrimination and hate. Gay teenagers are still disproportionately at risk for suicide; bullying is still a thing in this day and age. In the face of all this ugliness, the beauty of the rainbow endures, a symbol of hope for a better tomorrow for all of us.
Jen Grant is an amateur vexillologist and blogger. She is an 8 year resident of Key West, FL where they were out before it was in! She loves spending time on the water with her family and friends soaking in the sun.