In honor of Gilbert Baker, whose 66th birthday inspired a Google Doodle today, let’s look at the history of the rainbow flag, the internationally recognized symbol for the gay pride movement, and the man who created it.
Gilbert Baker was born to a judge and a teacher on June 2, 1951 in a small town called Chanute Kansas. Like a lot of other men of his generation, Gilbert joined the US Army for a couple of years. In 1972, after he was discharged, he bought his first sewing machine. His reason was simple:
“1972 was glam rock and I just had to dress like David Bowie of course. I had no money to buy clothes so I thought, ‘I’ll make my own clothes!’.”
It’s funny to think how fate works. Gilbert’s ability to sew, which he learned so he could dress like David Bowie, lined him up to create one of the most polarizing symbols in modern history. Gilbert lived in San Francisco in the early 70s and whenever the gay movement needed a banner for a march, he was always called on to make it.
According to Gilbert, before he created the flag in 1978, the symbol for gay pride and unity was the pink triangle. But, because it was a symbol used by the Nazis, the gay movement wanted to turn the symbol from one of oppression to one of power.
The original flag had 8 colors, each representing something the gay community wanted to embrace, and what they wanted the world to associate with them. The eight original colors and their meanings are:
Pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for serenity and purple for spirit. “Those were the hippy, 1978 meanings for the [flag],” Gilbert remarked in a PBS video.
The unveiling of the first rainbow flag occurred in the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco’s Civic Center during a gay pride event in June, 1978. Hundreds of thousands of people witnessed the raising of the 30×60 flag, billowing in the wind and sunshine, and the collective feeling of adoption of the new symbol was immediate.
In 1994, to commemorate the 25 year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Gilbert made a mile long rainbow flag that was marched in New York City. That flag was then cut up and spread throughout the world, giving the LGBT people of the world a symbol of community, equality, and hope they needed.
Gilbert Baker died earlier this year, on March 31, 2017.
Today, the flag is a 6-color version, eliminating both the pink and turquoise colors, not because of political or societal pressure, but because he simply ran out of cloth. But, it remains a powerful symbol of love, diversity, and acceptance.