In the early 1980s, growing numbers of gay men in New York and San Francisco began developing mysterious, terrifying illnesses.
Some were cancers. Others were opportunistic infections rarely seen in the United States. Soon, these men started dying. Several close friends of mine would go. Even my closest and oldest childhood friend would eventually go, too.
There were early theories. But no one knew why — and few outside the gay community seemed to care to learn the reasons. Several reporters and White House officials laughed when questions about the growing “gay disease” were asked at early press conferences.
By 1983, the plague had a name: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. AIDS.
For generations before the appearance of AIDS, of course, gay people around the world had been misunderstood, feared, ostracized, and, often, hated. Sometimes killed. At the outset of AIDS, these threats intensified. Terrifying stories of attacks on AIDS victims grew. Rumors about bodies of AIDS victims abandoned in alleyways outside hospitals became harsh reminders to gay people that they were not safe. The message was clear if you were gay — to be safe, be silent. Be invisible.
But the opposite happened.
We raised a flag.
A dazzling, colorful flag.
Flags — the vivid emblems we create, carry, hang, raise and sometimes salute — feel primal to our nature. From the flags of our countries, to white flags of truce, to team flags that build camaraderie, to a flag planted on the moon, flags are symbols for unity and hope.
It is the most visually powerful way to say, “Here we are.”
In 1978, designer Gilbert Baker had sewn the first rainbow flag out of that same hope. It was his way to signal that being gay was more than being okay; it was normal.
By the mid-1980s people were not only waving the rainbow, but wearing it. Proudly. Pins, jackets, jeans, shirts, backpacks, earrings, shoes, flip flops, caps, beach blankets, cheap sunglasses, and expensive scarves. Whatever could be made with Gilbert’s rainbow was made with Gilbert’s rainbow, despite potentially harrowing repercussions.
The rainbow was not an aegis only for protection; it was a symbol of identification and resilience and possibility. Gilbert said in a 2015 interview with CNN, “We needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that.”
When the rainbow flag made its debut that year in San Francisco, it became our North Star. It was the peak of a rising mountain that we had set our eyes on, knowing that there was a dark forest ahead of us. Not all of us would make it through.
Recently, I walked home through Times Square. On the way, I saw bursts of Gilbert’s rainbows everywhere — store windows, billboards, taxi tops, shop displays jammed with rainbow-slathered merchandise. I wandered, mesmerized by colorful explosions of support for the LGBT+ community by all kinds of famous brands.
Eventually, I passed the spectacular flagship store of the most powerful media brand in the world. I was floored by what I saw.
Inside, in the center of wall-to-wall tourists, sat a giant box. Inside were piles of this corporation’s iconic symbol — a beloved, anthropomorphic mouse. But this version was new: he was covered from head-to-tail with a vivid, iridescent rainbow.
Sales clerks were holding the rainbow mouse. Two young parents gave their two giggling kids strapped in a stroller the rainbow mouse. A teenage couple took the rainbow mouse and hooked him, swinging, off their backpacks. Others were lining up at the registers to buy the rainbow mouse. A small, tasteful sign told me the giant corporation was donating proceeds to a leading educational organization for LGBT+ students.
I was elated. But standing there watching this unfold around me, my joy turned to regret. My closest friends from my 20s were no longer here to witness this multi-colored milestone.
The rainbow flag was designed out of a necessity to be seen and understood — the greatest gift that human beings can give to one another. It was used to carry us forward into an era of new normals. To help people rise and use their voices and creativity to become visible. To see Gilbert’s rainbow on this globally iconic mouse exemplified, to me, that the future we sought in the ’80s was being installed today.
On a good day, this is the quintessential nature of design: signaling and rehearsing new tomorrows. To craft symbols, stories, and artifacts that ultimately shape hearts and minds for the better.
Moments like this make me continue, as a designer, to build better, benevolent futures. Progress, after all, is a conscious and collective choice.And we get to choose every day.
Whether you’re a man like Gilbert.
Or a mouse like Mickey.