A Brief History of the Pride Flag

In response to the act of hatred against Congressman Alan Lowenthal’s Pride flag

Alan Lowenthal, a congressman from the state of California’s 47th district, and an advocate for LGBTQ rights since the 1980s, is one of the only members of Congress who has a Pride flag hanging outside of his Washington, D.C. office. On March 15th, a man who came to visit Representative Lowenthal expressed that he found hanging the Pride flag alongside the American flag inappropriate. As the man left Lowenthal’s office, he proceeded to remove the Pride flag from its holder, throw it to the ground, and stomp on it repeatedly. The congressman’s staff were able to escort the man into the custody of Capital Police officers, who are now investigating the incident.

Representative Lowenthal’s tweet the day following the incident.

This act of aggression against the Pride flag, and the community it represents, is but one example of the acts of intolerance and hate that have swept the nation since the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency. The attack calls to mind the history of the Pride flag, what it was created to represent, and the activists who gave their time, energy, creativity, and sometimes their very lives, to make America a more liveable place for LGBTQ people.

The pride flag was designed as a symbol of LGBTQ equality by Gilbert Baker, a gay Vietnam veteran and drag performer who settled in San Francisco, California, following his honorable discharge from the military in 1972. While the emerging gay rights movement used various symbols to represent the cause, such as the Greek letter Lambda, the pink triangle, or the labrys, there was little consensus on a symbol that could broadly and inclusively represent the multiple factions of the movement.

In the early 1970s, following the Stonewall Inn Riots, the Gay Activists Alliance chose the Greek letter Lambda, symbolizing balance and unity, as an emblem of gay rights. Many, however, did not recognize the letter or readily understand its meaning and connection to LGBTQ quality. While other organizations adopted the pink triangle, a symbol used to mark gay men in Nazi concentration camps as deviant and shameful, some found it inappropriate to reclaim a Holocaust-related symbol for modern gay rights. The labrys, a symbol of a double-headed battle axe originating from the ancient civilization of Minoan Crete, a society described by historians as having matriarchal tendencies, was used primarily by lesbians as a symbol of feminist strength, but was not adopted by the broader movement.

Gilbert Baker was commissioned by the San Francisco Gay & Lesbian Pride Parade to create a new symbol that would represent the diversity of the LGBTQ community worldwide. Baker, a talented sewer who had honed his skills making drag costumes and gay and anti-war protest banners, devised the symbol of the rainbow flag, dyeing and sewing the fabric by hand. In fact, he designed two variations of the rainbow flag that differ from today’s standard six-color version comprised of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple stripes.

The first version of the flag had eight colors, or stripes: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the human spirit. The second version mirrored the American flag in that it contained a blue square in the upper left-hand corner with fifty stars. The traditional red-and-white stripes of the American flag were replaced with rainbow stripes. Baker chose a symbol from nature, the rainbow, in part to suggest that being gay was both beautiful and natural (at the time, the term “gay” was often used as a shorthand to represent the entirety of what is today the LGBTQ acronym). He was also inspired by Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians, to create a symbol that represented hope over despair. The rainbow flag made its debut as a symbol of gay liberation during the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. As Baker said of his creation:

“Harvey Milk was a friend of mine, an important gay leader in San Francisco in the ’70s, and he carried a really important message about how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out, and that was the single most important thing we had to do. Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility, or saying, ‘This is who I am!’”

While Baker constructed the original versions of the flag entirely by hand, it was not practical for gay activists to dye their own fabric, given the labor-intensive process and the often spontaneous nature of protests. Due to the limited commercial availability of pink fabric during the late 1970s, the hot pink stripe, representing sexuality, was removed shortly after its introduction. Although the remaining seven colors were commercially available, another stripe was removed to create an even six, which prevented the middle colors from being hidden when the flag was hung. In the most popular version of the flag, used widely since 1979, the original turquoise and indigo stripes are condensed into one royal blue stripe.

The rainbow flag has become an international symbol of LGBTQ rights, and Baker has continued to create flags both for activist purposes and as a form of fine art, becoming a professional vexillographer, or flag maker. In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City acquired a version of the original Pride flag for display in its contemporary design galleries. Most recently, Baker constructed, by hand, the flag used in the groundbreaking ABC miniseries When We Rise, created by Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant, and partially based on the activist Cleve Jones’ memoir of the same name, which was recently nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the category of Gay Memoir/Biography.

The attack on Congressman Lowenthal’s Pride flag, a longstanding symbol of freedom and liberation, reminds us that democracy does not create itself. Rather, democracy is created and sustained through our action and participation. We are again being called to rise up and defend the gains made over the past 50 years, not only for the LGBTQ community, but for the liberation of all people.

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Jeffry J. Iovannone

Jeffry J. Iovannone

Historian, writer, and educator with a PhD in American Studies. I specialize in gender and LGBTQ history of the U.S. Email: jeffry.iovannone@gmail.com