The history of the rainbow Pride flag

BY Kate Beeden

6th Jun 2023 Life

The history of the rainbow Pride flag

The rainbow flag is synonymous with LGBTQ+ rights and is especially prominent during Pride month, but do you know the history behind the iconic symbol? 

Gilbert Baker (1951–2017) was an openly gay man who was stationed in San Francisco while serving in the United States Army. Following his honourable discharge from the military, Baker stayed in the city and lived a bohemian lifestyle surrounded by other artists and creatives. A regular at marches and protests, Baker learnt to sew to create flags and banners supporting causes that mattered to him.

When his friend, gay politician and activist Harvey Milk, challenged him to create a symbol for the gay community, Baker worked with a collaborative to design a flag displaying an eight-banded rainbow.  

Colours with meaning

Each of the eight chosen colours were attributed a meaning and together reflected the diversity of human sexuality and gender. Pink, red and orange represented sexuality, life, and healing respectively, while yellow and green embodied sunlight and nature. Turquoise (art and magic), blue (serenity) and purple (spirit) completed the spectrum. The original flags were dyed and sewn by hand and measured 30 by 60 feet. 

"Each of the eight chosen colours were attributed a meaning"

The eight-banded Pride flag was first displayed at San Francisco Pride on June 25, 1978, when two flags were raised on flagpoles in United Nations Plaza. Reflecting on the moment in 2015, Baker said, “I saw immediately how everyone around me owned that flag. I thought, It’s better than I ever dreamed.” 

The evolution of a symbol of Pride

Forty-five years later, the rainbow flag continues to evolve. The most familiar version, introduced in 1979, boasts six coloured bands instead of the original eight—pink and turquoise being removed due to the difficulties and cost involved in sourcing the dyes. Just before he died, Baker also proposed a nine-striped flag, reinstating the two colours and adding and extra stripe, lilac, to represent diversity.  

Intersex inclusive pride flag

Intersex-inclusive Pride flag © Nikki, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Further incarnations of the flag followed, including the Philadelphia Pride flag (2017) which added black and brown stripes to the top of the six-banded design to represent the struggled faced by people of colour within the LGBTQ+ community; this was the precursor to Daniel Quasar’s Progress flag (2018) which added a chevron overlay in black, brown, pale blue, white and pink to the six-banded flag. The colours represent people of colour and the trans community and the arrow pointing to the right symbolises the progress already made and how much more can be done. Valentino Vecchietti adapted the Progress flag in 2021 to include a purple circle on a yellow background—the symbol of the intersex community. 

The 1979 Rainbow flag continues to be used most widely but a growing number of people are adopting Quasar and Vecchietti’s designs due to the inclusivity they represent. 

Gilbert Baker’s gift to the LGBTQ+ community 

Baker’s flag has led to the rainbow becoming a global symbol of LGBTQ+ equality. Building displaying the flag are immediately recognisable as safe spaces where everyone is welcome regardless of their sexuality or gender and, particularly throughout Pride month in June, members of the LGBTQ+ community proudly display rainbow flags on clothing, pin badges and painted on faces during marches and other Pride events.  

"Baker’s flag has led to the rainbow becoming a global symbol of LGBTQ+ equality"

What is perhaps most astonishing is that Gilbert Baker purposefully chose not to trademark the rainbow flag, effectively gifting it to the world

Wider use of the rainbow flag 

Over recent years more corporations have embraced the rainbow flag, with many including a Pride edition of their logo in promotional materials. Companies have also capitalised on the popularity of the rainbow flag with the symbol splashed on everything from t-shirts to water bottles. This has garnered a mixed reception from the LGBTQ+ community, with some people celebrating the increased visibility of the rainbow symbol while others accuse brands of "rainbow washing"—using the symbol superficially—or monetizing the flag for their own gain. 

"The simplicity of both the design and meaning of the six-striped banner means Baker’s legacy will endure"

However, other uses of the flag have had a better reception. The introduction of rainbow crossings—road crossings based on Baker’s design—brought with it an outpouring of love for these colourful landmarks, leading to them becoming permanent fixtures in cities such as Sydney and Seattle; and social media fans were delighted by 2016’s introduction of the rainbow flag emoji. 

Despite many sexualities and genders now having their own individual flags, the rainbow continues to represent the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. However it evolves, the simplicity of both the design and meaning of the six-striped banner means Gilbert Baker’s legacy will endure.

Happy Pride!

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter