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The story of the rainbow flag

As global celebrations for Pride Month get underway, we will be blessed with the spectacle of rainbow flags brightening up our cities.

June is recognised the world over as Pride Month, in tribute to the Stonewall riots of June 1969 - a series of violent confrontations between police and gay rights activists originating at the Stonewall Inn gay bar in New York.

 

 

Here in London, the month will culminate in a parade on July 6th, with a jubilant party snaking its way through our streets and landmarks.

The rainbow flag will be flown as a beacon of inclusion, equality, and diversity. The official symbol of gay pride – the flag has a story as colourful as its design suggests.

Invented in 1978 by 27-year-old gay rights activist and artist, Gilbert Baker, at the behest of Harvey Milk, the celebrated but tragically ill-fated gay politician who was assassinated later the same year.

Baker’s original flag was first waved in June 1978 at San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade – a symbolic 37 years to the day before the U.S Supreme Court handed down its historic decision to legalise same-sex marriage. The symbol immediately took hold, representing a powerful design milestone.

 

 

The flag has known many versions, but the prevailing design features six stripes, each holding symbolic meaning - Red for Life, Orange for Healing, Yellow for Sunlight, Green for Nature, Blue for Serenity, and Violet for Spirit.

Colour had long held an important place in gay communities before it was co-opted by Baker. Closeted gay people would use colour to signal their sexual orientation to one another at a time when it was dangerous to openly proclaim it, and in Nazi Germany, gay men were forced to wear pink triangles to mark their sexual deviance. Using the rainbow was a way for Baker to subvert these shaming signifiers thrust upon the gay community and claim them as a symbol of pride and activism.

 

 

So potent is the symbolism of the rainbow flag that today any object can be imbued with its prideful message – stipes in fashion, art, on the sides of buildings, stuck on a car bumper.

Baker claims his suitability for the role came from being a “big drag queen,” and consequently adept at sewing himself outfits. Within the climate of political engagement of 1970s San Francisco, Baker went from the drag queen who sewed costumes to the activist who sewed banners for protests. He said in an interview with MoMA, when his flag was acquired into their design collection; “My craft became my activism.”

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