How the Rainbow Flag Became a Colorful Symbol of Pride

Learn the history behind the iconic design.

For more than fifty years, June has been recognized as Pride Month, an annual celebration of the LGBTQ+ community. The rainbow flag is an instantly recognizable symbol of LGBTQ+ pride around the world, but it hasn't always been that way. When the first demonstrations for LGBTQ+ rights took off 50 years ago, the colorful rainbow flag did not exist. This Pride Month, we look back on where the famous flag comes from, the creative forces behind the design, and what other pride flags exist today.

rainbow pride or lgbt flag flying against blue sky
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When Was the Rainbow Flag Created?

In the 1970s, gay rights activists used a pink triangle as a symbol to represent their cause. The pink triangle was used as a badge in Nazi concentration camps in World War II to identify prisoners convicted of homosexuality. Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones, and other movement leaders believed a new symbol with less tragic roots would better represent the community, so they asked activist Gilbert Baker to create something new in early 1978.

Baker, along with several volunteers, created the original eight-color rainbow flags by hand-dyeing strips of fabric. This first flag was unveiled at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. Baker, who passed away in 2017, did not copyright the flag and its use took off around the world.

What Did the Original Colors Mean?

Baker's original flag contained eight colors, a specific meaning associated with each.

  • Hot pink - sex
  • Red - life
  • Orange - healing
  • Yellow - sunlight
  • Green - nature
  • Turquoise - magic/art
  • Indigo - serenity
  • Violet - spirit

Hot pink was soon dropped because it wasn't commercially available as production ramped up. The flag design was changed again in 1979 when turquoise was eliminated to give the flag an even number of colors. The six-color flag (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet) has been popular since 1979.

What Do the New Variations Of the Rainbow Flag Mean?

The six-color version remained untouched for decades and is still a standard around the world. In June 2017, the city of Philadelphia raised a new flag with the colors black and brown added on above the red stripe to represent the inclusion of people of color. In June 2018, Daniel Quasar created the Progress Pride Flag that includes a triangle of black and brown as well as white, pink, and blue stripes for transgender inclusion.

While different LGBTQ+ community members use different flags and have different opinions on the flag variations, the standard six-color flag is still widely used.

Are There Other Pride Flags Beside the Rainbow?

There are more than 30 other pride flags for different identities within the LGBTQ+ community. The original rainbow flag was created primarily with gay people in mind and there are people of many more identities now included in the community.

The first new flags separate from the rainbow were created by different individual activists and community members in the 1990s. Notably, the bisexual pride flag was created in 1998 and the transgender pride flag was created in 1999. Most of the others were created in the 2010s with their own horizontal stacked colored stripes. Here are just a few of the pride colors of those striped flags:

  • Agender - black, gray, white, and green
  • Aromantic - green, light green, white, gray, and black
  • Asexual - black, gray, white, and purple
  • Bisexual - pink, purple, and blue
  • Gay - greens, blues, and white
  • Genderfluid - pink, white, purple, black, and blue
  • Genderqueer - purple, white, and green
  • Lesbian - dark orange, light orange, white, light pink, and dark pink
  • Nonbinary - yellow, white, purple, and black
  • Pansexual - hot pink, yellow, and blue
  • Transgender - light blue, light pink, and white

There are variations of many of these flags made by different creators and there are other flags that stray away from only colored horizontal stripes.

Each of the dozens of pride flags give the person who waves it a sense that they are part of a community that proudly celebrates who they. They are universal symbols of inclusion and welcome. Flags—whether national or otherwise—unite people under a common identity and give them a sense of belonging. It's hard to imagine a world without the famous rainbow flag—and thanks to Gilbert Baker, we don't have to.

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