The Forgotten History of the Rainbow Flag

Marchers in the 2013 Twin Cities Pride Parade carry rainbow flags as spectators watch along Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

By Chloe Davis

In 1978, San Francisco artist and gay activist Gilbert Baker raised the iconic Rainbow Flag for the very first time. Every strip of fabric was dyed by Baker’s own hand and stitched together by volunteers, eight colored stripes in total: hot pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunshine, green for earth, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit.

That same year, the flag made its first appearance, in the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco, and thus was christened the symbol of gay rights in America and around the world. Remembering that pivotal moment many years later, Baker said, “Raising it up and seeing it there blowing in the wind for everyone to see… It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightning—that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us.”

It’s been almost 40 years since the first Rainbow Flag flew in a Pride parade, and it seems that much of the true meaning of the flag has been forgotten. The symbolism of the colored stripes, representing the shared values of a diverse and vibrant movement, has been distorted. It has been replaced by a nod to intersectionality: the finite area where a growing number of discrete identity groups cross interests. And a movement that once stood for freedom—freedom from persecution, freedom from censorship, freedom of conscience, and freedom to love according to one’s own heart—has increasingly embraced intersectional and authoritarian impulses.

This year, the city of Philadelphia has introduced a version of the Rainbow Flag that incorporates brown and black stripes to highlight the contributions to the gay rights movement by people of color. But this represents a misunderstanding of the rainbow’s symbolism: a spectrum of color representing life lived to the fullest. The implication seems to be that embracing the values of freedom and equality are not enough—that you are not really included in the movement until your number has been called.

The colored stripes of Baker’s flag represent not individual identities boiled down to visible characteristics like race or gender but a spectrum of the fundamental elements that make us human. The flag puts forth the ultimate statement of inclusion: if you embrace the movement, the movement embraces you. Stemming from a mode of thought that counts people like colored marbles, magpie-like, the Philadelphia flag seeks to be inclusive but fundamentally misunderstands what that means.

Further illustration that inclusiveness no longer means what it once did, there is one group of people feeling unwelcome at Pride parades this year: gays and gay allies that support the current presidential administration. In Charlotte, N.C., two gay men, one of whom is the leader of a group called “Gays for Trump”, were explicitly barred from the Pride parade and their float application denied because of their support for the president.

In Los Angeles, this year’s Pride Parade morphed into a “Resist March” against President Trump when tens of thousands of protesters flooded the parade route, waving signs with such messages as “Dump Trump” and “Resist with Pride” and touting political organizations from Planned Parenthood to Black Lives Matter. Resistance marchers also voiced their opposition to long-time corporate sponsors of the event, including Wells Fargo, which sponsored its first Pride parade in San Francisco in 1992. A spokesman for the protest organizers, Stephen Macias, is reported as saying, “This was not the year for parades. This was the year to take to the streets and march.”

Never mind that President Trump is the first Commander in Chief to enter office with a pro-gay marriage stance and the first major Republican politician to publicly loft the Rainbow Flag. The rainbow, it seems, does not include Donald Trump. The rainbow rejects any position taken by Donald Trump, as the coalition of causes on the march in L.A. was meant to convey. And most of all, the rainbow rejects any Donald Trump supporters, be they gay, straight, or purple. For a movement predicated on freedom and openness, this year has been marked by a failure to uphold that legacy.

In yet another betrayal of the meaning of inclusiveness this year, the organizers of Chicago’s “Dyke March” asked participants to refrain from carrying Pride flags depicting the Jewish Star of David superimposed in white over a rainbow-striped background, and marchers displaying the flags were asked to leave the parade route. The organizers’ reasoning? The flags made some other marchers “feel unsafe.” In a statement on Twitter, the organization wrote: “The Chicago Dyke March Collective is explicitly not anti-Semitic, we are anti-Zionist. The Chicago Dyke March Collective supports the liberation of Palestine and all oppressed people everywhere.”

Never mind that Israel is the only country in the Middle East today that does not prosecute homosexuality, either through laws explicitly outlawing it or through “indecency laws” used to target gays. Never mind the long history of homosexual individuals fleeing the PA to Israel to escape persecution, torture, and in many cases certain death.

There’s a good argument for the idea that if the Philadelphia flag misconstrues the symbolism of the original Pride Flag, so too does this one. But to ban participants from carrying it on the grounds that the Star of David constitutes an unacceptable stance in support of Israel is a show of intolerance incongruous with the values of the gay rights movement. Setting aside the PA’s abysmal record on gay rights, how can the organizers of the Chicago Dyke March claim not to be anti-Semitic when they have banned not the Israeli flag, a political symbol, but the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism and the Jewish people?

The gay rights movement began as a campaign tasked with winning rights and freedoms that had been denied to gay Americans and winning cultural acceptance for gays through free speech. As American culture began to embrace gay life as part and parcel of the American Dream, businesses and corporations became willing allies of the cause of acceptance. It was a victory for tolerance and a testament to the virtues of pluralism in a free society. But this legacy is under threat from within. As the call for color-by-number diversity intensifies, so too does the call to stifle any variation in belief or thought. The gay community, beneficiaries of a movement built on freedom and openness, should reject this new direction unequivocally.