“My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; so is it now I am a man.” – William Wordsworth
Till 1978, the Pink Triangle was the most prominent symbol for the Queer rights movement. The triangle was a symbol used to identify homosexual men in concentration camps in Nazi Germany, so they could be subjected to additional torture. Originally intended as a badge of shame, the queer community reclaimed the Pink Triangle as an emblem of pride and strength.
The call for a new symbol came from Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor. Milk’s approach to fighting for queer rights was quite unique – he’s didn’t want to portray the community as victims of oppression but as normal everyday-people.He aspired to “break down the myths…destroy the lies and distortions” surrounding the queer community. The Pink triangle represented the atrocities the community had endured in the past, it had a melancholic connotation of repression and torture and wasn’t really a symbol of liberation.
So Milk approached Gilbert Baker, ex-army man turned drag performer with a knack for sewing, for creating flags for San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978. “We needed something that expressed us. The rainbow really fits that, in terms of: we’re all the colors, and all the genders and all the races,” Baker says. “It’s a natural flag; the rainbow is in the sky and it’s beautiful. It’s a magical part of nature.“
Baker’s passion for sewing was such that even his drag persona was called “Busty Ross,” after Betsy Ross, designer of the American Flag. He was inspired by Judy Garland, an American actress-singer and one of the first prominent gay icons, and her anthem ‘Over the Rainbow.’ The idea of stripes came from the Flag of Races, demonstrated in a few college campuses in 1960s, which consisted of 5 horizontal stripes of different colors associated with different races and served as symbol for world peace.
Contrary to popular belief, the original flag – dyed, stitched and ironed by Baker along with 30 other volunteers – did not actually depict a rainbow, it consisted of an additional colour, hot pink, on top of the pallet of VIBGYOR. The 8-striped flag represented the diversity and vibrancy of the queer community perfectly. Each color represented a different element – pink was for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the soul. The flag has evolved over time: hot pink was removed as it was neither economically viable nor easily available; the Pride Parade Committee of 1979, which was set up after the assassination of Harvey Milk, eliminated indigo so that the colors could be evenly divided along the parade route. The version with 6 coloured stripes that was left is what is recognized internationally today.
Historically, varied colours have always been significant in the community. Green denoted homosexuality in Victorian England and was used to signal non-normative sexual orientation by many including Oscar Wilde, who always wore a green carnation on his lapel. Purple became associated with queerness in the late 1960s after the Stonewall incident. References to rainbows were also made in myths and stories related to sexuality in Greek and Native America among other cultures.
The original eight-color rainbow flag still flies over the Castro bar in San Francisco and from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in New York City. And on its 35th anniversary, Gilbert Baker during the parade, urged everyone to reclaim the original 8-striped flag as what binds the queer community together is non-normative sexuality (hot pink).
Evidently, the international queer movement has picked up pace in the past few years. When the USA legalised same-sex marriages, Facebook came out with a translucent rainbow filter for display picture. Around the same time, Oreo released an advertisement of a cookie with rainbow coloured filling and Doritos released rainbow coloured chips to show their support as well. Now, it’s possible that such brands aren’t in it for the cause but for sheer capitalism, but nevertheless, exposing people to the movement increases dialogue helps in attaining genuine and lasting social acceptance.
Even so, lesser known LGBTQ identities still don’t have half as much public validation or even acknowledgement as the relatively popular ‘L’, ‘G’ and ‘T’. As a result, lesser known queer identities took a cue from Milk’s idea of using a flag as a symbol and created flags of their own- many have retained horizontal stripes from the parent Rainbow flag to make their belonging to the Queer community clear.
Every element of these flags has a purpose. For instance, the Pansexual flag- to show that pansexual people can be attracted to anyone irrespective of their identity- has a gold-yellow colour in the middle which covers those who identify with a gender apart from the conventional blue (male) and pink (female). As there’s only one but significant difference between Pansexuality and Polysexuality, their flags are the same except the ‘yellow’ is replaced by green in the Polysexual flag. Trans people have a flag with 5 horizontal stripes – arranged in a symmetric manner so that no matter which way you fly it, it is correct. A variation of the Intersex flag is a play on the Transgender flag and signifies correctness as well. To encompass the different identities that don’t experience sexual attraction, the Asexual flag even has a ‘grey’ area between sexuality and asexuality.
Even when all these other flags exist, the rainbow is still the most popular symbol of the movement. The beauty of the rainbow flag comes from how it encapsulates everyone under the non-normative spectrum. One can endorse LGBTQ rights without saying much but simply by wearing a little badge with an embossing of multi-colored stripes. It has successfully fulfilled its purpose – it’s natural, beautiful and magical, and more than anything else, it is now everywhere.