On June 25, 1978, artist Gilbert Baker created the flag in San Francisco. He wanted to create a universally understood symbol.
“[The Rainbow Flag] doesn’t say the word ‘Gay,’ and it doesn’t say ‘the United States’ on the American flag, but everyone knows visually what they mean,” he said. “And that influence really came to me when I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.”
“It was necessary to have the Rainbow Flag because up until that we had the pink triangle from the Nazi’s – it was the symbol that they would use [to denote gay people.] It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler,” Baker said. “We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag – it’s from the sky!”
As a drag queen, Baker was able to sew and would often make the banners for protest marchers. He decided the flag needed a birthplace. Baker and a team of 30 friends went to the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove Street in San Francisco and dyed thousands of yards of cotton over the top-floor attic gallery to create the flag.
Two flags were made and raised at the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco.
“We picked the birthplace very carefully, and it happened on June 25, 1978,” Baker said. “That was deliberate – even in those days, my vision and the vision of so many of us was that this was a global struggle and a global human rights issue. And now here we are all these years later – we’re not there yet by any stretch of the imagination but in my lifetime we have come far.”
Though Baker agrees that a lot has changed since he created the flag as a 27-year-old, but he believes we are still far from where we need to be.
“We are still dealing with huge, massive resistance, even here in our own country, even here in our own city, even in our own families,” Baker said. “What the rainbow has given our people is a thing that connects us. I can go to another country, and if I see a rainbow flag, I feel like that’s someone who is a kindred spirit or [that it’s] a safe place to go. It’s sort of a language, and it’s also proclaiming power.”
The flag is now among the symbols like the recycling symbol, the @ symbol and the Creative Commons logo at the Museum of Modern Art.