In 1977 a former soldier of the US army Gilbert Baker met Harvey Milk, an influential gay activist, who asked Baker to come up with a new symbol of pride for the LGBTQ+ society, back then more commonly known as the gay community. Baker himself was a gay man and after he left the army, he taught himself to sew in order to earn money. He had no clue that he would be the one to create a symbol that, 40 years later, would mean and stand for so much more than the freedom of queer love.
Before the very well-known Rainbow flag became the symbol of the Queer society a pink triangle was the commonly known symbol to express the freedom of love. Harvey wanted to have a new symbol created because the origin of the pink triangle goes back to the history of Nazi Germany. Back then the symbol was used by the Nazis to identify and stigmatise homosexuals in the same way, as the star of David was used as identification for Jews.
In the 1970’s the Queer community, wanted a new symbol, an original one, expressing hope and break ties with this dark chapter of history and a symbol that was forced on them by people who wanted them to be exterminated.
It is said that Harvey admired Baker for his creativity and therefore asked him to come up with this new symbol. It is not confirmed but apparently Baker was inspired by Judy Garland’s iconic song ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ and the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
The Stonewall Riots were a series of demonstrations triggered by a police raid and police brutality at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, in New York City. Coincidentally, the riots took place after the tragic death of Judy Garland who was and still is one of the iconic figures for the gay community, as Lady Gaga or Beyoncé are today.
Another story is that the rainbow flag originated during the college campuses demonstrations for world peace in the 1960’s. They carried the flag of races, also called ‘the flag of the human race’ with five stripes: Red, white, brown, yellow and black. Supposedly, Baker saw this flag and felt inspired to create a similar one for the Queer community.
The first rainbow flags were then commissioned by the pride committee in San Francisco. Back then, Baker supposedly said that he felt inspired by the movements of world peace and was greatly influenced by the gay activist, poet and writer Allen Ginsberg. In 1978 Baker’s original flag was comprised of eight colour stripes, each colour was assigned a special meaning: Pink stood for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art and magic, indigo for serenity and violet for spirit.
On June 1978, this original pride flag was introduced and flew at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade celebration. History was made.
In winter 1978, shortly after the assassination of the gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, who had the idea to commission a new symbol for Queer Pride, the demand of the rainbow flag spread as a symbol of pride and resistance throughout the Western World. The colours of the rainbow were unstoppable.
As the demand of the flag grew so rapidly, and the availability of the hot pink fabric became an issue for production, this colour was removed from the eight-colour code. A year later, the pride committee of San Francisco decided to split the flag into two, in order to decorate the two street sides of the parade route. However, gays being gays, they realised that on one side of the street there would be four colours and on the other side only three, which would not look as harmonically stylish and in balance. Quickly, it was decided that indigo and turquoise were dropped and replaced by a royal blue. The six-colour version which everyone knows today was created.
And this is not the end of the story of the rainbow flag. This flag especially, has undergone more changes, reimaginations and produced new versions as no other flag of a community or a country has, especially within the last years.
After Donald Trump’s election, Baker added a ninth stripe to his original eight stripe version of the flag in 2017. The colour lavender represents diversity and the idea that people of all nations, all countries, whatever social background or skin colour are welcomed within the LGBTQ+ society and would find support and have a home with them.
In 2016, the six-colour coded flag went viral. The idea was introduced in summer and by November everyone with a smart phone was able to send text messages or post something accompanied with the emoji of the rainbow flag.
At times, when there were pride celebrations going on around the world, the flags of different nations were redesigned and transformed into a rainbow flag. For example, the flag of the United States of America. Here the red and white stripes were replaced by the rainbow colour code. Another example is the flag of the United Kingdom, the union flag. Instead of the red, blue and white pattern, which is known all around the world, the flag was recreated with the rainbow colour code. Or in 2010, a South African gay pride flag was designed for the pride celebrations in Cape Town.
Another version of the flag was created in the early years of the Aids Pandemic. The rainbow flag changed again. It was adapted. A black stripe at the bottom of the flag was added to represent the people who lost the fight against the virus. It was called the ‘Victory over Aids’ flag.
In June 2017 in Philadelphia, the Pride committee added brown and black stripes on top of the flag to draw attention to the injustices towards people of colour and especially injustices towards people of colour within the LGBTQ+ society, as they not only suffer injustices due to homophobia but also because of racism.
In February 2018 during the street carnival of Sao Paolo another new version of the rainbow flag was created. The new design was the very first one, the eight colour code of the flag but in the middle a white stripe was added which was supposed to represent all colours, the diversity of the human race and that everyone who experienced injustices by the powerful would be protected and welcomed within the LGBTQ+ society.
The greatest alteration of the rainbow flag within the last years was probably created by designer Daniel Quasar who called his new version the Trans Pride Flag or the Progress Rainbow Flag. A chevron was added along the hoist that features black, brown, light blue, pink and white stripes, representing people of colour, trans individuals and people living with HIV/ Aids and those who lost the fight against the virus. The arrow points to the right to show movement and progress and as it stands on the left and points to the right it underlines the fact that the LGBTQ+ society is not perfect and has often been criticised within, about who to include and who not to include. This new flag wants to tell the story of a community that should embrace everything and everyone that is a minority and suffered due to whatever injustices experienced, and that the LGBTQ+ society needs to work and wants to work on that inclusivity every day. Here it should also be mentioned that these variations of flags have very often been criticised within the LGBTQ+ society, as some individuals feel that the popular six colour coded flag, should be the official flag and represent everything the LGBTQ+ society stands for. Yet it is a movement, a rainbow movement that changes and needs to change whenever injustices happen and despite criticism the altered variations have eventually always been welcomed and became a part, somewhat a family extension of the popular six colour coded flag.
Reflecting on this, the flag and its variations are nothing more but a mirror on a society of human beings who make mistakes, want to make progress and with every additional year of the rainbow movement learn more and more about inclusivity. And this also very much reflects on the simple fact that all around the world there are all sorts of minorities, injustices and oppressed cultures that should and want to be included within the LGBTQ+ society and must be welcomed.
Another example of this and how adaptable the rainbow flag can be is the creation of 2018: The Social Justice Pride Flag. It was first shown in Chennai, India, at the Chennai Queer Lit Festival and was inspired by the Progress Rainbow Flag. So to say, it is a version within a version of the rainbow flag. The Social Justice Pride Flag incorporates black, representing the self- respect movement, blue representing the Ambedkarite movement, which is a Buddhist movement that had a deep and changing effect on modern India. It is the belief in individuality and stands against the caste system. And the final colour of this new flag is the colour red and stands for political left values.
After reading this and after I have researched the above it comes as no surprise that in 2020, a year that has been transformative and already changed the world so much, the rainbow flag has metamorphosed yet again in a beautiful and inclusive way. During the Black Lives Matter protests a version, already mentioned before, has reappeared on the streets of the US and around the world. The six-colour coded rainbow flag with two added stripes of brown and black. Another new version is the six-colour coded flag with a brown or dark brown fist, or a fist with a variation of skin colours, raised upwards in the forefront. It is yet a new version to say and recognise that due to the recent murders of Afro-Americans in the US because of police brutality, black lives matter and black lives matter within the LGBTQ+ community. They are welcomed and always have a home within the rainbow. While I have been researching information and news for this opinion piece, just within the last week, a new branch within the Black Lives Matter movement occurred. It is about especially pointing out that black trans, gays, lesbians and bisexuals are under more than one threat because they experience racism, homophobia and transphobia and the LGBTQ+ society is and must be there to especially protect this attacked group of people.
The transformative ability of the rainbow has this year really shown what it can do. As the recent Black Lives Matter protests have overlapped with Pride Month it is more than ever of special importance that the LGBTQ+ society recognises, must and wants to stand up for the black community. It is also important to remember and acknowledge that Pride Month and the Pride celebration were created because the Stonewall Riots at the end of the 60’s were started by Afro-American and Latin- American LGBTQ+ members. Two of them were trans women of colour, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. It was individuals like them, under triple threat, racism, homophobia and transphobia, who were the first ones to protest and pave the way for the entire LGBTQ+ community to form as a resistance and a movement.
Leaving this important history of the 20th and 21st century behind I want to get to the source of why the rainbow in the first place has been picked up by so many artists, activists and designers to become a symbol of freedom, peace and love. The answer lies within the history of humans and their shared culture itself. The rainbow is almost like an archetype, similar like the dragon who must be defeated or the fairy godmother who helps the protagonist in dire need.
For instance, the most obvious example within Western culture is the biblical story of Noah’s ark. When the flood was over and the animals left the ark to populate earth again, God send a rainbow to shine over ark, humans and animals alike. With that message he wanted to say that there should be now peace among humans and God. He would never send a flood again to wipe out his creations and that life was given a second chance to thrive. Within the narrative of the bible the rainbow henceforth became a symbol of peace, that all life was sacred, and that there was hope for the future.
Going even further into the past and deeper into mythological stories it is of course necessary to visit Greek mythology. Iris was, next to Hermes, the number one messenger goddess. Her job especially was to send messages between humans and gods. Very often, she also interfered in the lives of mortals and aided them. She travels on nothing less than a rainbow. In other variations of the myths she has rainbow wings. Within the mythology, wherever she appears, she is associated with bringing important knowledge and messages to humans and gods alike and with that she brings hope. She and the rainbow are the bridge between the mortal world and Olympus, the palace of the immortals.
A similar theme repeats itself in Norse mythology. Here the rainbow, called Bifrost, is the bridge between earth and the realm of the gods living in Asgard. The mythology goes that the rainbow Bifrost could never be destroyed, as the link between humans and gods must stand. Except for when the Norse apocalypse, the Ragnarök, would come, only then, the rainbow would be shattered, and all worlds would be destroyed. Here the rainbow also carries the message of destruction but only when it is destroyed itself. Clearly, within the Norse narrative it states that the rainbow is in fact the standing balance of all life and as long as it perseveres life will too.
On the other side of the world, a culture that has probably no relation to Norse or Greek history and myth tells a similar and even more powerful narrative. Within the Australian Aboriginal mythology, the rainbow gets an even more essential role to play. Here the rainbow snake is the creator in the dreaming which is the infinite period of time and responsible for all world’s creation and life. It has no end and will forever thrive. Within this mythology the rainbow clearly becomes the epitome of life and creation itself and underlines how sacred it is.
And in Hindu mythology the rainbow, as the rainbow flag has become almost like a shield the LGBTQ+ community wields, was an all-powerful weapon. According to the myth, Indra, the Hindu God of thunder and war uses the rainbow bow and arrows made of lightning to shoot and kill the Asura Vatra, a primordial demon- serpent. Here the rainbow is not only the source of life but also a weapon that is used against darkness and evil.
Returning to European mythology, everyone knows the story that originates from Ireland. A pot of gold is to be found at the end of a rainbow for a person lucky enough to find it. It is the simple message of when you follow the rainbow you will be rewarded with a treasure that will bring you luck and fortune in your life.
Wherever you are reading this, I hope this symbol of inclusivity speaks to you and shows you, despite all the horrors, wars and injustices humankind has been through, from ancient cultures, over to mythology and religions and all the struggles, problems and issues humans face right now, the rainbow, in all its beautiful forms, has always been there. Sometimes in the background, quiet yet visible and radiating hope. And sometimes in the forefront held up high, marching to demand justice for all kinds of oppressed minorities, and especially this year in 2020, I see the rainbow marching for the Black Lives Matter movement. And all of this means something. It is a powerful message of inclusivity as old as the rainbow and as old as humanity itself.
Keeping the history of the rainbow flag and just these little extracts of rainbow mythology in mind, because there would be so many more to write about, the rainbow becomes such a transformative and inclusive symbol of hope, life and creation that the words sung by Judy Garland echo even so much more deeper now:
‘Somewhere over the rainbow way up high, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue. And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.’