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You can get a mug with it on,
a t-shirt, duvet, dog jacket,
toothbrush or even an oyster card
holder. The deeper we get into
pride season, the more places you
will find a rainbow flag. But where
did this instantly recognisable
symbol of gay pride come from?
The LGBT community is a nation
with a flag and no land! Like a
nomadic tribe, we wander around
the country carrying our symbolic
colours through streets, hanging
our flag from buildings and even
painting it on our face. But the
rainbow flag itself predates the
concept of ‘being gay’. Its first
notable use in history was in fact
during a rather nasty war – the
German Peasant’s Revolt in 1524.
The flag represented hope and
social change and was waved
into battle and draped out of the
windows of supporters. It didn’t
quite bring the hope and social
change it promised though as the
revolt failed and 100,000 would-be
revolutionaries lost their lives.
But the rainbow flag’s association
with social change continued
when the Cooperative Movement
chose it as their symbol when their
leaders met in Switzerland in 1921.
For them, the colours represented
communities working together
to own, manage and benefit
from businesses. The red was
courage, the orange vision, yellow
represented change, green the
challenge ahead, light blue the new
horizons, dark blue the inevitable
pessimism to be confronted and
violet represented the warmth and
friendship of the movement.
The rainbow’s Biblical association
with peace has also meant the flag
has become synonymous with the
anti-war movement. The flag was
used for a peace march in Italy
in 1961 and then when the more
recent anti-war demonstrations
took place in 2001, it was used
again. Italians who were opposed
to war were encouraged to hang
a rainbow flag from their balcony
with the word ‘pace’ in white
letters across it (‘Pace’ being the
Italian for ‘Peace’.) These so-called
Pace flags have now become a
fixture of protests worldwide and
can even be seen popping up at the
odd gay pride march.
The flag’s most notable use of
course is to symbolise the LGBT
community and its history for this
use can be traced back to one man
– Gilbert Baker. After his discharge
from the army, Gilbert moved to
the liberal and relaxed area of San
Francisco. There, he taught himself
to sew in order to produce banners
for the emerging LGBT activist
His talents became known
throughout the community and
Gilbert was approached by the
organisers of the San Francisco
Gay Freedom Pride Day in 1978
to make an iconic flag. He decided
to gather and dye some material
and together with 30 volunteers
made the first ever gay pride flag. A
rainbow seemed the obvious choice
as it represented diversity and
hope. His flag had 8 colours and
was flown by the side of the parade
route. One of Gilbert’s friends,
Harvey Milk, drove under the flag
in his open top car, an iconic image
of the early gay rights movement.
Sadly, Milk was assassinated later
that year and didn’t live to see
the flag become the international
symbol of gay pride it is today.
After the Gay Freedom Day, the
popularity of the flag slowly spread.
The ‘hot pink’ colour was removed
as the dye to make it was hard to
find on a widespread scale. Shortly
after, the turquoise stripe was also
removed because it was obscured
when hung from the lampposts in
San Francisco. This gave us the six
colour flag which we know today.
Then in 1994, 25 years after the
Stonewall Riots, a new trend
came along when Gilbert was
commissioned to make a mile long
rainbow flag for New York Pride.
Afterwards, the flag was cut up and
sent around the world to different
activists to use in their own pride
events. The trend of large flags
has continued and even small
local prides in this country often
feature a giant rainbow of some
Although the flag is used in many
different ways, it means the same
thing – hope. No other group is
best represented by this flag. With
its diverse, colourful and vibrant
nature, it is almost certain the
LGBT community will be using
the rainbow flag as its symbol even
years after the fight for equality
is over. Until then, it serves as
a signifier, a rallying cry and an
emblem of unity and equality for all
of the LGBT community.
A history of the rainbow flag