The colourful origins of the gay pride rainbow flag

The rainbow flag is the most recognisable symbol representing gay pride.

The rainbow flag is the most recognisable symbol representing gay pride. Photo: Getty

Around the world the rainbow flag flies high as the most recognisable symbol representing gay pride, but this was not always the case.

It also did not always look the way it appears now.

Nick Henderson is the curator and archivist at the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Melbourne.

He said there had been many other symbols in use over the decades, the most common being a pink triangle with a fist at its centre and interlinked Mars or Venus symbols.

Stop Police Attacks badge

Stop Police Attacks, On Gays, Women, and Blacks! (SWP), 1978, designed by John Garcia. Photo: Badge Collection, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

“[These were] very much in the context of liberation movements like women’s liberation [and] black power,” he told ABC Radio.

“Those movements gave inspiration to the gay liberation movement and where we drew some of our icons from.”

Flying an alternative to the pink triangle

The rainbow flag was created and first hoisted in San Francisco in 1978 by US gay rights activist Gilbert Baker.

In an interview with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Mr Baker said he had been motivated to create an alternative symbol to the pink triangle due to its dark origins; it was first used by the Nazis to denote gay people held in concentration camps.

“The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things,” he told the museum, which acquired the symbol into its design collection in 2015.

Soon after the flag’s creation, Mr Baker fought a legal battle to keep it from being trademarked so it could remain free for public use.

Losing ‘sex’ and ‘magic’

The rainbow flag originally featured eight coloured stripes, with each one representing something different.

Red was for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, indigo for serenity, and violet for spirit.

A hot-pink strip across the top representing sexuality and a turquoise strip for magic and art were difficult to reproduce with the original hand-coloured process.

“So eventually those two colours, which were the hardest colours to obtain, dropped off,” Mr Henderson explained.

Other variations of the flag have existed, with some including a canton of white stars in the top left corner and white stripes in between the colours, similar to the American national flag.

The rainbow flag in Australia

Mr Henderson said it was hard to determine when the rainbow flag was first used in Australia, but observed its prominence within the local LGBT community arose in the 1990s.

CAMPNSW Venus and Mars signs poster

Down to Earth: Canberra, 10-14 December, 1976. Photo: Poster Collection, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

“If you look at the imagery throughout the ’70s and ’80s, even into the early ’90s, what you’ll see is the pink triangle being that dominant symbol,” he said.

“You’re still seeing it crop up now and again, certainly with older activists, but the rainbow flag has certainly dominated the imagery of late.”

Mr Henderson said the flag’s colours had been used to indicate safe spaces for bullied children, and had also been appropriated in many frivolous and more commercial means.

“It’s an incredibly versatile symbol,” he said.

The largest recorded instance of the flag was in 1994 when Mr Baker created a 1.6km-long version to mark the 25th anniversary of the New York Stonewall riots between gay activists and police.

The flag was subsequently divided up, with portions of it sent around the world.

Lasting legacy of creator

Mr Baker died last year, but Mr Henderson said his legacy remained in the prominence of his creation.

“He left a much broader contribution than just the rainbow flag, but certainly his activism around the flag can be seen,” he said.

“I think you can see … its popularity in Australia shows the impact he has had on the world.”


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