How the Rainbow Flag Became an Icon of LGBT Rights

Jun 25, 2015

While the nation awaits a Supreme Court ruling that could establish same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, the rainbow flag — a symbol for LGBT rights, acceptance and pride — is celebrating its anniversary.

The Obergefell v. Hodges ruling itself could fall within days of the flag’s exact birthday: June 25 marks the anniversary of the flag’s first appearance, flying over San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978.

Gilbert Baker, who designed the original rainbow flag in 1978, tells TIME that the possibility of the ruling coinciding with the flag's birthday is "a little wild." With Pride Week already under way in New York City as well as the Museum of Modern Art announcing its acquisition of Baker's design last week, the rainbow flag is already having a busy month.

It's come a long way from the moment 37 years ago when Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco city-county supervisor who would be assassinated just months later, asked Baker to create flags for the city's parade. The nascent gay-rights movement had no symbol apart from the pink triangle — and few wanted to rally around a Nazi concentration camp badge.

Baker says he got the job as he happened to be extremely proficient in sewing, being a drag performer who couldn't afford to buy the clothes he wanted to wear. He worked with a team of 30 to dye and stitch together the strips of fabric to create the flag in the attic of San Francisco’s Gay Community Center.

Making it in the colors of the rainbow, Baker says, was the obvious choice. "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," he says. "It’s a natural flag; the rainbow is in the sky and it’s beautiful. It’s a magical part of nature."

The two original flags had eight stripes each, with hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo and violet descending from the top. Baker conceived meanings for each color; for example, orange represented healing and hot pink represented sexuality. He then took a job at Paramount Flag Co. in San Francisco, where he convinced the factory to produce the flags on a wider scale.

Parade goers continued to fly the flag in the San Francisco gay-pride parade each year, and it soon became a symbol for the event. As supporters hung and draped the flags across the city and created a demand, the design lost the hot pink and turquoise colors for practical production reasons. In 1988, when a man took his landlords to court over the right to hang the flag in West Hollywood, the design gained more prominence outside the Bay area.

Over time, the flag became a global icon. The design has proved versatile; people have incorporated the rainbow into variations of different country and state flags, such as Texas, Canada and South Africa. Baker led the creation of massive, mile-long versions of the flag in 1994 and 2003; first, for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and then for the flag’s 25th anniversary.

The design has even been adopted as the official flag for the micronation of the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, a small group of islands unofficially declared a republic in 2004 by a group of Australian activists protesting for marriage equality. The flag's international reach has given Baker a perspective on the global nature of the gay-rights struggle, he says. "In most of the world, it’s still not cool to be gay. You can be murdered in these places. You can be thrown in jail. Being gay in San Francisco is fun. Being gay in Saudi Arabia — that’s a whole other matter."

In June, MoMA acquired the flag as a symbol and work of art. Baker says he had offered the gallery the two original flags from 1978, but ended up giving the museum a flag in the ubiquitous, six-colored style, that he created especially for the collection. "MoMA I think is really interested in the power, the symbol and how that’s really taken hold," Baker says. "Not just in flags, but in all kinds of ways. When the Supreme Court [ruling] comes down in the next couple of days, every single newscast is going to have a rainbow flag on it."

As for the imminent Supreme Court ruling itself, Baker says it's "terrific" that same-sex marriage could be deemed a constitutional right in the U.S., but that it would underscore the work still to be done around the world. "It’s not the end of the struggle; in fact, it’s really just beginning," Baker says. "And there’s so much more to do."

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.