Rainbow Flag, Gilbert Baker, 1978

Last summer, New York’s MoMA announced it had acquired Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow Flag for its permanent design collection. Speaking to Brain Pickings Maria Popova at the time, curator and AIGA Medalist Paola Antonelli explained why she felt the flag was such an important addition:

“Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade,” she said. “They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design.”

She went on to celebrate the flag as “bright, simple, luminous, positive despite everything.” And she noted presciently, “When it was born almost 40 years ago, it defied violence and prejudice. Sadly, it still does, in some places.” Earlier this month, one of those places was the U.S., after a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 more during an attack on a gay club in Orlando, Florida. The LGBT community and the wider world are still trying to process the events of last weekend.

Suddenly the rainbow flag is everywhere. All this week it has been displayed deliberately and defiantly across different countries and communities as a symbol of pride, and hope, and grief. At packed vigils it appeared on candles and posters, T-shirts and ribbons. The Eiffel Tower and One World Trade Center in New York were lit up in the rainbow colors, and cities from Tel Aviv to Toronto created their own multi-colored tributes. People changed their Facebook profiles to adopt the symbol (much as they did with the Tricolor after the terrorist attacks in Paris late last year). At a concert in Berlin, Paul McCartney sang “Yesterday” while draped in Baker’s famous creation.

Gilbert Baker
Gilbert Baker

Baker was an artist, a drag queen, and a friend of Harvey Milk, the prominent gay politician who encouraged Baker to create a new symbol for the LBGT community. Just months after it was unveiled, Milk was shot by an anti-gay gunman, an act that underlined why the new symbol—proud, defiant, united—was so needed.

From the start, Baker decided his flag “needed a birthplace,” and so rather than making it at home, he assembled with friends at 330 Grove Street in San Francisco, a gay community center. From the accounts of Baker and others, you can imagine the noise and the atmosphere of creative, optimistic abandon. In an interview with MoMA to mark the acquisition, Baker remembered his group of collaborators giddily piling into a local laundrette to dye the pieces of the flag.

“They have all these signs at the Laundromat saying ‘Do not dye,’ so of course we wait until everyone is gone late at night and run in and fill every machine with quarters and blast them all—and [the machines turn] every color of the rainbow! We threw Clorox in [the machines] afterwards hoping that the next customers weren’t walking out of there with pink underwear!”

Initially the flag featured eight colors: pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, which corresponded, according to its creator, to sexuality, life, healing, sun, nature, art, harmony, and spirit. Over time (and for reasons designers everywhere will recognize) the eight colors became six—the pink dye was rare and very expensive, and the indigo interfered with visual symmetry, particularly when the flag was displayed vertically. But even though pink and indigo were removed, sexuality and harmony remained central components of what the flag stood for.

In his brilliant 2015 TED Talk, Roman Mars runs through the five basic principles of flag design according to the North American Vexillological Association:

  • keep it simple
  • use meaningful symbolism
  • use two to three basic colors
  • no lettering or seals
  • be distinctive

Mars shows some flags that have failed to abide by these seemingly simple guidelines (the city flag of San Francisco is a particularly egregious example). Turns out Baker had instinctively created something that ticks all of these boxes (albeit with a few extra colors). Little wonder then that his design has been so widely adopted by the LGBT community, both in deliberate, defiant displays such as those we have seen since Orlando, and in smaller, quieter ways—the discreet lapel pin or sticker placed in a hotel window.

As Mars puts it, the best thing about flags is that “They are an open-source, publicly-owned design language of the community. When they are done well they are re-mixable, adaptable, and powerful.”

Baker would agree. “Flags,” he told MoMA, “are about proclaiming power.” And as part of this, flags are wrapped up in identity, whether that’s of a nation or a community. They become a powerful visual shorthand for things we can’t necessarily express in words, a banner round which we can rally, and a symbol we can adopt, in whatever way we see fit, to say we stand with you.