Recent Comments

    ‘Forever Let Us Hold Our Banner High’

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Green carnations. Red neckties. Violet corsages. Colors and symbols used for many years by gay men and lesbians, often strangers in the night, to identify each other across a crowded room or in a public place. Until Gilbert Baker created the Rainbow Flag in 1978, however, there was no single emblem or icon to join LGBT+ people as members of a world-wide community, wherever they might be, much less one that validated and honored them everywhere.

    Baker grew up in Parsons, Kansas, not far from the famous barnyard, which actually was in Culver City, where Dorothy Gale allegedly first sang “Over the Rainbow.” Because he was drawn to art and fashion as a child, not to cows and corn like his peers, he did not exactly fit into their bucolic world.

    His chance to follow the yellow brick road came in 1970, when he was drafted into the army. Stationed in San Francisco, where he served as a medic, he found the welcoming community he sought. After his honorable discharge in 1972, Baker stayed in the city. He became involved with the social and political causes of the time, using his artistry to create banners for anti-war protests and pro-gay marches.

    No one combined sequined couture and street theater to greater effect than Gilbert, so in 1978, when he was asked to create a visual affirmation of San Francisco’s LGBT+ communities, he was ready. His simple and elegant solution: a banner with eight equal stripes to show our unity, our diversity and the sources of our strength.

    Although others helped him to dye the material, Baker sewed the original flag himself. Each of the eight stripes represented a different quality. From top to bottom they were pink (sexuality), red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sunlight), green (nature), turquoise (magic), indigo/blue (serenity), and violet (spirit).

    Gilbert displayed his newly created banner publicly from the flagpoles in United Nations Plaza for the first time on June 25, 1978, for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. “When it went up and the wind finally took it out of my hands, it blew my mind,” he remembered later. “I saw immediately how everyone around me owned the flag. I thought, ‘It’s better than I ever dreamed.'”

    After Harvey Milk’s assassination in November 1978, the parade committee voted to adopt the new rainbow flag as a symbol of the community’s unity and strength, not only in joy but also in adversity. The pink stripe was dropped when, according to Baker, his flag manufacturer “ran out of pink dye.” The violet band was removed so that the flag could be displayed evenly along the parade route, three colors on each side of the street.

    In 1989, the International Congress of Flag Makers recognized the Rainbow Flag. Today, many variations of the flag exist. Some people add a black stripe to honor those lost to AIDS. There also are versions with different colored stripes or symbols added to represent bisexual people, transgender people, pansexuals, asexuals, bears, lesbians, genderfluid pride, leather pride, trigenders and other communities within our community. All follow Baker’s original design, but only his universally unites us all.

    Although the debut of Gilbert’s flag may be the first among firsts for Pride, every San Francisco parade has had at least one, including:

    1972 – first politician to participate in the parade: San Francisco County Sheriff Richard Hongisto, the first sheriff to hire lesbian and gay deputies

    1973 – first community banners

    1974 – first empress to ride in the parade on an elephant

    1975 – first time the parade was the largest in the U.S.

    1976 – first mayoral proclamation, issued by George Moscone

    1978 – first appearance of Gay Freedom Day Marching Band; first time Dykes on Bikes led the parade

    1979 – first time rainbow flags lined Market Street

    1984 – first nationwide theme

    1985 – first time a U.S. senator, Alan Cranston, spoke at a pride celebration anywhere in the country

    1988 – first time a San Francisco Mayor, Art Agnos, rode the parade; first time the parade started in the Castro

    1995 – after several name changes, first time the event officially became the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Celebration, now known simply as Pride

    1996 – first time a Catholic church, Most Holy Redeemer, participated in a pride parade anywhere in the world

    2001 — first time a Muslim contingent participated in any pride parade

    2005 – first time crowd estimated at more than 1,000,000 people

    2015 – first grand celebration of same-sex marriage

    2019 – celebration of the golden anniversary of Stonewall

    Today there are annual pride celebrations on every continent except Antarctica, including Cape Town Pride in South Africa; Pride Parade Brasilia, Brazil; Istanbul LGBT Pride Festival and Parade, Turkey; Sofia Pride in Bulgaria; the Tel Aviv Pride Parade in Israel; the Tokyo Pride Parade in Japan; Bali Pride in Indonesia; Warsaw Equality Pride in Poland; and many others. Pride now is worldwide. Gilbert’s Rainbow Flag is part of all of them.

    As we remember how far we have come and as we celebrate the ascendance of love this year, we also need to remember what we yet have to achieve. Although 25 of the world’s 195 countries now recognize marriage equality, same-sex intimacy between consenting adults is still illegal in more than 70 of them; 11 prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.