How the Rainbow Became the Symbol for LGBTQ+ Pride

Since the 1970s, the rainbow has been a universally recognized symbol for LGBT pride. But why was the rainbow chosen to begin with?

In June, you might notice an increasing number of rainbow flags around town. June is LGBTQ+ pride month in the United States, so it’s likely this multi-colored symbol will be more prevalent than usual. But how did the rainbow come to be associated with LGBT rights in the first place?

A symbol for the LGBT community

Legend says that it all started with a single parade. In 1978, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco city supervisor and the first openly gay politician elected to office in California, asked his friend Gilbert Baker to create a symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. Milk wanted to reveal the new design at the Gay Freedom Pride Parade in San Francisco that year.

Baker, a gay rights activist, army veteran, and artist, immediately got to work designing a striped flag with eight colors. According to Baker’s website, each color on the flag had a special meaning: Pink represented sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for serenity, and violet represented spirit. Thirty volunteers hand-dyed and stitched the original two flags.

That said, no one knows exactly why Baker chose to make the symbol a rainbow. Some say he was paying tribute to Judy Garland, one of the first gay icons, who famously sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the movie The Wizard of Oz. Others believe that Baker was inspired by a multi-colored flag used on college campuses in the 1960s to symbolize world peace and unity. With all of the work that has been done since the ’60s, unfortunately, some human rights still aren’t universal.

The introduction of the rainbow flag

Regardless of their original inspiration, the rainbow flags were a huge success when Baker unveiled them at the 1978 San Francisco Pride Parade. “We stood there and watched and saw the flags, and their faces lit up,” Cleve Jones, an LGBTQ+ rights activist who attended the parade, told the New York Times. “It needed no explanation. People knew immediately that it was our flag.”

The symbol’s popularity soared after Milk’s assassination just a few months later. Many saw the rainbow flag as “a beautiful, uplifting image that filled a need for a recognizable symbol for the LGBT community,” said Peter Tatchell, a veteran LGBTQ+ equality and human rights campaigner since the 1960s.

“I like to think [the rainbow flag] spread because for the first time gays were being told to be proud,” said Nico Ramsey, a social activist in Austin, Texas. “When I look at the flag, I see various elements of me. I have never viewed myself to be simple. I recognize that I am complex, and that is what makes me unique and beautiful.”

As demand for the flag increased, its original eight colors were narrowed down to six: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Fewer colors kept production costs low and made the flags easier to display.

Today, “the rainbow flag has become one of the most ubiquitous and universally recognized flags in the world,” Tatchell said. “Unlike other flags, it transcends national borders and unites people of different cultures. It symbolizes the global LGBTQ+ family and our worldwide freedom struggle.”

In addition to the iconic Pride flag, many other versions of the flag—with different color combinations and symbols—have been created to honor different orientations of the LGBTQIA+ community. You can find flags that celebrate those who identify as asexual, genderfluid, bisexual, non-binary, and others.

A symbol of solidarity during landmark movements

The rainbow flag continues to unite people of the LGBTQ+ community and serve as a symbol of solidarity. In 1994, during New York’s Gay Pride celebration, over 10,000 people carried a mile-long rainbow flag through the streets of Manhattan. They were honoring the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

The Pride flag was displayed around the country again on June 26, 2015, when same-sex couples were given the right to marry in all 50 states. Iconic buildings such as the Empire State Building, One World Trade, state buildings around the country, and the White House were illuminated by the colors of the rainbow flag to celebrate the huge victory for the LGBTQ+ community.

But displaying the flag isn’t the only way members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies celebrate unity and pride. These days, you can find the rainbow symbol on everything from t-shirts to mugs to towels to bed sheets, according to Tatchell. Learn more fascinating meanings behind the colors of everyday objects.

Heritage Images/Getty Images

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Brooke Nelson
Brooke Nelson is a researcher at PBS FRONTLINE in Boston, Massachusetts, and writes regularly about travel, health, and culture news for Reader’s Digest. Previously she was a staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her articles have also appeared on MSN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance, among other sites. She earned a BA in international relations from Hendrix College. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeTNelson.