The progressive rainbow flag....Where does it come from?
Our communities have diversified over the years to meet the specific needs of their various members. It is therefore normal that our symbols evolve and change at the same pace as our realities as a society and as a community. One strong symbol that has marked the struggles of our communities over the last century is without doubt the rainbow flag.
Join us on this journey back in time to the origins and evolution of our colourful roots!
A glimmer of hope for the community
It all began in 1977.
Harvey Milk joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He became the first openly gay elected American politician.
Shortly after his election, he gave his graphic designer and activist friend Gilbert Baker, then aged 27, the task of finding a positive alternative to the pink triangle and designing a lasting, inclusive and unifying symbol for the gay community.
The pink triangle: a mixed symbol
The pink triangle, although rehabilitated as a symbol representing the homosexual community in the 1970s by some more militant groups, is still fraught with meaning and does not enjoy unanimous support in the community. The pink triangle was used by the Nazi authorities in the concentration camps to identify and publicly persecute homosexuals.
Colourful origins, steeped in history and meaning
Following Milk's call, Baker set to work with the help of a collective of volunteer artists. They drew inspiration from the history and diversity of queer popular culture, as well as from nature, to create their first sketches.
The use of bright colors to indicate sexual orientation or difference is not new. Historically, queer people, forced to hide, resorted to bright colors to signal each other.
A well-known example would be Oscar Wilde's approach to the green carnation on his lapel at social occasions... a flower that would have been used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Londoners and Parisians to discreetly signal their membership of queer culture.
More recently, Elliot Page wore a green rose hanging from his suit pocket at the Met Gala, a nod to Wilde.
The color yellow came to the fore in Australia in the early '50s, during the Yellow Sock Affair. This media scandal originated in a series of arrests in the coastal city of Newcastle. The individuals arrested without evidence were all suspected of homosexual practices.
One of those arrested was Keith Robinson, a well-known local businessman and owner of a popular clothing store displaying yellow socks in its window. Because of the contents of this window display, the name Yellow Sock Gang has stuck in popular culture to refer to those arrested in the early '50s for homosexuality.
Although the notion that homosexuals wore yellow socks to identify themselves appears to be false, yellow socks nonetheless became a queer symbol in Australian popular culture thanks to this case.
In the 1970s, it was purple's turn to spread into popular culture when the Liberation Front, a militant group active mainly in the US and UK, tried to establish the "purple hand" as a symbol of gay pride.
A symbol of hope and vitality for the gay community
Baker came up with the idea of the rainbow because, in his words, "our sexuality is all these colors... we are a multiplicity of genders, ethnicities and ages".
He initially created a flag containing eight colored stripes, each of which he associated with a meaning:
- Pink, signifying sexual liberation;
- Red, for the celebration of life;
- Orange, for healing;
- Yellow, for the sun and its light;
- Green, for serenity and nature;
- Turquoise for art and magic;
- Blue for harmony and peace, and;
- Violet, for the human spirit.
It was at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade on June 28, 1978, that Baker's first rainbow flags were raised in broad daylight for the first time.
This symbol was immediately embraced by the community, who saw its flamboyant colors as a symbol of hope and vitality. Media coverage of the event gave Baker's new flag international exposure, and it quickly became the banner of the gay community in many Western countries.
Did you know...?
One of the first thirty-five flags made by Baker for the 1978 parade is currently on display at the Fierté Montréal offices.
A flag to rally under
On November 27, 1978, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the city's then supervisor, were shot dead at San Francisco City Hall by Dan White, a former colleague. A trial was held, but the homophobic climate of the time and police corruption allowed Dan White to be acquitted of first-degree murder charges by the jury, and to be found guilty only of voluntary manslaughter without premeditation, resulting in a considerably reduced prison sentence.
A protest march against the verdict is organized: The White Night Riot. More than 3,000 people take to the streets, mainly from the gay community and friends of Harvey Milk.
To ensure that his friend's political and social legacy was not forgotten, Baker called on Paramount Flag to reprint his flag, for which demand exploded: San Francisco's LGBT community mobilized and quickly adopted the rainbow flag as a symbol of hope, solidarity and, above all, protest. As the color pink was not industrially available at the time, the rainbow flags printed for the activists had only 7 stripes.
For aesthetic reasons, and to ensure that his flag displayed an even number of colors, Baker removed the turquoise and royal blue from the original design over the following year, replacing them with cyan blue. At the same time, this modification made the flag easier to produce on a large scale.
Thus was born the classic 6-stripe rainbow flag as we know it today!
Baker refused to trademark the rainbow flag, allowing others to appropriate his creation and develop it further.
A flag bearing the colours of our demands
It was during Pride month 2017 that Amber Hikes, an activist and former executive director of the Mayor's Office of LGBT Affairs in Philadelphia, unveiled a new Pride flag as part of the launch of the citizen awareness campaign: More Color, More Pride.
The black and brown stripes represent people from visible minorities, as well as members of our communities who have died of AIDS-related illnesses and those currently living with HIV/AIDS.
By adding the black and brown stripes to the classic flag, they and their team aim to give the community a new symbol that represents all LGBTQ people and their diverse experiences and realities. Iel also hopes to initiate discussions within our communities about racism and how to combat it.
A flag with a contemporary edge
In 2018, non-binary American artist Daniel Quasar is proposing a version of the rainbow flag that is better adapted to the current realities of our communities: the progressive rainbow flag.
In fact, Quasar has added a tip that combines the pastels of the trans flag with brown and black.
For Quasar, the classic rainbow flag should be separated from the newer colours because of their different meanings, as well as to emphasise what is important in our current community and political climate.
The Quasar design was first used publicly by UK delivery company Deliveroo during Pride month 2021 as part of their Pronouns Matter national campaign. It was an advertising campaign promoting inclusivity and encouraging the representation of 2SLGBTQIA+ communities.
The Quasar design appeared on Deliveroo delivery bags, which delivery drivers could choose whether or not to use during Pride month. A few months after Deliveroo's advertising campaign, the administrations of New York, London, Boston and Sydney decided or voted to raise the progressive Quasar flag above their official buildings during Pride celebrations.
Progress, all together!
In 2021, Valentino Vecchietti, an Intersex activist and British media celebrity, redesigned the progressive flag to include the Intersex flag. First shared by the group Intersex Equality Rights UK on instagram, it only took a few months for the design to go viral in the 2SLGBTQIA+ communities in the UK and internationally.
The yellow and purple colours of the intersex flag are deliberately intended to be complementary colours, in opposition to the traditional contrast of blue and pink, colours often associated with the feminine and masculine genders and binarity. The circle signifies a complete, unbroken shape.
Two major events have enabled Valentino's flag to take flight and promote inclusion and diversity internationally. In 2021, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton wore the progressive flag on his helmet at the Qatar and Saudi Arabian Grands Prix. The progressive flag could also be seen at the Queen Elizabeth Jubilee Show in June 2022.
A thousand colours, a thousand flags
Although the progressive flag is intended to be a unifying and inclusive symbol for all people from the 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, its colours come in a multitude of flags representing our various communities that can be seen at Pride celebrations around the world.
Each of these flags, through its history, struggles and colours, represents the demands and pride of the community it represents.
The rainbow flag has come a long way, just like our communities. It will continue to evolve, to rise, to take on new colours, shapes and curves... to be carried by the winds of our struggles, our celebrations and our hopes.
The rainbow is ours!
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