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The Rainbow Flag at 35: Making of a global symbol of gay rights

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Gay and human rights activists march during anti-government protests on Istiklal Street, the main shopping corridor on June 23, 2013 in Istanbul.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Gay and human rights activists march during anti-government protests on Istiklal Street, the main shopping corridor on June 23, 2013 in Istanbul.

Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag in 1978. Today it's a global symbol of gay rights and freedom. Baker joins Take Two to talk about creating the iconic design.

On June 25, 1978, the rainbow flag symbolizing gay pride first flew at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Soon after Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California, was assassinated.

The outpouring of grief created a demand for the flag, and it went into mass production. 

Gilbert Baker was asked personally by Milk to create the flag. Now, there are millions of rainbow flags in existence.  The rainbow design has become a global symbol for gay rights and freedoms, achieving the goals Baker held when he dyed and stitched the original copy 35 years ago. 

"Flags are about proclaiming power. They're visual, they're useful, they're ancient," said Baker. "We are a global tribe, that we should have our own flag to proclaim our own power and our own place. The reason it functions is that it's necessary. The rainbow fits us a people. It fits the idea that our sexuality is a human right in all its colors and the great diversity of our community."

Baker joins the show to talk about how he developed the flag and how he feels about creating such an iconic symbol. 

Interview Highlights

Why did you choose to go with the striped, rainbow-colored flag design?
"The reason we picked the rainbow was that it just fit us. It's so beautiful, and then it's a natural flag. The rainbow is from the sky, so it really fits there as a flag. The reason the rainbow flag endures is because people own it. It means something to them. A real flag is not something that's designed. It's torn from the soul of the people. It belongs to people. They own it."

The first version had eight colors, so why did you have to cut it down to six?
"In 1978, the first flag was organic everything. It did have eight colors: the six colors of the rainbow we see today plus hot pink and turquoise. But pretty quickly on I realized that I would never be able to satisfy the demand for them by hand-dying fabric and these colors. In the world of vexillography [flag-making], there's a palette of colors that are what flags are made of, and there's a very limited number of colors."

Did you ever expect it would become this universal of a symbol?
"Did I know it was going to become the international symbol for the movement? That became clear later, but not right in that moment. In the moment, what struck me was the astonishing beauty of it. The way that people around it found it. You could see it in their eyes: it was also theirs. And every single person has a different idea, and their soul connects in a different way, a different color, if you will, to the flag. And that's what makes it special. It's imbued with this incredible power."

You said it yourself that the flag is unfinished. How so?
"It's like the movement is unfinished. It's kind of a metaphor. Our movement is evolving. The movement to liberate our sexuality as a human right, that's an ongoing struggle. It's not so easy to be gay or even a women in some places in the world, and in many countries it's illegal to be gay. You can be put to death. It's a global struggle. A human rights struggle on a global scale."

If the movement was finished in your lifetime, would you add anything to the flag to finish it?
"I don't think it needs anything. I think it's perfect. I think it's celebratory. I think that even if we were 'finished', the rainbow is from god. It's in the sky. It's an incredibly wonderful piece of nature that we have interpreted to represent ourselves in an incredibly powerful and beautiful way. It doesn't need fixing. The rainbow is an idea. It's something we hold close to our hearts, and that's why it works."

With contributions from Kyler Jae and Jacob Freedman. 

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