The Totally True Story Behind the First American Rainbow Flag

The Totally True Story Behind the First American Rainbow Flag

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Nearly forty years ago that inspirational symbol of unity and gay pride, the Rainbow Flag, was created by Gilbert Baker in San Francisco. This week the Museum of Modern Art, recognizing its great cultural and aesthetic importance, has acquired the flag for its design collection.

Baker’s idea for the Rainbow Flag came in 1976 out of noticing the ubiquitous presence of the American flag during the bicentennial in everything from art to fashion to household items. Through this he realized that a flag has the ability to communicate directly and simply.

In an interview with MOMA curatorial assistant Michelle Millar Fisher, Baker remembers, “[The Rainbow Flag] doesn’t say the word ‘Gay,’ and it doesn’t say ‘the United States’ on the American flag but everyone knows visually what they mean. And that influence really came to me when I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.”

The two original cotton, eight-color flags were crafted by Baker and 30 volunteers, some of whom he recruited because they were adept at dyeing and sewing. Measuring 30 by 60 feet each, it took two people just to guide the fabric through a sewing machine and numerous people to iron them.

But this labor intensive project had its humorous moments as well. Baker recalls, “I remember one day we had it all in the dye bath — you have to set the dye, and then you have to rinse it out. We looked at each other thinking “we’ll take it to the Laundromat.” Well, 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 into a Laundromat and fill every machine with quarters and blast them all — and [the machines turn] every color of the rainbow!”

The group finished the flags in time to debut them at the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978 in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza. Baker explains the strategic nature of this location for the gay right movement, “even in those days, my vision and the vision of so many of us was that this was a global struggle and a global human rights issue. And now, here we are all these years later — we’re not there yet by any stretch of the imagination but in my lifetime we have come far.”

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