Design icons: the rainbow flag

From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. The rainbow flag was first broadcast on 25th February 2023. You can listen to the audio here.


The rainbow flag is an instantly recogniseable symbol for our sexually and gender diverse community but how that happened is not quite so clear.

The accepted story is that, in 1978, California’s first elected openly-gay government official, Harvey Milk, asked his friend, the activist and artist Gilbert Blake, to design a symbol for the gay community. Blake came up with the rainbow flag using eight colours, each of them, he said, representing an aspect of gay life, from the hot pink of sex to the indigo of serenity, describing it as ‘the rainbow of humanity.’ The story differs according to others involved. Like Lynn Segerblom, an artist whose work was so close allied to the rainbow symbol that she changed her name in 1976 to Faerie Argyle Rainbow. She thought a rainbow flag might adorn City Hall during the Pride Parade along with her more colourful version of the American flag. Harvey Milk managed to squeeze funding from the city to make it happen.  As Segerblom said later, Gilbert Blake was simply the man who promoted it best.

Whoever’s idea it was, in 1978 rainbow flags fluttered through the San Francisco streets during the Gay Pride Parade led by Harvey Milk. Months later, he was murdered by an aggrieved work colleague who objected to the banning of same-sex discrimination. The flag took on a deeper meaning, becoming emblematic of the on-going battle against homophobia and discrimination. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s gave it further impetus. In Europe, gay activists used symbols from the past, such as Oscar Wilde’s famous green carnation but more often the pink triangle, the badge sewn on the clothing of homosexuals by the Nazi regime to identify them as subversives and destroyers of the family values the Nazis claimed to uphold. These symbols, coming from places of persecution, were reclaimed to show resilience, rather as the once-pejorative word queer was reclaimed as one of strength. The rainbow, on the other hand, was different. It was linked to the beautiful natural phenomenon that appears after a storm, a magnificent symbol of hope, but with a playful edge, hinting at Judy Garland’s Over The Rainbow, given that gay men would often refer to each other as Friends of Dorothy. As a design, the rainbow was easily identifiable, regardless of culture and education.

It had been a popular symbol for centuries, used by cultures around the world, including in the Rainbow Serpent story of this country’s first peoples. In the 1960s, it was adopted by the counter culture movement. After Australia’s Aquarius Festival in Nimbin in 1978, the surrounding area, already popular with hippies, became more widely known as the Rainbow Region. That same year saw a gay solidarity march through Sydney with a planned celebratory Mardi Gras parade in the evening, which was brutally crushed by an over-zealous police force. The spirit of hope was never more needed.

The flag itself has been often adapted. The original design quickly lost its pink and turquoise stripes due to colourfastness problems but there were other issues. Although intended as a symbol of inclusiveness, some felt themselves left out. And so the rainbow’s colours have often been amended, adding black and brown stripes in Philadelphia, for instance, to show representation of people of colour. Other versions evolved, such as designer Daniel Quasar’s Progress Pride Flag, adding Philadelphia’s and the white, pink and blue stripes of the transgender flag to the original rainbow.  Whether the flag is discretely tucked in the corner of window, splashed over the White House, as it was in 2015 when same-sex marriage was passed into law, or emblazoned across the surface of a city street, its appearance strikes a balance of lightness and strength. Never underestimate this community, it says. Just as the Radical Faeries brought humour to counter-culture, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence highlighted gender issues and religious hypocrisy so the rainbow flag adds dazzle to the energy of hope. A symbol for all humanity, in fact, just as Gilbert Blake said.

Categories: Design, Icons, radioTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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