Created 43 years ago, the rainbow flag is the most widely recognized symbol of LGBTQ community around the world.
The first two rainbow flags were designed by Gilbert Baker and fabricated by a team of volunteers for the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco.
Measuring nearly 30-feet-by 60 feet, the enormous banners flew over United Nations Plaza. But the following year, one was stolen and the other was believed lost.
More than four decades later, a remnant of one of those two original flags measuring nearly 30-feet-by-13-feet has been located and authenticated.
On Friday, the historic artifact was added to the Gilbert Baker Collection at the GLBT Historical Society Museum and Archives in San Francisco.
It will be the centerpiece of the exhibition “Performance, Protest and Politics: The Art of Gilbert Baker.”
In a joint statement, Charley Beal, president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation, and Terry Beswick, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society said, “For LGBTQ people, there are few artifacts that carry the historic, political, and cultural significance of this seminal work of art, the original rainbow flag.
“We are deeply grateful that Gilbert Baker saved this fragment, and that it has been brought home to San Francisco,” they said. “We trust that its message of diversity, liberation and hope will continue to inspire queer people for generations to come.”
The initial 30-feet-high by 60-feet-wide flag design featured eight colors, but underwent several revisions due to cost and display considerations.
In 1979, the hot pink stripe was dropped due to the unavailability of flag fabric in this color.
Baker also removed the turquoise stripe to create an even number of stripes for display on each side of the streetlamps on Market Street for the Gay Freedom Day parade.
As a result, the six-stripe variant of the flag was born. It remains the most common Pride flag.
Though in the recent years, members of the community have modified the flag with a chevron along the hoist that features black, brown, light blue, pink, and white to represent people of color and the transgender community.
Baker worked tirelessly to ensure that the rainbow flag would become a universally recognized, global emblem of the LGBTQ community and its proud legacy.
In April, the GLBT Historical Society received an archival donation, a fragment of one of the two monumental rainbow flags. Displaying the original design’s eight colored stripes, it was created by Baker and hand-stitched and dyed with the help of volunteers and friends, including Lynn Segerblom (Faerie Argyle Rainbow), James McNamara, Glenne McElhinney, Joe Duran, and Paul Langlotz.
Thought to have been lost for over 40 years, the fragment is the only known surviving remnant of the two inaugural rainbow flags.
Baker arrived in San Francisco in 1972 during the early years of the Gay Liberation movement. He quickly became well known for his sewing skills and flamboyant creations, such as drag costumes and political banners for street demonstrations.
In 1978, while preparing for that year’s Gay Freedom Day celebration, City Supervisor Harvey Milk and other local activists appealed to Baker, the co-chair of the decorations committee, to create a new symbol for the LGBTQ community to be unveiled at the June event.
Meaning of the colors
Using color to establish meaning, Baker conceived a flag that would empower his “tribe” and a “rainbow of humanity” motif to represent the community’s diversity.
Baker assigned symbolic meaning to each of the flag’s eight colored stripes:
- Pink = sex
- Red = life
- Orange = healing
- Yellow = sun
- Green = nature
- Turquoise = art and magic
- Blue = serenity
- Purple = spirit
Retrieving the flag
In June 1979, Gilbert had planned to retrieve the original flags from storage at the San Francisco Gay Community Center.
He discovered that the flags, stored under a leaky roof, were badly mildewed, but managed to salvage a portion of one of the original eight-color flags. This fragment secretly remained in his possession for decades, said Charles Beal, president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation.
When Baker died unexpectedly in 2017, this original flag piece was among boxed possessions that were given to his sister, Ardonna Cook. Two years later, the Gilbert Baker Foundation was looking for a large flag to carry in the June 2019 Stonewall 50 Pride Parade in New York City.
Beal asked Cook if she would loan a large flag from Baker’s Belongings. She mailed the Foundation the 1978 flag fragment, not knowing its provenance.
The Foundation carried the fragment in the Stonewall 50 parade, also oblivious to its identity. After the parade, the flag fragment was folded up and stored in Beal’s Greenwich Village home, Beal said.
But a chance phone call from a stranger alerted Beal to the amazing backstory to this ragged piece of cloth.
In late August 2019, Beal was contacted by James Ferrigan, a world-renowned flag expert who had worked with Baker in the late 1970s at the Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco. During a lively conversation, Ferrigan mentioned the fragment of the original 1978 flag and asked where it was.
Ferrigan said the last time he had seen it was in Baker’s apartment in the early 1980s. When Ferrigan described the flag, Beal suddenly realized this artifact was gathering dust in his closet.
Beal began playing detective. He reached out to people who worked with Baker in 1978 and learned from two different sources, including veteran activist Lee Mentley, about the damaged flags in the community center.
Beal had to authenticate the fragment. He traveled to San Francisco in February 2020 and invited Ferrigan to inspect the piece.
The veteran vexillologist identified the stitching and grommets done by Paramount, and confirmed it was the original fragment.