Activist, hero, and self-proclaimed “gay Betsy Ross” Gilbert Baker passed away on March 31, but his memory and impact live on in the universally queer symbol he created — the rainbow pride flag. As the Gay Rights movement gained traction throughout the 1970s, the usual symbol associated with queer activism was the inverted pink triangle. Taken from the patch Nazis sewed onto homosexual inmates at concentration camps, the pink triangle was a symbol of defiance, seized from an oppressive regime and reclaimed. But reclamation isn’t always the most direct, powerful emblem — it potentially allows those harming you to define you. (We’d see a greater inversion of this symbol in the late ‘80s, when ACT UP would adopt it for the core of their Silence = Death campaign.)
In 1978, Baker was called upon by Harvey Milk and other San Francisco activists to create a symbol of the movement that was the movement’s alone. Baker brought in some volunteers, and in the attic of the Gay Community Center in San Francisco, the group dyed and stitched together a huge, gorgeously colored rainbow flag.
The original version of the pride flag had eight strips of color, with each color representing a different layer of queerness: hot pink equaling sex, red as life, orange for healing, yellow as sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. Hot pink and turquoise eventually fell away due to printing costs, but the classic rainbow, and all its deeper meaning, persists.
Symbols become signifiers, and the pride flag has become a popular tattoo as well as bumper sticker, hat, t-shirt, pin, and, of course, actual flag. Whether it’s a popular song lyric, a fancy labrys axe, or your favorite gay comic character — tattooing a pride symbol on yourself acts as a sort of peacock move, proclaiming your pride while also signaling to others that you’re part of the team. Baker didn’t know he was going to create a long-lasting symbol for queers everywhere when he was dying that fabric up in an old community center attic, but the power of the symbol he created is bordering on 50 years of persistence and strength. Visibility is just a first step when it comes to acceptance, and Baker gave several generations worth of LGBT folks an access point to that first step.