Friday June 26, 2015

Pride flag creator Gilbert Baker on the rainbow's real meaning

Marchers carry an oversized rainbow flag down Robson Street during the Vancouver Pride Parade in August 2014.

Marchers carry an oversized rainbow flag down Robson Street during the Vancouver Pride Parade in August 2014. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Listen 13:41

Rainbow flags will soar all over North America this weekend as the LGBT community and its allies celebrate Pride and the aptly-timed U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favour of gay marriage. The colourful banner has become an eye-catching international symbol for sexual diversity and pride — but how many flag-wavers know its history? 

The man behind the icon, Gilbert Baker, joined q guest host Talia Schlanger on Friday to share six things you may not know about the six-colour flag. 

1) The first pride flag had eight colours

With the help of several members of the Grove Street gay community centre in San Francisco, Baker hand-stitched and hand-dyed the very first rainbow flag in 1978. Each of the eight original colours, selected through colour therapy, had its own meaning: pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for serenity and purple for spirit. 

2) Pink and turquoise were dropped as demand grew 

When high demand prompted commercial production, Baker had to drop two colours — pink and turquoise — because they were not part of the standard flag manufacturer's palette. Baker regards the resulting six-colour flag as a compromise of the original vision.

3) The rainbow flag was a response to the homophobic pink triangle 

Like Nazis who used the Star of David to target Jewish people, anti-gay persecutors used the pink triangle to mark those who were openly or presumed gay. 

"They had a whole code of emblems that they used to oppress people, and we needed something to answer that," says Baker, adding that the rainbow was perfect because of its associations with diversity, beauty and nature. 

4) The flag did not make its maker a rich man 

Flags are part of the public domain and, as such, Baker could not profit or receive royalties for its use. As he struggled financially, he watched as the symbol spread from demonstrations to dog collars. Still, he says his life was enriched in other ways and that the first time he watched it soar, he thought "this is the most important thing I will ever do in my life." 

5) The flag's creator worries about the unethical production of rainbow flags

As proud as Baker is of his flag, he's had to contend with ironies that he says are upsetting to him. For instance, he worries about labour conditions in factories that produce the flags en masse. 

"I think that there's some prison factory in China somewhere where LGBT people can't come out, are living lives of desperation, and they're churning out rainbow tchotchkes for gay pride parades for people that don't even know the history of what they're wearing and waving," he says.  

6) Basic visibility is still deeply political  

Baker salutes Russian activists who dare to wave the flag despite that country's anti-gay laws. He underscores the fact that waving the flag is still a provocative act in many places. 

"It's not quite the same thing as walking down the street in your rainbow drag gown in some great Pride parade in San Francisco or New York." 

In much of the world, the flag is still as politically charged as it was 37 years ago in San Francisco. 

"That's what flags are for. Flags are about proclaiming power ... that visibility is key to our success and to our justice." 

Pride Flag meaning

Do you know what the colours of the rainbow flag stand for? And why two were dropped? (Public Domain)