I'll never forget the day my 60-something-year-old grandmother grabbed a rainbow belt from the shelf at Spencer's, wrapped it around her waist, and shimmied her hips down the aisle. The image is hilarious enough on its own, but it's accompanied by the sheer mortification of my mom, who grabbed the belt out of her hands while cracking up. "Mom, unless you want some old ladies to start hitting on you, you don't want to buy that belt," she said. "Don't you know what it means?"
Because as everyone knows (except my grandmother, apparently), swathing your body in rainbows means that you're definitely not-straight. It's why so many LGBTQ+ people adorn themselves and their belongings with rainbow pins and stickers as soon as they come out: Because wearing rainbows is an easy way to signal to other LGBTQ+ people, "Hey, I'm one of you."
But the rainbow wasn't always a symbol of LGBTQ+ pride. Being queer didn't get quite so colorful until 1978, when a gay activist named Gilbert Baker created an eight-color flag. After that, rainbows started becoming synonymous with the LGBTQ+ community (so much so that many religious people have claimed that queer people "stole" rainbows from God).
And although we don't really need any explanation now (because rainbows feel inherently queer to many people), the original eight colors were chosen deliberately. Baker once told CBC Radio that he and several other members of the Grove Street gay community center in San Francisco chose the colors based on color therapy, which posits that each color has a specific energy and meaning. So Baker and his friends chose eight that they believed would best represent LGBTQ+ people: 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.
It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightning — that this was their flag.
Gilbert Baker, creator of the rainbow flag.
Baker chose colors that had happy, positive meaning not only to represent the vitality of the queer community, but also to replace the darkness of the pink triangle, which was the most prominent gay symbol at the time. "[The pink triangle] represented a dark chapter in the history of same-sex rights. Adolph Hitler conceived the pink triangle during World War II as a stigma placed on homosexuals in the same way the Star of David was used against Jews. It functioned as a Nazi tool of oppression," he wrote in his memoir. "We all felt that we needed something that was positive, that celebrated our love."
While the specific colors were chosen based on their color therapy meanings, the inspiration behind the rainbow came from a less holistic place. Baker and his friend Cleve were dancing at a gay club in San Francisco when he, thanks to some chemical assistance, was struck with an idea for their new gay symbol. "We rode the mirrored ball on glittering LSD and love power. Dance fused us, magical and cleansing. We were all in a swirl of color and light. It was like a rainbow," he wrote. Soon after, Baker and his pals hand-dyed and sewed the first rainbow flag.
Eventually, turquoise and pink were cut from the rainbow. Pink dye was too rare and expensive for flag manufacturers to use and the committee organizing the 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade wanted to fly the flag in two halves down the street in San Francisco so they cut turquoise so that the flag had an even number of colors. It was this new six-color version that really took off. Eventually, the six-color rainbow was made into bumper stickers, key chains, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and more. In recent years, other artists and activists have tweaked the design. In 2017, Philadelphia-based LGBTQ+ activist group More Color, More Pride added a black and a brown stripe to symbolize LGBTQ+ people of color. Though Baker died a few months before the flag's introduction, his close friend Charles Beale told the Huffington Post that he would have loved the flag. "He would have loved it,” Beal said. “He was not precious about how the flag was used — he might have added those colors to the flag himself for them.”
Baker never profited from the rainbow-explosion. He never trademarked the design because, according to Baker's tribute at the MoMA, he didn't feel that it truly belonged to him. "Raising it up and seeing it there blowing in the wind for everyone to see. It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightning — that this was their flag," he said to San Francisco Travel. "It belonged to all of us"