What Does the Rainbow Flag Actually Stand For?

First introduced in 1978 to represent the LGBTQIA+ community, each stripe has a different meaning. 

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Loud and proud members of the LGBTQIA+ community don’t just wear the rainbow flag each summer because it’s colorful and goes with everything — there's so much more to the story than that.

While Pride month, which takes place every June, comes with fun events and parades across the globe, the celebration is deeply rooted in the civil rights struggle that activists continue to fight. It all began to honor the Stonewall riots, which erupted on June 28, 1969 after police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in N.Y.C. In the years following, as civil rights activism spread, the rainbow flag was born.

The flag's origin story, however, is quite complex. In 1978, Harvey Milk—San Francisco city supervisor and the first openly gay man elected to public office in California—tasked artist and activist Gilbert Baker with creating an emblem of the queer community. Specifically, Milk wanted to replace the previously used pink triangle, which took on a different meaning after Nazis used it to identify homosexuals.

According to Baker’s estate, he was inspired by the American and French revolutions, and the symbolism of the queer community breaking apart to experience its own freedom. “As a community, both local and international, gay people were in the midst of an upheaval, a battle for equal rights, a shift in status where we were now demanding power, taking it,” he wrote in his memoir. “This was our revolution: a tribal, individualistic, and collective vision. It deserved a new symbol.”

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The original flag had eight stripes, however there have been many iterations since. Today, the most commonly used flag, created in 1979, has six stripes.

According to Baker's estate, each stripe has a different meaning: Red represents life; orange is for healing; yellow is for sunlight; green is for nature; blue is for harmony; and purple is for spirit.

Still, there are other versions of the rainbow flag used to represent various queer subsets. At the 2018 Met Gala, for example, Lena Waithe wore a pride flag with black and brown stripes that were used to represent marginalized LGBTQIA+ people of color. It was introduced by the city of Philadelphia in 2017. In addition to the rainbow flag, there is also a transgender flag, a bisexual flag, and a gender fluid flag, to name a few.

Lena Waithe
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in Carolina Herrera.

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Today, the rainbow flag is also used to express political solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community. For example, after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, the White House lit up with the rainbow hues in celebration. During Pride month, many organizations also deck their halls with rainbows.

For the eight years he was in office, the Obama also administration celebrated Pride Month each year. So far, Donald Trump’s administration has failed to do so—which is a shame, when you think about it. Everyone, even our president, could use a little more conscientious color in their lives.

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