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The First Rainbow Flag Was Gloriously DIY

The rainbow flag, symbolizing equality—and now, ubiquitous—got its start right here in San Francisco.

rainbow flag history


In the wake of June’s Supreme Court validation of same-sex marriage, the rainbow flag was everywhere. It was waved by between 1.5 million and 2 million revelers at what was heralded as one of the largest San Francisco Pride celebrations yet; it was projected onto numerous otherwise undistinguished roads and bridges; and it was adopted as an avatar by millions of Internet users. But “it doesn’t get more fabulous than the White House,” sums up Gilbert Baker, who in 1978 received $1,000 from San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade Committee and crafted two 30-by-60-foot rainbow flags.

All those years ago, Baker did not foresee that his creation would be virtually draped over the White House in celebration of marriage equality. “The things you hope for,” he says, “don’t always turn out like you dream them. Sometimes they turn out better.” That $1,000, by the way, bought 1,000 yards of cotton muslin, dye in rainbow colors, trash cans to use as dyeing vats, and plenty of salt. The original flags are long, long gone: “They were so big! And the wind blows like 70 miles per hour,” Baker says. “Some idiot had the great idea to make a rainbow by shooting water on them—it caused all the colors to run.” The symbol, however, persists. “We’ve arrived,” Baker says. “But it isn’t over. There’s still a big, long struggle ahead.”

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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