The Rainbow Flag that artist Gilbert Baker created in San Francisco in 1978, and which has since become the icon of the Gay and LGBT Pride movements, has just been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for its design collection. In an interview with curatorial assistant Michelle Millar Fisher on the museum’s Inside/Out blog, Baker explains how his distinctive, eight-striped design grew out of the United States’ bicentennial celebrations in 1976.
“I began to notice the American flag — which is where a lot of the Rainbow Flag comes from — in the sense that all of a sudden [I saw] the American flag everywhere — from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the Gap and tchotchkes,” Baker recalls. “And I thought, a flag is different than any other form of art. It’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not just a logo — it functions in so many different ways. I thought that we needed that kind of symbol, that we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands. [The Rainbow Flag] doesn’t say the word ‘Gay,’ and it doesn’t say ‘the United States’ on the American flag but everyone knows visually what they mean. And that influence really came to me when I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.”
Baker recounts the collaborative process of making the first two Rainbow Flags, along with a team of about 30 volunteers, at the Gay Community Center. His sewing skills, honed as a drag queen who had to make his own costumes because he couldn’t afford to buy the ones he wanted, came in handy. The original flags were raised the first time in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza during the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. Baker’s original design featured eight colors (hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo/blue, and violet), but the version most commonly found today, which was popularized in 1979, features just six — hot pink was cut when Baker ran out of dye and indigo/blue and turquoise were replaced by royal blue. At the time, he says, it seemed essential that the Gay Pride movement generate a symbol to represent its community and its struggle.
“I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed,” Baker says. “It was necessary to have the Rainbow Flag because up until that we had the pink triangle from the Nazis — it was the symbol that they would use [to denote gay people]. It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexilography [the practice of studying and designing flags], this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had.”
Though MoMA’s permanent collection includes a number of flag-themed artworks — including many versions of Jasper Johns’s “Flag” (1954–55) and David Hammons’s “African-American Flag” (1990) — Baker’s work is its first object that was expressly designed to be used as a flag. Appropriately, the announcement of the acquisition comes in the midst of Gay Pride Month, a period during which Baker’s flag is especially ubiquitous. Addressing his design’s ubiquity he tells Fisher that he’s constantly surprised by the range of places his design turns up — especially pet products.
“The most surprising thing for me is the way that people have used it for their pets,” Baker says. “I’ve never seen one great piece of fashion — but when I see it on pets I have to laugh. People will never wear that but they will put it on their dog!”