Saturday 30 June 2012

Putting Out the Rainbow Flag - Part 2

On 1stJune I gave the history of the rainbow flag up to the mid-1980s. By 1986 the gay community was fighting global homophobia in the face of the AIDS epidemic. There was a desire to show the world that the community wasn’t about to destroy itself through sex and disease. One group of San Franciscans decided to show the world that gay men are as healthy as any straight man. This group were the organisers of the 1986 Gay Games under the leadership of Tom Waddell.

Waddell’s Olympic career is told here. When the first Gay Games were held in 1982 the AIDS crisis was just building up. By the time of the 2nd Games the organisers decided to use the rainbow flag for the first time as a symbol of pride and celebration. The gay community in San Francisco was determined to show the wider lgbt community that it had to stop feeling sorry for itself and not let homophobia and AIDS drive it back into the closet.

The rainbow featured a lot in publicity for the 1986 Gay Games, even featuring on the cover of the official programme. Over 3,000 athletes from all over the world came to compete and many were seeing the rainbow flag for the first time. At many events and all around the streets the Rainbow Pride flag was waved enthusiastically – not in protest, but in celebration. It was a psychological boost that worked, and riding high on the euphoria of a successful high-profile Gay Games the San Franciscans had transformed the Rainbow flag.

But over here in the UK it was another 5 years before the lgbt community began to use the flag. Using symbolism that was already considered dated by the 1990s it was gay activists that were largely responsible for the delay. And, as in San Francisco, it was the community and not the activists who decided there was more to gay life than protest.

Many people in the UK say they first saw the Rainbow Pride flag at London Pride in June 1993. Some marchers and a few of the stalls flew the flags but few realised what significance it had. Even a glance through publications like Gay Times and Pink Paper reveals a distinct absence of rainbows before 1993.

In early 1994 the rainbow was seen in large numbers during rallies outside parliament during the campaign for the equalisation of the age of sexual consent. And in the months that followed Pride events around the country made extensive use of the flag at the head of their parades. The first was Brighton Pride in June 1994. London Pride followed a few weeks later.

Meanwhile, back across the Atlantic during the same weekend the rainbow flag reached another (literal) milestone in New York. To coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots Gilbert Baker, the creator of the original rainbow flag in 1978, was asked to make a special flag measuring one mile in length. At New York Pride, at the end of the 4th Gay Games, 5,000 people carried the flag through the streets and the Guinness Book of Records was on hand to confirm this as the biggest flag in history.

The record was broken in June 2003 on the 25th anniversary of the Rainbow flag itself. Gilbert Baker was again called upon to recreate his flag – this time in the original 8 stripes. The location for this was Key West, Florida, and was a quarter mile longer that the New York flag. So, on 16th June 2003, the Guinness Book of Records confirmed again to Gilbert Baker that his rainbow flag was the biggest in the world. (The current record holder is a Syrian protest flag of 2011 – perhaps someone should try to claim the record back for the rainbow flag’s 35th anniversary next year.)

Today the Rainbow Pride flag still hold the record as the most widespread international community flag in history. There is no capital city in the world that has not seen an lgbt citizen waving it or flying it, and also in the Vatican and as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as Antarctica. It has influenced hundreds of other flags and thousands of logos. It’s place in history is assured. And even though there have been attempts to introduce new designs it looks like the rainbow will be seen in lgbt skies for a good numbers of years to come.

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