Friday, 1 June 2012

Putting Out the Rainbow Flag

June is Pride Month. I’m celebrating by presenting the histories of some of the many lgbt flags that you’re almost certain to see at a Pride event this summer. First and foremost is the Rainbow Pride flag. Its history is well documented but this mini series wouldn’t be complete without it.

We have to go back to San Francisco 34 years ago where a small group of volunteers were stitching together the first rainbow flags for the city’s Gay Freedom Day parade.

In the flag’s 30th anniversary year in 2008 the parade and flags were recreated in the Oscar-winning film “Milk”, and it is Harvey Milk who led to the rainbow flag being used as a symbol of protest and gay rights.

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to a local government position in America. Early in 1978 he suggested to a friend, Gilbert Baker, that there should be a logo or symbol the gay community could rally around for the following year’s 10th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Baker who had been designing banners and flags for several years so it is safe to assume that Milk suspected he would come up with a flag.

All of the original flags were hand-dyed and stitched by Baker and 30 volunteers, and on 25th June 1978 they were unfurled for the first time in front of 350,000 people – the largest gay rights parade the world had yet seen. But the original flag (pictured at the top) differs from the one we know today with 2 colours which have gone - the pink stripe at the top and the turquoise stripe.

Just 5 months after the parade, Harvey Milk was assassinated. Almost immediately gay San Franciscans began clamouring for rainbow flags to fly at vigils and protests. But because the original flags were made by a small group of volunteers there was only a handful available.

People turned to flag manufacturers. One began selling flags of the International Order of the Rainbow Girls, a masonic youth movement which used a 7-colour rainbow. The pink stripe of Baker’s flag couldn’t be reproduced because it was custom-mixed by him so was never used again. After the Rainbow Girls flags sold out the manufacturer began making its own rainbow flags.

During 1979 many gay venues and businesses in San Francisco began displaying the flag. The Pride committee decided to use it again for the Freedom Day parade. But after seeing it displayed vertically from a lamp-post they noticed that the central stripe was largely obscured. So the committee dropped the turquoise stripe, turned the indigo stripe to blue, and the present Rainbow Pride flag was born.

Four months later the first March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights took place. At the head of the San Francisco contingent marchers carried the rainbow flag, bringing it to the attention of the rest of America. But for several years it was still considered just a San Francisco flag.

It was also the AIDS crisis that brought the rainbow to the UK. Two men were responsible for this – Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie and the first openly gay member of the General Synod of the Church of England Barnaby Miln.

During 1985 Runcie went to San Francisco to see the devastation caused to the gay community. At the following General Synod he met Miln who asked what the church was doing about AIDS. Runcie gave Miln the job of Advisor on AIDS and Human Sexuality. In 1986 Miln set up a charity called Christian Action of AIDS. In San Francisco he got inspiration from the rainbow flag to create the world’s first ribbon to raise awareness of a specific disease or cause (pictured).

Hundreds of rainbow ribbons were handed out at the General Synod of 1987 where homosexuality was a major subject of debate, worn on the lapels of clergymen everywhere. Even though it wasn’t in the familiar loop it predates the red AIDS ribbon by 6 years. It was also at this Synod that Miln proposed the idea of World AIDS Day.

What put a stop to the Church of England’s support of the gay community was the Local Government Act of 1988 and the infamous Section 28. As a part of government the church had to toe the line and very little came out of the Synod. Even the rainbow ribbon disappeared.

Meanwhile, back in America the Rainbow Pride flag was to develop a new meaning, and again it was San Francisco where it happened. Just what they did, and how the Rainbow Pride flag became a symbol of celebration, will be told at the end of the month.

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