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Regional Interests

‘Never Take It Down’: The Original 1978 Rainbow Flag Returns to SF

The original 1978 rainbow flag found itself a home on Friday in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro District.

What remains of the original 30 by 60 foot multi-colored flag now lives under glass at the GLBT Historical Society Museum and Archive. Executive Director Terry Beswick says the rainbow flag’s design is iconic and internationally known because it represents hope.

“People hang it in small towns and in countries where they still experience a lot of oppression, but it also has become a political statement to say that we exist, we have the right to love who we want to love and to participate as full members of society,” he said.

The original 1978 Rainbow Flag returned to San Francisco on June 4, 2021. It’s being housed at the GLBT Historical Society Museum and Archive in the city’s Castro District. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

The rainbow flag isn’t just colorful lines on a sheet. The eight rows of fabric — violet, indigo, turquoise, green, yellow, orange, red, hot pink — are the brain child of gay activist and artist Gilbert Baker who passed away in 2017. He and a crew of more than 30 people created the first rainbow flag in 1978.

The idea came to Baker after gay activist and politician Harvey Milk told Baker the community needed a new symbol that exudes affirmation, Beswick said.

“There were probably some drugs involved when Gilbert was on a dance floor [when] he had an epiphany about a rainbow,” he added.

A year after flying in the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day celebrations, the flag was found in storage to be badly mildewed. Part of it was salvaged and it remained in Baker’s care for decades. When he died in 2017, the remainder was among the boxes given to his sister. It was later passed on to his friend Charles Beal to carry in the Stonewall 50 Parade in New York City, but at that point it wasn’t known that it was the original rainbow flag. Then in 2020, the flag was authenticated by a flag expert. The flag is now part of the Gilbert Baker Collection at the museum and is the centerpiece of an exhibition entitled “Performance, Protest and Politics: The art of Gilbert Baker.”

Beswick travelled to New York a few weeks ago to pick the flag up and brought it to San Francisco in a lavender suitcase. He cracked open the case surrounded by friends.

“Someone had the idea that the rainbow, which comes from nature, just like LGBTQ people come from nature, would be a great symbol,” he said. “We take it for granted a little bit . . . but it’s had these amazing consequences.”

Elected officials admire the original 1978 Rainbow Flag held in a glass casing at the GLBT Historical Society Museum and Archive in the city’s Castro District. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

The flag has elevated LGBTQ voices and is universally understood to represent the full spectrum of the LGBTQ community. San Francisco Mayor London Breed spoke at the unveiling saying she wants San Francisco to remain a refuge for LGBTQ people.

“It’s not just about LGBTQ history, and it’s not just about San Francisco history,” she said. “This is American history. It’s important to recognize it in a way that elevates the conversation that provides the room and the space to spread out and to see the different messages.”

Gilbert Baker Foundation president and friend of the flag-maker Charles Beal said he wished Baker could have witnessed Friday’s homecoming event, but that the flag continues to provide a sense of home, safety and peace for LGBTQ people around the globe.

“It means something to a lot of people around the world and we got to never forget that,” he said. “Today in Tehran, people are running out in the streets with rainbow flags and running because they’re afraid to be caught. But they’re out there in his honor trying to change the planet and trying to do things that we take advantage of.”

A block away from museum at Castro and Market Streets flies the modern rainbow flag, which is an everlasting reminder of both the pain and joy queer people live through.

When Baker was alive he said “never fly it at half staff, never take it down,” Beal explained. “It means too much to too many people who don’t have what we have.”

Copyright 2021 KQED