The Rainbow Flag – A Historical Symbol for Equality

“People aren’t just one thing, they’re not just gay, or not just transsexual, everyone can be a mixture of things.” These are the words from artist and activist Gilbert Baker, the person behind the creation of the rainbow flag. Today, this flag represents the LGBT community which is now celebrated worldwide through various Pride parades. Everyone is welcome to join the event to walk for manifestation of love, liberation and freedom; to be able love whoever one wants to love; and to be whoever one wants to be.  

Baker initially designed an eight-colour flag in 1978 for the”Gay Freedom Day”, precursor to the modern pride parade. Originally, Pride was solely a political demonstration to voice lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) demands for equal rights and protection. Over time there was an increase in parades and demonstrations in San Francisco, New York and all over the U.S. The idea Baker intended  behind his creation was to show diversity and inclusion using “something from nature to represent that our sexuality is a human right”. As the flag spread it later became recognised as a global symbol for LGBT rights. It was not until that period, during the 1990s, that Pride began to resemble what it is today – a celebration of the LGBT identity and thus a political and social demonstration.

New York was the birthplace of Pride in 1970, where the first one occurred a year after the Stonewall Riots. The riots were a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States. These historical events, which spanned over three days, ensued as a response to police brutality aimed at a LGBT community gathering at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. These protests against police raids, harassment, and ill-treatment expanded and connected the LGBT community across the U.S. This is often referred to as the start of the modern gay liberation movement, which later grew into the larger LGBT rights movement we see today. Because of the events in June, giving birth to the modern LGBT rights movement. In commemoration of this critical turning point in the struggle for LGBT rights, June was proclaimed in 1980 to be Pride month, turning from smaller events of demonstration and evolving into major city-wide festivities around the world to celebrate the LGBT community. This put LGBT rights on the map and a stand was taken for the cause like never before.

The Stonewall Inn during the pride weekend in 2016. (Picture: Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons)
The Stonewall Inn during the pride weekend in 2016. (Picture: Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons)

In major cities across the U.S what started as one day soon grew to entail a month-long series of events. Today, celebrations include pride parades, picnics, parties, workshops, and concerts, among other things. Pride Month events attract millions of participants around the world. Memorials are held during this month for members of the community lost to hate crimes or HIV/AIDS. The purpose of the commemorative month is to recognize the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have had on history locally, nationally, and internationally.

But as Pride grows and celebrations and parties are held worldwide, it is important to remember its origin. Stonewall was a turning point in LGBT history because of the activism that it kindled, but it still serves as a reminder of the discrimination, violence, and brutality that LGBT people still face until this day. It is important to acknowledge this when waving the rainbow flag: that people still fall victims to these things, and that nowadays it still isn’t universally welcomed as a symbol for what it represents. For example, the attorney general of Jamaica, a country with laws criminalising gay sex, complained about the raising of the rainbow flag above the US embassy following the Orlando, Florida shootings, arguing it as “disrespectful”.

Recently, the rainbow colours have been used around the world to show solidarity for the 49 people who were shot dead during the Orlando shooting, a terror attack that occurred at the Pulse gay nightclub in June 2016. Authorities called it the deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11. As a reaction, former President Obama said “We know enough to say this was an act of terror and act of hate,” when he addressed the nightclub attack. While the violence could have hit any American community, the shooting came during a time of national celebrations that mark LGBT Pride Month. “This is an especially heartbreaking day for our friends who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” President Obama said.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden place bouquets of flowers at a memorial for the victims of the terrorist attack at the Pulse nightclub (Picture: Obamawhitehouse.gov)
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden place bouquets of flowers at a memorial for the victims of the terrorist attack at the Pulse nightclub (Picture: Obamawhitehouse.gov)

When asked, people who identify themselves as LGBT see gay bars, community centers and nightclubs as the only true spaces of inclusion. These are venues where they can exchange glances and flirt without fear or reproach, and where same-sex couples can show affection without worrying about hostile stares.

But this fear often pushes people to hide their identity, as in some countries crimes towards someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity are not prosecuted as hate crimes. Even by marching in the Pride parade the possibility of facing a threat is real. But that is also the reason to continue demanding rights and equality. Despite waving the rainbow colours high, and with thousands of people attending Pride events, the battle is not yet won. However this shows that there are people who are not intimidated to keep fighting.

Emma Rohman

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