How the Rainbow Became Associated with Gay Rights

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iStock

Flags with a spectrum of colors have been used for centuries to represent change. There's evidence to suggest that rainbow-colored flags date back at least to the German Peasants' War in the 1500s. The International Co-operative Movement designed a colorful banner to show international unity in 1921. Italy and Greece both use rainbow-striped flags to symbolize peace. And during the Hippie movement of the 1960s, peaceful protesters brought the rainbow equals peace concept back to the forefront.

But how the rainbow became specifically associated with LGBT rights goes back to San Francisco in the late 1970s, and to one artist in particular.

The flag was created by Gilbert Baker in 1978. Born in Kansas in 1951, Baker came out as gay to his parents one Christmas Day after he fell in love. "When I was young, they thought I was from outer space," Baker told CNN. "I was the only gay person they probably knew, and they struggled with that … I came out because I fell in love. It wasn't a terrible, horrible, damn thing. I was in love with somebody, and I wanted to scream it from the rooftops."

Baker worked as an Army medic San Francisco in the early 1970s, and when his time in the Army was over, he decided to stay in the city. He occasionally performed as a drag queen and took part the queer liberation movement, becoming friends with Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to office in California—who urged his friend to create a symbol for gay rights.

In 1976, Baker noticed a proliferation of American flags around San Francisco—a celebration of the country’s bicentennial. "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 a just logo—it functions in so many different ways," Baker told the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). "I thought that we needed that kind of symbol, that we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands. … 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]."

His reason for choosing a rainbow was simple: "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!"

People carry oversized LGBT rainbow flag during a parade.
Parade during San Diego 2016 LGBT Pride in July 2016.
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Baker chose both where the flag was created and where it flew for the first time very carefully. "I decided the flag needed a birthplace so I didn’t make it at home," he said to MoMA. "I wanted to make it at [the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove Street], with my friends—it needed to have a real connection to nature and community."

Using huge garbage cans filled with natural dye, Baker and his volunteers dyed massive amounts of cotton in eight colors, each with symbolic meaning:

Hot Pink: Sexuality
Red: Life
Orange: Healing
Yellow: Sunlight
Green: Nature
Turquoise: Magic/Art
Blue/Indigo: Serenity/Harmony
Violet: Spirit

When it came time to sew, "it took four hands to move the fabric through the machine," Baker recalled to MoMA. Ironing the two flags—which each measured 30 feet by 60 feet—required 10 people.

The first flags went up at the United Nations Plaza during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. "When the flag actually went up, it was a very important thing that we raised them—there were two of them—in the United Nations Plaza [in downtown San Francisco]," Baker told MoMA. "Even in those days, my vision and the vision of so many of us was that this was a global struggle and a global human rights issue."

"When it went up and the wind finally took it out of my hands," Baker recalled to CNN in 2015, "it blew my mind."

Artist Gilbert Baker poses with the rainbow flag, which he designed.
Rainbow Flag creator Gilbert Baker poses at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in January 2016 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Baker’s design became popular pretty quickly, but demand for the flag skyrocketed after Harvey Milk was assassinated five months later, on November 27, 1978. As more and more people wanted to show their support for Milk and the LGBT community, it became harder to keep the supply of custom-created eight-striped rainbow banners up; Baker switched to premade rainbow-colored fabric even though it lacked the hot pink stripe. (The dye also had a tendency to run on cotton, so they switched to nylon. "The nylon caught on for two reasons: first of all, it’s very durable, and second, it lights beautifully," Baker told MoMA. "Dupont puts out a great product just for flags, it’s called Oxford Weave and it lights rather like stained glass and in some of the photographs you’ll see the sunlight coming through and it makes a rainbow on the pavement. That’s something that I think really captured the public’s imagination.")

The flag was further modified the following year, when the turquoise stripe was dropped. While accounts differ as to the precise reason, they all come back to a desire to be able to split it in half more easily for display purposes.

Since that time, the rainbow has become the popular symbol of the LGBT community. Baker stayed busy after sewing that first flag in 1978. In 2003, he helped create the world's biggest LGBT flag ever—it stretched a mile and a quarter across Key West, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Afterward, sections of the flag were then sent to more than 100 cities around the world.

Baker passed away at the age of 65 in 2017. His first rainbow flag is currently in MoMA’s collection.

The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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