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How the Rainbow Became Associated with Gay Rights

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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.
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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.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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