Amid parade controversy, a look into the history of an iconic symbol

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It is meant to be a symbol of pride, but this week, the rainbow flag became an emblem of controversy.

That became clear when organizers of the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade moved to exclude a group of gay veterans known as OUTVETS. The director of the group, Bryan Bishop, said some members of the Allied War Veterans Council of South Boston told him the flag violates the parade’s code of conduct because the council considers it a symbol of gay sexuality.

Here’s a look at the history of the symbol that has come to represent LGBT rights:


A rainbow flag first saw widespread use in the early 1920s by a social movement.

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The flag was revived in 1961 when the peace movement used it in Italy.

It wasn’t until 1978 that a rainbow flag was created and flown to represent the LGBT community. A year earlier, Harvey Milk, the gay activist and elected official, had challenged his artist friend Gilbert Baker to come up with a symbol of pride for the growing gay community.

“Harvey Milk carried a message of how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out. . . . A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility, or saying, ‘This is who I am!’ ” Baker told the Museum of Modern Art in a 2015 interview.

The flag flew for the first time during the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade.


Taking inspiration from the hippie and world peace movements, Baker’s original design had eight colored stripes. From top to bottom, they were hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet.

Later that year, Milk was assassinated and demand for the flag soared.

In 1979, the design changed again when the flag was shifted from a banner to be hung from posts to a more traditional flag. To do this, the turquoise and indigo bars became a single royal blue, forming the iconic six-barred Pride flag.

“The flag represents the spectrum of diversity in the community. While we may all be different, we can be united in solidarity under it,” said Kurtlan Massarsky, director of development at the Boston Alliance of LGBTQ Youth.

“There’s a long way to go, but it’s good to have something to represent equality,” Massarsky said. “Despite our differences, we are all united.”

Andrew Grant can be reached at