Andrew Blauvelt | Essays

Over the Rainbow

June marks the start of a month-long series of LGBT Pride celebrations in cities around the United States and the world, as well as the 30th anniversary of the rainbow flag — the de facto symbol of the LGBT community. While the visual and media focus of the celebrations have been the parades, the most enduring element is perhaps the rainbow.

Images of such parades used to be titillating stock footage on television news reports; now, they serve as the highlights reel for hate-mongering televangelists, apparently easy evidence of hedonistic behavior presented to induce gay panic in their followers. Appearing to the public as if extras from the movie Cruising, these cavorting leather-clad men atop a parade float seem all but a distant memory. Today, the Pride parade is a family-friendly affair: a place where heterosexuals, families, and gays with their own children line the parade route for equal parts moral support and entertainment value.

Today's celebrations are also an arena where corporate shows of support — whether staging their own float or simply operating a kiosk or even a concession — signal an organization's commitment to diversity just as much as its commitment to niche marketing. Sure, there are still a few public displays of (dis)affection in some parades, but they represent a throwback, not an insurgent present: "We're here. We're queer. Get on with it!" they seem to shout. If nothing else, the resulting cavalcade is representative of more aspects of contemporary queer life: a mélange of its social, cultural, economic and sexual identities. A movement that began on the premise of self-identification and cultural difference — standing out and standing apart — finds itself increasingly blurring those distinctions, verging toward the equanimity of social sameness. All of this complexity and contradiction is embodied in, or projected onto, the now ubiquitous rainbow flag.

The rainbow's colorful panoply has always been something of a problem for me, not so much its symbolism but for its cheerful aversion to aesthetic conviction. While I am an ardent believer in the adage that there is no such thing as a bad color, just poor proportions and combinations, the spectral glory of the rainbow has always been a kind of third-rail of chromatics. I know, it's supposed to represent inclusion — no visible wavelength left behind — but aesthetics is supposed to be about choosing one thing over another: the right colors, not all colors. Setting aside my personal aesthetic ambivalence, the idea of designing a contemporary symbol of community is undoubtedly rare and daunting.

The rainbow flag made its debut in 1978 at San Francisco's Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade, having been created in response to a request for a symbol to represent the LGBT community. That job fell to vexillographer Gilbert Baker who, acting in the role of Betsy Ross, designed the first rainbow flag, and with a group of volunteers stitched it from hand-dyed fabric. The original flag had eight colors, two more than its customary version, each representing an aspect of gay life: red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, blue for harmony, and violet for spirit. Eliminated for logistical reasons, the two colors no longer present are hot pink and turquoise, perhaps early proof of gaydar in forecasting 1980's color trends for such things as Miami Vice and high school proms. Ironically, or perhaps prophetically, these colors represent sexuality and magic respectively — two vital elements increasingly missing from many of today's Pride parades.

Throughout history the rainbow flag has been used by various groups, particularly those supporting liberty and equality — from the Inca Empire to the International Co-operative Alliance to the peace movements of the 1960s. In 2006, a straight family in Kansas had to defend flying a rainbow flag at their bed and breakfast from some angry townspeople and the ever-vigilant, homophobic family of Reverend Phelps, who saw it as a symbol of gay liberation (or perhaps they mistook it as a sign for a gay recruiting station). Understanding the wider symbolism, the owners nevertheless chose to fly the flag because their young son said it reminded him of the movie The Wizard of Oz, evoking the movie's signature song, Over the Rainbow. Of course, this is all strangely circular: Judy Garland, destined to become a gay icon herself, signing about escaping the barnyard drudgery of Kansas, a place that is home to not only the Phelps clan but also the birthplace of Gilbert Baker.

Born at the close of the 1970s sexual revolution, in the years just before AIDS would begin its destructive course, and only months before the assassination of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk — the first publicly-elected, openly gay official — who had requested a new logo for that year's parade from Baker, the rainbow flag held a hopeful but incomplete promise. This June, as I celebrate the recent decisions by California and New York to grant same-sex couples access to marriage and its rights and responsibilities (and as I await the political ugliness that will undoubtedly follow), I can't help but think of how Baker viewed his own creation: "In my view the rainbow flag is unfinished, as the movement it represents, an arc that begins well before me, its breadth far broader than all of our experiences put together, reaching the farthest corners of the world with a message of solidarity and a beacon of hope for those who follow in our footsteps."

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Politics

Comments [33]

I wonder how long the rainbow will be seem primarily as a symbol of gay pride, as it seems like the use of rainbows in varying configurations is being adopted more widely by increasingly diverse groups. Just as you could once supposedly signal your sexuality by wearing an earing in one ear and not the other, I think some of these symbols, while still present, have started to blur--maybe as a sign of positive change.

My favorite recent example of this blurring and appropriation of the rainbow for other uses is on a skateboard made by the company Enjoi--the underside is covered with kittens, clouds, and four-colored rainbows. For the symbol to be adopted and marketed to what was once a very grungy counterculture is surely not a bad thing.
Matt Kelm

Thanks, I think this is the first piece of writing I've come across
which notes how being gay and involved in design puts you in an
awkward position when faced with rainbows.

My standard dismissal in the past was that "rainbows are for small
children and hippies". Rainbows are kitsch, which is why the
Chapman brothers were painting them on those Hitler
watercolours they bought recently. It always seemed very ironic
that a community stereotyped for its better-than-average sense
of aesthetics (not true...we can be as tasteless as the straight
world!) ended up with such a garish symbol. But flags are difficult,
aren't they? How do you please many people with differing views?
I suspect we're stuck with this for now, it's very embedded in gay
culture despite being just as embedded in the obsessions of New
Age mystics and psychedelic drug users.
John Coulthart

Right now my neighborhood is being slowly covered with rainbow bunting for the inevitable parade.

It’s kind of pretty.
James Puckett

"Today, the Pride parade is a family-friendly affair"

I don't know about that. My local parade still looks like a gay version of a party at the Playboy mansion. But that's beside the point...

I just moved to a very gay-friendly city in NJ that used to be (and still is, to a degree) infamous for crime, gangs, and being generally run-down. Being from the area, that image still holds weight in my mind. But when I went to look at my house for the first time, there were two rainbow flags across the street, and I knew that, at least in that neighborhood, it was safe, well-kept, and friendly. The rainbow has come to be a symbol of welcoming in the city, and the openness has really done wonders for relations between the LGBT community and the community at-large. In fact, there isn't even a dividing line as there is in most areas. Everyone is a person, not a label. And, as a straight man, I believe that is exactly what the rainbow flag should represent, not a target for hate or a piece of kitsch.
Sean Flanagan

This post is irrelevant to graphic design, aside from a passing
mention of color theory.

It does seem like the current 6 color version is generic, as
opposed to the more distinctive (if not necessarily more
beautiful) original version that included pink and turquoise.
And if generic-ness is related to the ordinary and the accepted,
maybe the evolution of the flag is actually a good thing, even if it
feels like sandpaper to my eyeballs.
I thank you, Andrew, for opening up the complicated history
behind this ubiquitous symbol. How any one sign can be
simultaneously seen as a symbol of homosexuality, new age
utopianism, drug-induced fantasies, sugary marketing to girls
age 2-12, and an icon of welcome banners for B & B's just
boggles the mind. How can the richness of such public visual
language not be related to design?
lorraine wild

symbol or whatever.

rainbow sox with separate toes.

strangest most useless fashion design ever to come out of the
seventies as far back as I remember.
more rainbows

I didn't realize that the design of flags was irrelevant to graphic
design. Ditto for culture and society, and other manifestations of
humanity. Thanks for your broad insight, Designer!
Ricardo Cordoba

Agreed Jessica - "Designer" seems to be of the 'just make it pretty' camp. It seems to me that the discussion of the appropriation and use of of a common motif for a specific, high profile purpose, how it affects both the appropriator, and other groups who may want to use that motif - well, that seems like a core graphic design issue right there.

As designers, we affect the world, and the world affects us. Our work is inherently social, because ultimately it will be consumed by others, and those people do not live in a vacuum - so neither should we.

Matt Rooney

...er, i mean Ricardo, not Jessica
Matt Rooney

No worries, Matt. :-)
Ricardo Cordoba

most of the posts here are irrelevant to graphic design, or at least
good design.
johnathan reza

I think this is the first time I've come across the term vexillographer. I Googled it and discovered that it is the correct
term for one who designs flags.

I find it funny (quaint? sad? scary?) that some people are obviously
uncomfortable just reading a discussion about LGBT issues and
relevance to design.

Thanks, Andrew, for this posting...

Which is MOST DEFINITELY related to graphic design and relevant to what it is that we do.

Your problems with the rainbow flag are shared, not just by myself, but by anyone concerned with maintaining proper stewardship over a realm of culture-making that is meaningful.
Indeed, meaningful signification (as well as meaningful speech, meaningful conversation, meaningful expression: visual or otherwise) seems to be evaporating in our present age.

It is a given that diversity -- of all kinds -- can and will be commodified by markets, designers, and users. Certain acts of appropriation often breed docility and domestication of (again) meaningful, raw expression. Unfortunately this means that too frequently are symbols, icons, etc. re-used and re-hashed to such an extent that they lose all of their original, intended potency and meaning (Che Gueverra t-shirts, e.g.)

The fact that Pride events (and thus, rainbow flags) are endorsed and celebrated by corporations and those not of the so-called 'LGBT community' is not -- in and of itself -- problematic. But what IS problematic is that such well-intentioned practices aimed at fostering inclusiveness, diversity, etc. eventually overshadow the root meaning of the signifier. In this case, the rainbow flag is no longer about "QUEER RIGHTS NOW!" but instead speaks something softer, something more like, "I have a gay friend and s/he is a normal, nice person like you and me so I support all of... that."

Eventually, what you end up with in a scenario like this is not the inclusion of diversity, but the homogenization of it. (See Michael Warner's "The Trouble With Normal.")

This rainbow flag that we now see flying is, at best, a 'sleeper' of a signifier. It's been watered down and appropriated into nearly complete meaninglessness. What is much-needed in general (and what I began to examine in my own research for my MFA 2 years ago, specific to the practice of designing same-sex wedding invitations) is a more dynamic, roll-with-the-punches, breathing, 'juicy,' and lively discourse of signification relevant to ALL acts of signification, not just signification for LGBT issues. We, as designers, are the ones ultimately responsible for protecting the world and our clients from the doom of banality.

In regards to the rainbow flag and LGBT issues, no single image or symbol is going to be effective. Yes, the rainbow flag is lame. It effectively acts as a 'logo' for non-heterosexuals, and as a 'logo,' it's not much good anymore. (Why do we need a 'logo' anyway?) What is truly needed is a set of practices -- not symbols -- that echo and propagate a sensibility that is dynamic and alive, ever-changing and clever, thus protecting our culture from the stupidity of meaningless signification.

The rainbow flag is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As stated at the beginning of my rant, this is ultimately a problem of meaninglessness that is endemic today in culture.

Andrew, thanks for opening this discussion.

Matt Livengood

Matt, have you found that designing wedding invitations for
same-sex couples is much different than for straight couples? It
would seem to me that there would be the same range of tastes,
from starchy & traditional to casual & unconventional. I'm curious
how there would be a categorical difference...

I do appreciate having a "logo." I think it serves an important
function, by identifying gay-friendly businesses, restaurants, places
of worship, hotels, etc.

It's also nice for our community, which is comprised of so many
smaller self-identifying groups, to have a common standard.

M Wright

[I have been having trouble posting, so I apologize if this
is a repeat.]

What a great surprise to click over to Design Observer and see
this essay!

I have a conflicted relationship with the rainbow flag; I want to be
able to embrace it wholeheartedly, but can't help but cringe at its
unabashed cheesiness. When summer weather and Pride month
roll around, though, it has a certain nostalgic and naive charm.
Learning about its origins in the seventies brought that back for
me, and I realize I have a special fondness for it, despite my
better judgment!

I've noticed that the HRC logo seems to be taking the place of the
rainbow bumper sticker, at least on cars here in Chicago. It has a
nice double resonance in this city, because its clean yellow and
blue geometry recall another flag -- the Swedish flag, which
always makes me think of the historically Swedish/now lesbian &
gay neighborhood of Andersonville.

But it's the logo of an organization, not a symbol of the
community. So the rainbow flag is probably here to stay.

I have to admit, when I read:
"... the idea of designing a contemporary symbol of community is
undoubtedly rare and daunting,"
I got my hopes up that you were working on a replacement,

M Wright

Throughout history, what art or music is as relevant now as it was to
the generation it was created for? As designers we are limited to our
knowledge of the past and our current cultural context. As
disappointing as it is to see the appropriation of once "raw" symbols
for the sake of capital, I think it is refreshing and exciting to open
the door for new potential that is more relevant for for what is now.

M Wright, I'm not whipping some new symbol, but the truth is I'm
struggling with using a rainbow motif (unrelated to its LGBT
connotations) in a project now. Nothing like confronting this
aesthetic aversion head-on.

The funny thing is that Baker really didn't know at that historical
moment that the rainbow flag would "stick," and spread. There is,
dare I say, an authenticity, even naiveté, to this humble act. I
realized I used the word "logo" in describing the request that Milk
had made to Baker, which is maybe what he meant--a mark to
identify the parade--but what we got instead was something
bigger, a symbol for a community. The HRC comparison in this
regard is interesting, a logo becoming a symbol. Interestingly, the
rainbow makes its appearance before the infamous pink triangle
used by the Nazis to brand gays is re-appropriated in the context
of AIDS activism, under the specter of another genocide. It
seems like a symbol for a community evolves organically and
serendipitously, resisting the logic of a "brief" or even the design
process itself.
Andrew Blauvelt

Regarding the colors, and their requisite meanings, chosen for the
original flag:

How is sun, nature, harmony, et cetera, uniquely central to "gay
life?" Last time I checked, my straight friends appreciated the sun as
much as I did.

Maybe that's the point, though. We all need spirit and healing in our
lives, gay or straight.
Seth Johnson

I’m just trying to decide which I disliked more – the fact that there’s barely anything new in this overlong piece, the unironic use of “LGBT” (surely “TQQI2S*” is missing), or its embodiment of the continued failure of homosexualists to do anything remotely interesting or relevant in design criticism.

Then again, I’m not really in favour of design criticism as it is typically practised, so maybe I should scratch that last one.

Now let’s see if your blog engine times out when I try to post this. It’s had a 100% failure rate lately.
Joe Clark

Mr. Clark,

If it's not new to you doesn't mean it isn't informative to someone
else. But putting aside your egocentrism, I'm not sure what the point
of your comment really is, but the use of the term "homosexualists"
gives me a clue. Its use by right wing ideologues (and others) is
both ironic and convenient, who after all, invented and policed the
category of the homosexual. Pretending the person, community, or
category doesn't exist maybe idealistic but it is not socially or
historically realistic. The rhetoric of "hate the sin, love the sinner,"
turns on the same logic of "there are no homosexuals, only
homosexual acts."
Andrew Blauvelt

Flags? Bunting?

Sounds positively Victorian. Huzzah?

I think the rainbow is symbol that stereotypes in the same way that watermelons would for another demographic.

As on the battlefields of old, it may serve well to "rally the troops", but is all, and what that heck does that even mean nowadays? The very concept is divisive.

On reflection though, I guess the fact that the rainbow's been usurped for it's current role keeps it from becoming the trademarked property of some mega corporation. Huzzah!


Well the rainbow flag has one purpose at least, it flushes out the
trolls. "You can all come out now!" as Glinda would put it. (Over
the rainbow, of course...)

Seriously, the flag has a purpose outside Pride marches as a
signifier of gay-friendliness, something which has been noted
above. A hotel close to where I live has a rainbow flag along with
a couple of others in its forecourt for just this purpose. Until the
law in the UK was changed recently, hoteliers could refuse the
custom of gay couples who wanted to share a bed. It didn't
happen very often but would still be a concern. This is one of a
number of gay issues which the straight world never has to worry
about, hence the question "What do you all need a flag for?"

I've often wondered why Lamba never caught on as a gay symbol
despite having been around as long as the rainbow flag. Too
obscure? A brief web browse indicates confusion as to what it
meant in the first place. I recall it being popular enough in the
Seventies to appear on badges and sew-on patches before fading
from view.
John Coulthart

Mr. Blauvelt,

In the project you're working on, is it necessary/your wish to incorporate the rainbow as it is used in GLBT materials? Where I've seen the rainbow used by other groups, it seems like it has been altered from the "gay" configuration, with one or two colors missing, in a different order, etc. Once juxtaposed with content that doesn't mention the GLBT community, it might be enough to clue in more astute viewers that the message is not gay-specific. But I bet that most people would still group it into the same category, at least, or imagine it as an indication that the content is at least friendly and not hostile toward diversity.

It would be an interesting exercise to find out how far you could move the six-colored rainbow away from its standard configuration before it ceased to communicate "gay pride" in most viewers. It's sort of like the continuum you could group camouflage garments into, where on one end you have a set of military cammies that are clearly designed for the purpose of breaking up the outline of a person in combat (and other, less functional messages, perhaps). In the middle you might have the same pattern applied to cargo shorts, and on the other extreme the camouflage pattern is pink, white and gray. It still acknowledges its relationship to military uniforms, but no one will be confused about whether it'll be worn by a soldier.

Matt Kelm

"The rainbow's colorful panoply has always been something of a problem for me, not so much its symbolism but for its cheerful aversion to aesthetic conviction. While I am an ardent believer in the adage that there is no such thing as a bad color, just poor proportions and combinations, the spectral glory of the rainbow has always been a kind of third-rail of chromatics."

Wow. Looks like somebody's been using the thesaurus. . .


"The Gay Flag is really ugly. I'm totally cool with gays, but the flag is really, really ugly. No offense, I'm down with the message, but the design? Lame. I'm just sayin'..."

"The Gay Flag is really ugly. I'm totally cool with gays, but the flag is really, really ugly. No offense, I'm down with the message, but the design? Lame. I'm just sayin'..."

This is not a high school blog on design. While there are times when less academic language is appropriate and useful when communicating with people, this is hopefully not one of them. Don't you feel there is value in using specific language rather than reducing everything to its lowest common denominator?

Mr Blauvelt's mention of the rainbow's "cheerful aversion to aesthetic conviction" is, I think, a way of describing the symbol's indecision. The act of designing is, by its nature, one of making choices. Of discriminating, and selection. The rainbow, however, does not take a stance or make a selection--it includes all colors without judgement.

And in translating that, hopefully more accurately than you did, into simpler terms, I used a great deal more words than Andrew did originally.

Matt Kelm

One would hope Andrew was "cool with the gays..."


I'm curious about the "logistical reasons" behind removing two of the original colors. The phrasing strikes me as odd. Is there any elaboration on that?


I'm using the rainbow spectrum but the subject matter is not
related to LGBT issues. It will be interesting if that is how it will be
read, but I don't think that will be the case. As for the rainbow
scheme, absent its immediate context, I think the shape and
order of the colors is the most important in its identification, so
some sort of game with that might prove interesting.


It's called writing, which should not be confused with texting.


If I remember correctly, hot pink fabric of the right type was not
readily available at the time for mass production and the colors
were further reduced because in use as a street banner, one
color would have been obscured from view by the street post. (I
don't know what kind of hanging system they were using at the
time, but with side by side or split banners today, you could have
3 or 4 colors on each side of the post.)

The elimination of turquoise and hot pink is unfortunate. I hope designers (gay and straight) who use this symbol will start reintroducing the hot pink and turquoise. Those two colors elevate the "rainbow" into a distinctive coloration -- making it less generic. And now that I understand the meaning of those 2 colors, it makes even more sense to include them.

The six color rainbow flag should be left to 2nd graders and Hallmark.

Go 8 color gay flag!
Patrick Santana

Ha...I got the coding right, honest!
John Coulthart

"The rainbow, however, does not take a stance or make a selection--it includes all colors without judgement. "

And then it becomes ugly... Think about it.

The Rainbow Flag is ugly and kitsch, I get it.

But I think the Rainbow is here to stay, like flowers and pink flamingos. For many of us, it is a shorthand for much needed assurance of welcome. And I don't mind, as long as I don't have to wear it.

Perhaps its popularity has something about how easy it is to imitate? Just about anyone can recreate the six color rainbow in RGB or CMYK or Pantone. You can also distort the rectangle to practically any dimension, and people will still recognize it. Crayon, paint, electrical tape. (Same goes for the Peace sign, the HRC sign. ) The lambda symbol is not as easy.

The queer community is not by any stretch a monolithic entity. That's why it needs such a generic, protean symbol to pull it together.

Andrew Blauvelt Andrew Blauvelt is Curator of Architecture and Design and Chief of Communications and Audience Engagement at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A practicing graphic designer his work has received numerous awards and has been published and exhibited in North America, Europe, and Asia. He has organized numerous exhibitions.

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