Most people by now are familiar with the rainbow flag commonly flown during many pride events and parades. It’s become a symbol of hope for a community often the victim of discrimination and misunderstanding.
There’s a fascinating history behind the rainbow flag we all know and love. Beyond that, the use of flagging (sometimes called the hanky code) has been a part of the gay community for over a century!
As it’s Pride Month, let’s explore the history of these fascinating flags and their importance throughout the LGBQT community…
The Original Gay Icon
Even before the modern rainbow flags, there was already symbols used to identify the gay community. The most prolific being the pink triangle.
This symbol originated in Nazi Germany, and was used to mark gay prisoners at concentration camps.
While this was a much darker time in the history of gay rights, the symbol continued to see use even after the fall of Nazi Germany. Initially activists used the pink triangle to help raise awareness of the treatment homosexuals had received in concentration camps, but over time the symbol started to see further use as a positive one.
Today the triangle sees less use, as people identify much more commonly with the rainbow icon we all know and love.
The First Rainbow Flag
The very first instance of a rainbow flag being used to represent gay pride dates back to the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco in 1978. Gilbert Baker was challenged to come up with a new gay symbol, and the rainbow is what resulted.
Some think he may have been inspired by Judy Garland and the song “Over the Rainbow”, while others think he drew inspiration from the Flag of the Races. This was a flag commonly used during the sixties with five horizontal stripes (red, white, brown, yellow and black).
Wherever this inspiration came from, Baker’s flag featured eight colored stripes. He attributed a specific meaning to each color.
Later in the year, the flag became much more popular. To meet demand, the hot pink color was dropped as it was difficult to source this color fabric.
The next year the flag was altered again, merging the turquoise and indigo stripes into a single blue stripe. This meant the flag could be split into two halves to line the streets for the San Francisco parade that year.
This six striped version would be the one adopted by the wider gay community and still commonly used today.
Different Stripes for Different Folks
While the six stripe version became the defacto LGBT flag, there have been many different variations throughout modern history to reflect different groups.
Of note is the nine-striped version, submitted by Baker himself. This version of the flag returns to the original design, but also adds a lavender stripe above hot pink, which symbolises diversity.
There have been numerous adaptations of the rainbows into local and state flags, such as versions including the stars found on the US flag, or the South African version featuring the usual pattern on a rainbow background.
Several variants include extra colors, such as black (commonly representing members of the community which have been lost to AIDS), brown (often representing people of color) or white (representing humanity, togetherness, peace). These sometimes take the form of extra stripes, or chevrons along the side of the flag and often represent a merging of the LGBT cause into another such as social justice.
Other variants often incorporate the pink triangle once more, usually displayed in the corner of the flag.
Flagging: Color Codes in the Gay Community
We can look back even further in history to see the importance of colors to the gay community with flagging. Commonly referred to as the handkerchief or hanky code, this is the practise of signalling sexual preferences and availability of gay men.
It is thought that the code first appeared in the late 1800s following the California gold rush. Due to a shortage of women, men would often have to dance with other men during square dances.
Typically a man who took on the male role in the dance wore a blue bandana in his back pocket, while a man who took on the female role would wear a red bandana.
The modern hanky code is thought to have gained traction in the 60s and 70s, with numerous sources claiming they were the reason it became popular. Among these:
- Bob Damron’s Address Book was a self sold publication chronicling all the gay bars he knew of while travelling the US. Each year, the book included a a chart showing the meanings of the different colored hankies.
- A journalist working for the “Village Voice” make a joke, stating it would be easier for the gay community to state their preferences with colored hankies, as opposed to simply wearing keys to indicate whether they were a top or a bottom.
- Expansion of the code is sometimes attributed to the San Francisco department store, who used the colors to market some of their erotic products.
- The Trading Post printed cards detailing the meaning of each of the colors.
Whatever the reason, the hanky code became much more popular and widespread among the gay community. It’s also possible that this use of colors in the gay community may have contributed to the original idea behind the rainbow flag used today.
Meaning of the Colors
Generally, each community will have its own meaning associated with each of the colors. As such, there are no universal color codes to draw from.
To further dilute the meanings, color codes are often used among BDSM communities for similar reasons. These are often found as different colored collars worn by the submissive members of these communities.
Some of the most common colors used are:
Which side you display your hanky on also denotes whether you prefer to be a top or a bottom. Hanky on the left means you prefer to be the more dominant partner, whereas the right means you prefer to submit to another.
Show Your Colors for Pride Month
Colors and symbols have a fascinating history within the LGBT movement, and will no doubt be a prominent part of it in the future. For now though, let’s all celebrate Pride Month together. Get your rainbows up for all to see and lend your support to the movement across the globe!