The rainbow is an arch of colors making up the spectrum of visible light. As a symbol of the LGBTQ community, the different colors of the rainbow represent solidarity in diversity of identities found in the triple spectra of orientation/gender/physiology. Roy G. Biv, an acronym for the colors of the rainbow in their order on the spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet), is also a code name for the Gay community.
The use of the rainbow in public places is part of a code indicating tolerance of Gay people. Many businesses and urban districts display their acceptance of the LGBTQ community through rainbow window decorations or by having a rainbow flag outside. The rainbow sends a message that the establishment is Gay-friendly, and that staff and customers should act accordingly. Rainbow stickers are placed on cars to publicly indicate solidarity with the Gay community.
“Over the Rainbow,” Rainbow Flag
Associating the rainbow to the Gay community has its roots in the movie, The Wizard of Oz, which was so popular in the pre-Stonewall Gay community that to be a “friend of Dorothy” (the heroine of the movie) was code for “gay.” Judy Garland, who played Dorothy Gale in the film, was an actress and singer who became a beloved icon in the Gay community. Her signature song in The Wizard of Oz was “Over the Rainbow” (also known as “ Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) a tune with lyrics about longing for a better world. “Over the Rainbow” would be a standard for Garland for the rest of her life, and became an anthem for Gay people as well as US soldiers overseas during World War II.
The use of the rainbow by the LGBTQ community began in June 1978. The first rainbow flag to be used by the LGBTQ community was designed with eight colors: red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, violet, and hot pink. When Gilbert Baker, native of Chanute, Kansas and designer of the flag, brought the prototype of the rainbow flag to the Paramount Flag Company, he was informed that the manufacturer could not include hot pink. The color was subsequently dropped from the scheme. Eventually, turquoise would be dropped as well. A black stripe was sometimes added in honor of people who died from AIDS.
In 1978, openly-Gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated. Respects were paid to Milk during the 1979 San Francisco Gay Pride parade by removing indigo and dividing the flag in two: three colors to march down one side of the street, and three colors to march down the other. The six colored flag (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet) is now standard.
Many communities within the larger Gay community have embraced and modified Baker’s rainbow flag design to reflect their own specific group. The Gay cowboy community, for example, has placed a cowboy hat in the upper left hand corner, and left the rest of the rainbow flag untouched. Versions of the rainbow flag within the LGBTQ community usually have one thing in common besides adherence to the color spectrum: horizontal stripes.
The rainbow has also made its way into jewelry. Necklaces featuring colored beads or rings arranged in spectrum order, rings with multicolored stones, woven bracelets, and earrings have been hand-made by individuals and mass-produced for the LGBTQ consumer market.
Rejection in Hawai‘i, Confusion in Cuzco, and Parallels in Bahia
The rise in popularity of the rainbow as a symbol of the Gay community has led to its decline in other places. For example, the University of Hawai‘i Manoa changed the name of its football team in 2000 from “Rainbow Warriors” to “Warriors” and dropped the rainbow from its logo, a move ascribed to fear of being ridiculed as Gay. But in July 2013, “Rainbow Warriors” was reinstated for all male UH Manoa teams.
Other peoples have used the rainbow flag besides Gays. A seven-color rainbow flag represents the Inca people, and is displayed frequently in Cuzco, Peru as a symbol of the city and of Inca pride. Every Sunday, the Inca flag is raised in the Cusco’s main plaza along with the Peruvian flag, and is displayed on balconies on June 24 to commemorate Inti Raymi (Quechua: “Sun Festival,” Inti is the Sun God), the Inca winter solstice festival. Many visitors, however, have confused the Inca flag with the Gay Pride flag when visiting Cuzco.
In African Brazilian religion, the rainbow was associated with homosexuality and gender variance before the Gay community claimed it. Oxumarê, a god associated with snakes and rainbows, is assumed to be bisexual, intersex or an effeminate man who is sexually attracted to other men.
Rainbow in Public Architecture
The rainbow is making its way into Gay folk geography and architecture. In Montreal’s Village (the LGBTQ district), for example, rainbow pillars have been installed at the Beaudry métro station. There are tall pylons with rainbow rings near the base on North Halsted Avenue in Chicago’s Boystown gayborhood.
Chasin, Alexandra. Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
Deitcher, David. Over the Rainbow: Lesbian and Gay Politics in America Since Stonewall. London: Boxtree, 1995.