June is LGBT Pride Month, and Salt Lake City lit up this weekend with a slew of Pride events. Since working in an art museum provides one with a rather intensive visual focus, one repeating image caught our eye (and curiosity): the rainbow flag. How did this become a symbol for gay pride, we wondered.
The rainbow, or gay pride, flag in its current iteration consists of six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Each of these colors represent a value: life, healing, sunlight, nature, harmony, and spirit (respectively). In 1978, San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker designed what is believed to be the first modern gay pride flag by combining eight stripes, but when certain colors were unavailable at the time of manufacture, they were eliminated and the design simplified.
According to this fabulous article on Slate, “Closeted gay people historically used bright colors to signal their homosexuality to each other. Oscar Wilde was famous for wearing a trademark green carnation on his lapel, and the flower is thought to have been used by him and other Londoners and Parisians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to quietly express their orientation.”
Indications of such proclivities weren’t just controversial: they were illegal.
The Green Carnation, published anonymously in 1894 by Richard Hichens and said to be based on Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (whom he knew personally) caused quite the stir and was widely read. Though withdrawn from circulation in 1895, the damage had already been done: the infamous book was one of the works used against him by the prosecution. Wilde was tried, and sent to prison.
Another potent and colorful symbol of the history of homosexuality is that of the pink triangle, which was used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals during the holocaust. Though pink was on the original flag designed by Gilbert Baker, the color has since been eliminated from the flag. The pink triangle itself, however, remains a powerful emblem.
Pop culture also provided what would become coded language, and affirm references to bright colors and the rainbow.
According to Slate:
“… because of Judy Garland and her signature song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Garland was a major star to the gay community throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Gay men came out in droves for her performances, and, from World War II forward, many in the LGBT community referred to themselves as “friends of Dorothy,” a phrase that seems to have derived from Garland’s performance in The Wizard of Oz.”
Aside from an artistic interest in the history and symbolism of the flag itself, an art museum such as the UMFA may find itself fascinated by gay issues and Pride Month for a number of other reasons. As Christopher Reed points out in his book Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, the art world has long been connected to the gay community.
“Calling someone ‘arty’ or ‘artistic’ has often been a euphemism for homosexuality,” Reed states. His book explores questions of why this might be the case.