What Happened to Rainbows? Why Facebook Turned Red for Gay Rights

A brief history of color use in LGBT-rights campaigns
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The Human Rights Campaign; Wikimedia; Flickr / Blackfox - D.T.

The gay-rights activism group the Human Rights Campaign turned social-media world red this week. On Monday, HRC replaced its Facebook profile photo and the campaign's regular logo—a yellow "equals" sign inside a navy-blue square—on its website with a magenta-stripe, red-background interpretation of the same design. The special occasion was the Supreme Court's discussions on California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, which began on Tuesday. There's no clear metric for how many Facebook users adopted the pink and red logo as their profile pictures, but it quickly became ubiquitous enough to turn many people's Facebook feeds a new shade of crimson—as well inspire a host of spin-off profile pictures, including an equals sign made from bacon strips, an equals sign made from two mustaches, and a Bert and Ernie-approved logo, among others. As of Wednesday, the HRC's original image had been shared 66,000 times.

This isn't the first time, though, that the LGBT movement has chosen a bold color to unite itself in the struggle for equality. The fight for LGBT rights has adopted several memorable pigments and color schemes throughout its history.

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The Human Rights Campaign

Pink and red

When HRC spokesperson Charlie Joughin spoke to MSNBC this week about the viral red logo, Joughin briefly explained the color choice: "Red is a symbol for love, and that's what marriage is all about." Red and pink have traditionally been associated with Valentine's Day, which, yes, is all about love—and, moreover, red is sometimes used symbolically as the color of passion, the color of courage, and the color of seduction or sexuality. Pink, meanwhile, was the color representative of sexuality on the original eight-hue LGBT pride flag (more on that later).

The red and pink version of the Human Rights Campaign logo that went viral after becoming the HRC's Facebook picture, though, replaced a short-lived earlier red version with a yellow equality symbol—like the red and pink version, it was uploaded on Monday. That version only got 262 likes, while the red and pink has garnered almost 11,000.

A purple version, with a royal purple background and a lavender equality symbol, was the group's profile picture from October until this week.

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Wikimedia; Flickr / Blackfox - D.T.

Green, then red

Beginning in the Victorian period, green carnations were once a subtle public identifier of a gay man, so that he could be sought out by other gay men. Oscar Wilde famously wore a green carnation in his lapel; today, the Green Carnation prize is awarded every year to an outstanding gay male writer.

In the early 20th century, red accessories replaced the green carnation, according to Northwestern University cultural historian Lane Fenrich. Gay men would often wear red ties or cravats as ways to make themselves visible to one another. And before it was ever the color of the HRC's meme, he added in an e-mail, "it was more famous as the color one wore to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic." Today, Fenrich points out, that's still in use: The Gap, for instance, donates a portion of its profits from Product Red merchandise to research and services.

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Wikimedia

The rainbow

According to the Carleton College Gender and Sexuality Center, a San Francisco artist named Gilbert Baker designed the first rainbow flag for the gay-rights movement in 1978, in the wake of Harvey Milk's assassination. Its first eight-striped incarnation was inspired by the "Flag of the Races" (which was yellow, white, brown, red, and black). The original eight colors were pink for sexuality, red for light, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for natural serenity, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit.

The year after, the six-striped flag emerged—with turquoise and pink removed, and indigo replaced by royal blue. It's been an internationally recognized symbol of LGBT pride ever since.

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The Human Rights Campaign

Blue and yellow

After 15 years with a logo featuring a fiery torch, HRC unveiled its iconic navy-and-yellow logo in 1995 when it dropped the word "fund" from the end of its name. Today, the bold, unique square bumper sticker with two goldenrod stripes is an international symbol for the gay-rights movement. When I spoke to the HRC's former executive director Elizabeth Birch (who chose the logo), she explained the fairly simple reason she'd chosen the blue and gold: "I liked them."

The onetime Apple executive, who consulted with the same team of brand experts and designers at HRC that she'd used at Apple, has loved blue since she was a little girl, she said—and the logos for all the companies she's worked for have been shades of blue. The HRC logo's famous simplicity, she explained, was inspired by Apple: "I had been at Apple for years. ... If I hadn't met Steve Jobs and worked for him, the [Human Rights Campaign] logo would never have happened."

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NYU Press

Lavender

Lavender has long been an important color in the gay-rights struggle. According to Fenrich, it has a relatively long history as a pejorative way of referring to gay men. "Critics of the Truman administration, for example, referred to the 'lavender lads' in his administration, a phrase with both class and gender dimensions in that lavender has long been associated with upper-class female gentility," he wrote in an email. "Twenty years later, Rita Mae Brown and a group of like-minded women protested the marginalization of lesbians within the women's movement by interrupting the proceedings of a national meeting wearing purple t-shirts with the words 'Lavender Menace' emblazoned on them"—a phrase referring to lesbians often used by the famously not-so-gay-friendly Betty Friedan.

On the other hand, though, Fenrich writes,

In his 1940 biography of Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg described both Lincoln and his friend Joshua Speed (with who he lived—and shared a bed—for almost five years) as having "streaks of lavender." I think "lavender" here probably meant "elegant," but it's pretty easy to see something more in it.
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Wikimedia

Royal purple

On Halloween in 1969, a protest against homophobic editorial politics in the San Francisco Examiner got out of control and employees of the newspaper dumped printers' ink from a third-story window of the newspaper's office onto the crowd gathered below. Protesters then proceeded to stamp purple handprints and write slogans with their fingers all over the building and throughout the neighborhood—a memorable way for the gay movement to make its mark on the city. Things turned ugly, though, when police brutality ensued. The "purple hand" remained an important symbol in the continuing fight for gay rights.

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Wikimedia

Pink

According to the Carleton Gender and Sexuality Center, the importance of pink as a thematic color dates back to World War II, when Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David on their coats and later their concentration-camp uniforms. "Homosexuals, who were also put to death in concentration camps, were forced to wear pink triangles on their uniforms," the center's website explains. "Since 1977, the pink triangle has been adopted by the LGBT community as a symbol of the fight against oppression and the work for acceptance."

Fenrich added that in the mid-1980s, AIDS activist groups like ACT UP resurrected the pink triangle and connected it to the slogan "Silence = Death."

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Wikimedia; Amazon

Black

Like the effort to reclaim the pink triangle, there has also been a movement to reclaim the black triangle—the symbol emblazoned on the uniforms of lesbians and prostitutes by Nazis in the concentration camps, according to the Carleton Gender and Sexuality Center. The black triangle is now worn to honor the women previously prosecuted, and is often a symbol of lesbian pride.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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