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

A brief history of color use in LGBT-rights campaigns
banner LGBT colors pink red_edited-1.jpg
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.

red pink equality.jpg
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.


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.

The Human Rights Campaign

Blue and yellow

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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