Long Reads

The Radical History of the Rainbow Cake

Pride, any way you slice it.

June  2, 2019
Photo by Danie Drankwalter

Stacked and decorated (we ended up going for a “naked” frosted effect), our rainbow layer cake looked like it came straight out of a magazine. For such an innocuous Instagram post, the entire thing was surprisingly elaborate. And I’m not just talking about having to bake so many layers, and ending up with pink-stained fingers for an entire week after. It also required staging our wedding-gift porcelain cake stand in front of some leftover cardboard as a makeshift background (we’re as crafty as we are fussy), ignoring that we only had five layers instead of six (sorry, blue), and brushing off the fact that we had somehow built it the wrong way round (V. G. Yor instead of Roy G. Biv).

You may have seen similar posts populate your feeds. June is, after all, Pride Month; for many of us, there’s no escaping the rainbow.

I have to admit that what first drove us to make this cake was the mere satisfaction of finally climbing that baking mountain. We’d done rainbow cookies and rainbow cupcakes on years prior but had never attempted the layered behemoth.

But after the Supreme Court’s ruling of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission earlier this month, baking and posting a rainbow cake on social media felt, in a way, like a public form of allegiance to the couple who had lost—a couple who could have very well been Matt and me. Except our wedding cake was a rainbow confetti situation from Momofuku Milk Bar, and no one refused to make it for us.

I worried that the court, in choosing to side (however narrowly) with the baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in Colorado, had sent a message that those who discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation may hear and cheer on all too loudly.

It’s no surprise that the ACLU and OkCupid mailed out sprinkle-filled rainbow cakes to social media influencers this month in the hopes of weaponizing the anger and frustration felt across the nation regarding the court’s decision. Of course, there’s only so much such posturing can accomplish. But they remind us of the political valence of symbols like the rainbow, and what they can still mean to us here in the present.

The rainbow as we know it—replicated now on bumper stickers and T-shirts, on cakes and pins, on city banners and gayborhood street walks—turns 40 this month. As one of the most recognizable staples of queer iconography, it has the kind of radical history some of us may not even realize.

When Gilbert Baker designed his rainbow flag in 1978, what he was after was a rallying image that could speak to and for the community he saw cropping up in urban centers following the 1969 Stonewall riots. Like the Star-Spangled Banner, the Pride flag would honor the revolutionary forces that had kickstarted the vibrant activism that characterized the LGBTQ community in the 1970s.

What Baker came up with for the 1978 Gay Freedom Day parade (today’s San Francisco Pride) was an eight-striped, hand-dyed flag. In all its colorful glory, it captured both the psychedelic imagery of the hippie anti-war movement as well as the beauty of nature’s own rainbow. The flag’s stripes (pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for peace, and purple for spirit) made room for everyone under the banner.

“When it went up and the wind finally took it out of my hands,” he remembers, “it blew my mind. I saw immediately how everyone around me owned the flag.”

The simplification of Baker’s design that followed that very first unfolding was driven by the kind of pragmatism that’s kept it a vibrant symbol for 40 years. Eager to have his design reproduced without profitable gain (he famously refused to copyright it), he eventually nixed two of its original colors. Most flag manufacturers simply didn’t carry hot pink in sufficient quantities (plus, it was expensive), while turquoise and blue were combined so that an even number of stripes could march on either side of the street during the parade.

When it went up and the wind finally took it out of my hands, it blew my mind. I saw immediately how everyone around me owned the flag.
Gilbert Baker

There were, of course, prior symbols that Baker could’ve used to represent the gay activist community. Shortly after the Stonewall riots, for instance, the Gay Activists Alliance in New York took up the Greek letter lambda, a representation of “a complete exchange of energy” (like in chemistry and physics).

The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) would later reclaim the upside-down pink triangle, a remnant of Holocaust bureaucracy (male homosexuals were forced to wear these triangles in Nazi concentration camps) alongside its now famous motto “SILENCE=DEATH.” But, as Baker said, “Even though the pink triangle was and still is a powerful symbol, it was very much forced upon us.”

It took a while before Baker finally found what he had envisioned: a visual that was as elastic as the rainbow of life he saw around him.

For many, it’s hard to imagine a time when the rainbow—whether in a cake or on a flag—didn’t immediately connote gayness. Judy Garland’s famous Wizard of Oz ballad may have urged us to seek solace “somewhere over the rainbow,” but Baker’s imagery did away with the longing: You didn’t need to go over the rainbow; you were a part of it.

In recent years, communities have been asking for yet a broader spectrum in Baker's rainbow, one that extends beyond the six established colors and includes other definitions of "gay." Cities like Philadelphia (which added black and brown stripes for people of color) and New York City (which just recently got a Baker-designed flag that reinstates both the pink and the turquoise stripes, and even a lavender one to represent diversity) have helped to celebrate the colorful banner’s original spirit of inclusion. In these disparate permutations of color, you realize that the rainbow’s elasticity as a symbol makes it ripe for reinvention.

Once it ceased to be merely a flag—an object that claims territory and community, that signals belonging and projects unity—the rainbow, for many, became shorthand for “gay.” And if the flag laid claim to the budding sense that queers of all stripes could be thought of as a community, then the rainbow cake has come to stand in for a more contemporary vision of gay pride. Instagram—and social media in general—is proof that you can find kindred spirits through likes and shares, and a sense of place for the most open, colorful, and opulent version of yourself. Which is what Pride is all about.

“Our job as gay people,” Baker said, “was to come out, to be visible—to live in the truth, as I say—to get out of the lie.”

Layer cakes, especially once you get into the six-or-more-layers territory, are fabulous signs of opulence. Requiring time and patience, they’re baking events, showstoppers that demand to be displayed, which is why they’re staples at weddings, birthday parties, and other celebrations. Rainbow layer cakes in particular play with color not on the outside, but on the inside. To cut into them is to indulge in their very raison d'être. Their layers are covered at first by frosting, meant to be revealed with that first slice, and then celebrated. You’re encouraged to revel in the coming-out narrative baked into them.

Here’s where rainbow cakes (gay cakes, if you will) speak to how gayness has come to be understood in recent years. Not only do they embody the spirit of visibility that’s long been a championed goal of the gay rights movement, but they’ve also come to illustrate what allyship and activism can look like in 2018.

Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible—to live in the truth, as I say—to get out of the lie.
Gilbert Baker

Therein lies the strength of the rainbow as a queer symbol: It’s a vision of plural unity. While waving a Pride flag in June in certain cities feels almost quaint today, the sheer effort of baking a rainbow cake and posting it on Instagram may be the closest to what it must have felt like for Baker and his volunteers to hand-dye those very first banners in the attic of the Gay Community Center in San Francisco. Within their six stripes, rainbow cakes idealize a community in ways that make them—quite literally—palatable to those who admire them.

As Matt and I sat down to eat our cake, having photographed it from different angles and shared it on our respective feeds, we slowly saw the “likes” start to pour in. It was then that we realized what’s left out of the frame in those pictures: the sense of struggle that the rainbow, as a symbol, has come to represent all these years since its ideation in 1978.

“It’s not so easy to be gay or even a woman in some places in the world,” Baker said, “and in many countries, it's illegal to be gay. You can be put to death. It's a global struggle. A human rights struggle on a global scale.”

And so, just as Baker’s flag, the rainbow cake can only ever be but a gesture, a hashtag on Instagram. Especially when I know that my social network is saturated with family, friends, and politically like-minded writers, artists, and food professionals who already agree with me anyway—what more, really, could my “gay cake” add?

A week ago. 🍰💍🌈👬❤️

A post shared by Manuel Betancourt (@bmanuel) on

For me, it's especially important this year to remember the rainbow’s history as a radical symbol, an activist’s tool, so that we can reclaim it again. Baker, speaking in Marie-Josee Ferron’s PBS documentary Rainbow Pride: The Story of the Rainbow Flag, put it best: “A true flag can never be designed, it has to be torn from the soul of the people.”

In the least, I think he’d be proud that we’ve spent the past forty years tearing it from the confines of a flag and onto so many other surfaces. Even onto cakes that can be photographed (and eaten, too). But it’s up to us, then, to always remember to make room at the table, to offer one another a slice, and to continue fighting every battle that really counts.

Will you be celebrating Pride this year? Tell us in the comments below.

This essay was originally published in June 2018, but we're bringing it back this year in time for LGBT Pride Month.

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Manuel Betancourt is a New York City-based writer. He’s a pop culture enthusiast, an amateur baker, and an eternal Buffy fan. His work has appeared in Film Comment, The Atlantic, Vice, INTO, and Esquire, among others. He’s a regular contributor to Remezcla, Electric Literature, and one of the co-authors of the middle-grade graphic novel The Cardboard Kingdom.


Amanda D. June 3, 2019
Beautifully written. I didn’t know the history of the flag and I’ve never made a rainbow cake before. Now I’m inspired :) thank you
Eric K. June 1, 2019
“It’s not so easy to be gay or even a woman in some places in the world,” Baker said, “and in many countries, it's illegal to be gay. You can be put to death. It's a global struggle. A human rights struggle on a global scale.”

Damn straight!