As a gay dude, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the Pride Flag. On the one hand, I derive a sense of empowerment from bringing together homosexuals, bisexuals, pansexuals, and transgender people under one unifying umbrella. On the other hand, I think that the rainbow can represent more than just LGBT empowerment, and should be treated as such.
Earlier this month, Amber Hikes – the head of the city of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs – ignited global controversy over a decision made by the committee she led to add two additional stripes to the traditional Pride Flag. The new design places two vertical bars of brown and black atop the long-established layers of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Supporters of this decision applaud it as an effort to include people of color more prominently within the LGBT community itself. Critics deride it as a politically-correct overture that does nothing of substance to end systemically-racist practices.
My perspective: this new version of a Pride Flag is fine. Creating a wide range of incarnations for the Pride Flag is healthy, and allows those of us outside of the heteronormative cookie-cutter mold to speak out on issues that get blatantly ignored. What’s disheartening, however, is all of the “noise” and resulting straw man arguments that both sides of this debate have inserted into the discussion as a way of widening even greater fissures amongst LGBT Americans, while outright disregarding the realities of intersectionality.
First, let’s examine the history of the Pride Flag. In 1978, artist Gilbert Baker designed the first Pride Flag at the behest of activist Harvey Milk. Several facsimiles of it flew in that year’s San Francisco-based “Gay Freedom Day” parade. Originally, it contained seven stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo/turquoise, and violet. Eventually, indigo was removed so that the flag would contain an even number of layers.
The Pride Flag was intended to be a positive alternative to the pink triangle that had been utilized by Nazi Germany to brand homosexuals. Each color along the spectrum symbolizes a different concept: red means “life,” orange means “healing,” yellow means “sunlight,” green means “nature,” blue alternately signifies “magic” or “art,” and violet means “spirit.” Originally – and ironically enough – indigo and turquoise alternately signified “serenity” or “harmony” before they were removed out of convenience.
Hikes and her committee (in conjunction with the “More Color More Pride” movement) incorporated black and brown into their redesign as a way to be symbolically-inclusive; ever since the onset of the gay rights movement, people of color have been disenfranchised and left out of the decision-making within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. Historically, the city of Philadelphia has struggled with making strides in race relations, including within its own LGBT neighborhood, known as “Center City.” Hostility and violence toward queer people of color and transgender individuals have been particularly pervasive, there. So the Philadelphia-based Center City seemed like a logical place to introduce this evolution of the Pride Flag.
At some point, somebody somewhere misinterpreted this design as an attempt to unilaterally change the appearance of the Pride Flag everywhere in all circumstances. Those who dislike the design have mocked and trivialized its intent. In response, many defenders of the new design have lashed out with childish invectives of their own.
Charley Beal, a close friend of the late Gilbert Baker, has stated that the original colors were chosen to represent nature’s color spectrum. Aside from the presumptuousness of trying to speak on behalf of a deceased person, Beal also seems to conveniently ignore how indigo/turquoise were ultimately phased out for no other reason than “we can’t have an odd number of stripes.” In fact, at one point during the 1980s, another seventh stripe – this one hot pink – was briefly incorporated, but later removed due to economic reasons. This cost-prohibitive stripe of pink represented “sexuality” on the color scheme (which, when you think about it, seems rather redundant).
Last time I checked, hot pink wasn’t a naturally-occurring hue in most rainbows throughout the sky.
Elsewhere in the U.S., additional groups have infused organized protests into the marches and parades themselves. This leads to the “false choice” debate of: should Pride Events be more fun, lighthearted, serious, or civic-minded in their emphases? For example, at the June 10 “Capital Pride” march in Washington D.C., the coalition known as “No Justice No Pride” criticized the corporate sponsorship of the event from Wells Fargo and Lockheed Martin – such companies have harbored hostile policies toward people of color. The police presence at these parades (called upon to do “crowd control”) has elicited outrage from those who want to see consequences and accountability for cops inflicting brutality against people of color. This often-toxic clash of interests has led numerous cities to cancel Pride Events altogether.
The question that no one seems to be asking is: why can’t it be all of those things? Why can’t the LGBT community enjoy the presence of drag queens and strippers juxtaposed alongside political demonstrations and action-oriented delegations? If the rainbow is supposed to be about our community’s diversity, why should any of these tones be rejected?
Furthermore, not all of these features can be homemade; sometimes you need capitalistic aid to turn large-scale celebrations into a reality. Likewise, don’t we need police officers there to protect the participants from potentially-violent right-wing fringe groups? (imagine the chaos that would break out if the Westboro Baptist Church’s congregation showed up!).
What critics of the Center City redesign are missing is that the black/brown addition of stripes is only one creative reinterpretation. As pointed out by comedienne Amanda Kerri, at another point during the 1980s there was a black stripe intermittently used in the Pride Flag to symbolize deaths from the AIDS crisis. Kerri also cites the intended symbolism of the black and brown stripes – it shows that many people within the LGBT community have been shut out, by virtue of their race…and that there needs to be more listening, all-around.
But how “inclusive” is inclusive? To examine this matter further, I watched videos on this topic released by five different YouTube personalities who have variant perspectives on the controversy.
One commentator, known online as “the Prince of Queens,” believes that much of this effort is an attempt from so-called “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) to marginalize white males within the LGBT community; many of them, he says, are trying to exert power of their own because they personally resent gay white males…but, ultimately, he feels it’s only going to breed more resentment all across the LGBT community. He believes the flag should revert back to the original red-purple color spectrum since the intent of the flag’s design was never to address skin color.
David Levitz, however, disagrees. He counters that symbols do evolve, and we have no way of knowing what Baker would have thought of the City Center redesign. Levitz reminds us that this particular flag was specific only to Philadelphia; besides that, not even the traditional Pride Flag itself is representative of an actual rainbow occurring in nature. Furthermore, he believes the argument of the brown-black stripes being “ugly” is solely a subjective one; everyone, he says, should simply fly whichever version of the flag makes them the most comfortable.
Canadian YouTuber and straight ally Josephine Mathias takes issue with the fact that there was never any explicit white color on the flag to begin with, so it seems disingenuous to state that a rainbow is “racist” just because there was never any brown or black in it. Mathias also accuses Hikes of trying to unilaterally redefine racism, and this could lead to a slippery slope: how long before there’s a demand for a black outline to be added to the pink breast cancer symbol, based on how frequently women of color are diagnosed? She believes that the objective of those who support the black and brown stripes has now morphed into public-shaming (directed toward those who dislike the new design) in lieu of actual public policy changes.
I’m going to take a quick aside here and interject how, although I don’t agree entirely with the “slippery slope” argument made by Mathias, I do concur with her sentiments toward Hikes. In fact, Hikes has been quoted as saying, “White people do not know what racism looks like, because that’s the definition of racism.” I’ve written about this fallacy before, regarding how a shrill and vocal minority of activists appear hell-bent on forcing everyone to acknowledge only institutional forms of racism while dismissing the social or cultural.
Back to the YouTube commentators: British vlogger Calum McSwiggan personally likes the messaging of the new flag because it addresses the legitimate problems of racism within the LGBT community. Subjectively speaking, he believes it looks nice, and chalks up the resistance it’s faced to being a byproduct of natural hesitance that people tend to have whenever changes to tradition are suggested. McSwiggan muses how there’s always potential for anything to become more inclusive, echoing Levitz’s position that more traditional versions of the Pride Flag can still be flown at an individual’s discretion.
Finally, Arthur Serra describes the rhetoric used by Hikes as “silly and pathetic.” He questions whether Hikes is subversively trying to use her own racism to dominate the discussion on race by marginalizing white gay men. So now, are LGBT people of color being softly encouraged to prioritize ethnicity or racial identity atop some hierarchy of intersectional layers? Serra also calls out Hikes for her failure to just-as-passionately confront the homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia found within individual ethnic groups themselves.
So while I agree with Levitz and McSwiggan that there’s no reason for people to complain about the Center City redesign, I also agree with Mathias and Serra that some people are abusing this strife to push their own questionable agendas.
Additionally, this month, Abercrombie & Fitch came under fire for tweeting, “Pride is for straight people, too” while posting sexy promotional images as part of an effort to raise funds for The Trevor Project. This was met with rabid allegations that A&F was supposedly taking an #AllLivesMatter approach to making “cishets” (cisgender heterosexuals) feel more comfortable.
Or, there were the even more ridiculous allegations of “Racist Skittles” when the Wrigley Company released a limited line of black-and-white Skittles during LGBT Pride Month in British and German markets. The company’s intent was to show solidarity by offering up these black-and-white novelty candies as a way of allowing the LGBT community to enjoy the “rainbow” (normally co-opted by Skittles) all to ourselves. But, in turn, Wrigley was accused of “white supremacy.”
Hmmm – then I guess that means I should stop eating broccoli…since it will probably turn me “green with envy” toward others.
There are absolutely major problems within the LGBT community regarding our need to confront racism. The tendency of queer online daters to specify “ethnic preferences” in their dating profiles is a social testament to that (not that it makes it any less bigoted when heterosexuals do it). Yet, shaming and bashing random people over their aesthetic opinions of a FREAKIN’ FLAG DESIGN seems somehow antithetical to a platform of unity and compassion. It can’t be a one-way street.
What’s my own preferred design of the Pride Flag, you may ask? Well, aesthetically speaking, I agree that the much-maligned black and brown stripes are slightly awkward-looking. But that’s only because they’re just sort of clumsily tacked onto the rest of the color spectrum.
Actually, the design that I prefer is one by Yoshi, a Tokelauan New Zealander artist who conceived a variation of the Philadelphia redesign for the “Queer Witch Queen of Color” community. Yoshi’s design utilizes the traditional red-purple color spectrum, but with a superimposed sphere containing a clenched fist historically used in the Black Power and Chicano Power movements. Within that sphere, the “solidarity-fist” is surrounded by a diverse range of stripes representing the wide spectrum of skin tones found within the human complexion. If I was flying a Pride Flag to celebrate an upcoming event, this is definitely the one I would use. The colorful synergy that Yoshi has generated, here, is incredible.
What we need is for some talented graphic artist out there to design a spherical Pride Flag with a “spiraling” range of colors. Along one side of the circle’s diameter, there could be an all-inclusive “rainbow” of everything ranging from pink to red to yellow to blue to purple and back again. The other half could contain a complementary spectrum of hues, similar to those added as part of Yoshi’s design: everything including black, brown, russet, walnut, rust, ochre, chestnut, honey, olive, fawn, macaroon, tan, khaki, and albino-white. I have no artistic ability, myself; so don’t ask me to do this!
In fact, there’s no reason why Pride Flag designs can’t evolve to incorporate additional aspects of intersectionality, as well. Gender symbols. Religious symbols. Stripes that are thinner in some places…yet wider in others. Stripes of varying lengths. Numerical symbols that gel into the brush strokes of numerous color lines. Different quantities of dollar signs in various clusters. Symbols pertaining to those who experience forms of ableism. Any of these could be “brushstroked” amid the backdrop of a lovely palate of swirling, blending, overlapping colors and hues.
I’m being dead-serious here. I’m not saying this to be satirical or facetious.
The Pride Flag is what our community makes of it. Clearly, the folks in Philadelphia chose to make it their own. If you want to fly their design, that’s fine. If you want to fly one of the older designs, that’s fine too. Or, if somebody follows Yoshi’s example and extrapolates the Center City model even further, that will only result in an even more diverse, more enriching dialogue.