In 1978, Gilbert Baker, an artist, created something of an icon: he designed a striped flag made in the colors of the rainbow for a people who needed a symbol of unity. The flag was embraced as an embodiment of the diversity among the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, the different colors were chosen to reflect the different colors found in nature—much like the divergent identities that make up our community. For years, the flag has served as an iconic reminder of the existence of LGBTQ+ folx of all stripes, our resilience, and even merely a symbol that someplace—a coffee shop, a bookstore, a bar, or a school—was a safe haven, an affirming space. I remember how important the little three-by-five rainbow flag stickers were to me every time I saw them in the window of a Starbucks or a bagel shop in Lakewood, Ohio, or one of the vintage shops on Coventry Road. As a queer teenager, I didn’t feel safe in much of Cleveland. But in certain neighborhoods, those flags were everywhere, littered in windows, stuck against front doors, and used as bumper stickers to display someone’s Pride. Occasionally you would see a Pride flag strung up on a pole, dancing in the wind in front of someone’s house. When I saw those flags, I felt seen completely, affirmed. And most importantly, I knew that I wasn’t alone.
But what started as a unifying symbol, a sign signifying a safe space, has become, for many, the singular iconic visual representation that we have. As rights and representation for queer folx have increased tenfold in the last decade, so too has the buy-in of capitalism.
Pride Month is home to campaign after campaign of corporations aligning themselves with the queer community, often co-opting the rainbow symbol and slapping it onto a special-edition product. Meanwhile, the more substantive work that needs to be done—in 2021 addressing the continued murder of trans women of color and the attack on access to gender-affirming healthcare in numerous states by the GOP—is often missing in a company’s Pride Month agenda. So when the city of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs added two stripes—one black and one brown—to the Pride Flag in 2017, and then musical artist Daniel Quasar added a five-striped chevron in 2018 to represent LGBTQ+ people of color and trans people, there was some blowback.
But here’s the thing: the original Pride flag may have been intended to represent all queer people, but much of the sociopolitical progress that’s been made in the name of LGBTQ+ equality has primarily benefitted cisgender white gay men and lesbians. And the month of celebration and joy that we know and love, which started as a protest against police brutality, began because Black trans women were tired of not fighting back. Everything that Pride Month has become—the Fortune 500 companies proudly displaying their rainbow products and marketing campaigns—is rooted in the activism of the very people who are still least likely to benefit from it the most, and who are the most vulnerable. Does that reality mean that the original Pride flag is meaningless?
No, not at all. It means that it was aspirational. It represents an ideal that we are striving for, as a society, but haven’t yet reached. It means that the intentions behind a flag were honorable, visionary, even. It also means that the community represented by the flag has to do a better job, has to be better—more inclusive, more active—in fighting for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community.
This year, the flag has been amended once more, by Valentino Vecchietti, intersex columnist and media personality. The innermost triangle of the chevron is now yellow, and inside it lives a purple circle, an addition that represents the intersex community. Here again, the colors were intentionally chosen. Modeled after the 2013 intersex flag, the colors yellow and purple are frequently used by the intersex community in opposition to blue and pink, which have come to represent the gender binary. This is another step forward toward a more inclusive Pride, but every gesture toward more inclusion must also be met with action. If not, we fail the people who most need the flag to see themselves somewhere in our society.
Written by Denne Michele Norris for Youth To The People