We Don’t Need a New Pride Flag
Gilbert Baker’s Still Works Just Fine
This story was lightly edited for clarity and typos mid-January 2019.
The last two years have seen two well-publicized attempts to modify Gilbert Baker’s iconic rainbow flag (now often called the Pride Flag).
In 2017, Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs unveiled a new design (created by the advertising agency Tierney) that added a black and brown stripe to the top edge of the rainbow flag. After a campaign to address racism in Center City Philadelphia’s gay bars, the city promoted the new flag as a way to include and highlight People of Color in the city’s LGBTQ+ community.
Separately, in 2018, Daniel Quasar proposed moving the brown and black stripes (and adding stripes in colors from the transgender flag) to the hoist (or “flagpole”) side of the flag to form a chevron pointing toward the fly end of the flag, to imply needed progress on race, ethnic, and transgender issues.
Xe (Quasar uses xe/xem pronouns) claimed the black stripe also represented, “those living with AIDS, those no longer living, and the stigma surrounding them….” Quasar’s design has attracted a lot of buzz and a Kickstarter campaign to mass-produce the new flag has raised almost twice as much as the original $14,000 request.
Both proposals for new pride flags come from a sincere place: a desire to create an inclusive symbol of the diverse LGBTQ+ community. And both call attention to those marginalized within the LGBTQ+ community and more broadly. They respond to real and serious problems and deserve to be taken seriously and considered on their merits.
But my initial reaction to both proposals was similar: they’re conceptual and aesthetic train-wrecks that disrespect a 40-year old flag embraced worldwide as a symbol of LGBTQ+ people, pride, and community.
One of the beauties of the original rainbow flag was that each color represented an abstract concept, not a specific group or identity. This allowed the flag to be claimed by a wide range of people — as it has been.
Originally there were two rainbow flags: one based on the American flag, with rainbow stripes and blue field at the “hoist” (flagpole side) with white stars. The other — the one better known today — was comprised solely of rainbow stripes.
Both original flags had eight stripes: hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet. Those colors stood, respectively, for the concepts of sex, life, healing, sun, serenity with nature, art, harmony, and spirit. (The number of stripes was later reduced to six, for purely practical reasons.)
Crucially, none of the original stripes represented a specific racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual identity.
Rather, Baker saw the rainbow as a “natural symbol” of the diversity of the gay and lesbian community — a community that also included many gender variant and gender expansive people. (Baker himself often appeared in drag, wearing home-sewn costumes, at many protests and celebrations).
By contrast with Baker’s original, both the proposed flags include colored stripes intended to represent specific communities or identities.
And those stripes are very literal and reductive: a black stripe for people of Black-African ancestry? A brown stripe (for whom?) Brown people? Given that the large majority of the global population has some shade of brown skin, who does this stripe represent?
If those stripes are intended to represent LGBTQ+ People of Color living in the United States— as the flags’ creators indicate— how do they expect these new flags to serve as global symbols of LGBTQ+ people and communities?
More troubling than this unconscious ethnocentrism is the insistence on representing racially- and ethnically-diverse peoples through a small handful of solid colors. That symbolism echoes scientific racist thinking that distinguished “the races” according to the color of their skin: red, white, yellow, black, brown. This typology treats “race” as a natural function of physical or biological features, rather than a complex social and cultural phenomenon only loosely associated with phenotype.
But if a black stripe is meant to represent Americans of Black-African ancestry, in Quasar’s flag it is also intended to represent those living (or dead from) HIV/AIDS, and the stigma still surrounding that disease.
However, for almost 40 years, the color red has been associated with HIV/AIDS activism while the color black is frequently associated with death and mourning, not life and celebration, especially in a Western context —though, of course, those meanings can vary historically and cross-culturally.
The white, pink, and blue stripes (in Quasar’s proposed new flag) are borrowed from the original Transgender Pride flag. In that flag, the pink stripe was intended to represent “girls,” the blue for “boys,” and the white for intersex or transitioning people, or those with an neutral or undefined gender.
Though traditional, that design reifies the gender binary in ways that seem quaint in light of today’s more sophisticated thinking about biological sex, gender identity / presentation / expression, and gender transitioning — concepts often originated and promulgated by gender expansive people. “Transgender” is now considered an umbrella concept that includes gender non-binary and agender people, that don’t easily fit within a binary model of gender.
Adopting the Transgender Pride flag’s colors (in any new pride flag) would seem to reproduce that flag’s problems, rather than critically engage with or remedy them.
The addition of new stripes and colors also begs the question: why these particular identities but not others customarily gathered under the LGBTQ+ umbrella (like asexual, bisexual, pansexual, polyamorous, BDSM/kink, leatherfolk, daddies, boys, pups, furries, agender, aromantic, demigender, demisexual, Two Spirit, queer, genderqueer, gender non-binary, gender fluid, bigender, neutrois, bois, aggressives, bears, otters, wolves, etc.)?
Why have they been excluded (from a design that’s supposedly intended to be more inclusive)?
And how do the new identity-symbolizing stripes— that do not cross or intersect other stripes — reflect the intersectional experience of multiply marginalized (or simultaneously privileged and marginalized) people? The addition of more parallel stripes of unamalgamated color, seems, well, additive…the very opposite of intersectional.
If the endless controversy over the exact letters (and their meaning) in the LGBTQQIAAPP+ initialism is any indication, it will be about two seconds before one or more of the groups excluded from the new identity-based pride flags proposes revisions to specifically include them…
And a once-unifying symbol will be endlessly fractured, subdivided, and partitioned until it looks like a patchwork quilt, devoid of any unifying power.
Baker’s original flag employed the colors of the rainbow, a natural phenomenon composed of the visible spectrum of colors created when white light is refracted through a prism (as with raindrops after a storm).
The intuitive power of the rainbow, as a metaphor for political unity grounded in social diversity, and beauty out of adversity, helps explain the global adoption of Baker’s flag as the symbol of the LGBTQ+ community.
Speaking purely in terms of physics, some of the suggested new colors — especially white, brown, and black — are foreign to the natural phenomenon of rainbows. White is absent from the rainbow because it is the color of light from which a rainbow is produced. Or, viewed differently, the color white is present but only in its constituent parts. Adding it to the rainbow flag would be redundant.
(I recognize the [white supremacist] implications of this analysis — that Whiteness is present if only in its absence — but that interpretation is only valid if the colors of the original Pride flag were intended as identity symbols. But nothing in Baker’s numerous descriptions of the flag’s origins indicates he conceived of its design in these terms.)
Black — the absence of light, not the opposite of white — plays no role in visual phenomena like light or rainbows. Brown and pastel pink are similarly absent from the rainbow, as the old mnemonic “ROY G. BIV” reminds us: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
That leaves pastel blue, the only proposed new color that plausibly fits with the original flag’s aesthetics — and even so, pastel blue is a watering down of that Derek Jarman shade of blue produced naturally in a rainbow.
But beyond their introduction of new colors, the proposed flags are of questionable graphic design. Well, one of them.
The Philadelphia “More Color More Pride” flag builds on the original flag’s design and is thus less innovative, but also less aesthetically jarring. However, the “Progress” flag violates all manner of good flag design principles: simplicity, meaningful elements, minimal number of colors, originality (or derivation from existing flags).
Because of the complexity of the new “Progress” flag design, it will not be intelligible unless fully extended. Its meaning and symbolism is culturally and geographically circumscribed— not everyone agrees on the meaning of the colors black and brown, much less pastel pink and blue. The existing meaning of the rainbow flag won’t be much help, since the intent of the proposed additions doesn’t follow the original’s logic.
Baker designed the original rainbow flags to be flown at United Nations Plaza, near the terminus of San Francisco’s 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade.
He intended the flags as symbols of community power and pride, and he employed the colors of the rainbow as a natural symbol of the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community.
That flag has been recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers and, in 2015, was accessioned into the design collections of the Museum of Modern Art (New York). Its design has been replicated across innumerable other material objects — coffee cups, hats, Christmas tree ornaments, t-shirts, postage stamps, etc.
It forms the basis for the design of the Bisexual Pride, Transgender Pride, Bear Pride, Intersex Pride, Leather Pride, Pansexual Pride, Asexual Pride, Lipstick Lesbian Pride, Genderfluid Pride, and Genderqueer Pride flags (and probably many others).
And it has been an indelible visual and material element of many, many people’s individual and communal identities for over 40 years.
Yes, the community that embraced Baker’s flag is not perfect. (What community is?) And, yes, racism and transphobia have been and still are a shameful part of the LGBTQ+ community (as they are in the wider society). I do not deny this.
We still have work to do!
But I’m hard-pressed to see how the original Pride Flag symbolizes or perpetuates racism or transphobia. Or intentionally (or even unintentionally) excludes anyone on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender identity or gender expression/presentation.
On the contrary, the Baker’s flag has been intuitively understood and embraced worldwide as a metaphor for the unity of LGBTQ+ people, forged from our individual and ‘tribal’ differences. Despite those differences, we share things in common, including our desire to live authentic lives free from discrimination, stigma, and violence.
As Terry Beswick, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco recently put it, “The rainbow flag is an almost universally recognized symbol of gay liberation and all things LGBTQ around the world. I would guess that billions of people know that this flag stands for gay pride.”
Perhaps before we start tinkering with Gilbert Baker’s iconic flag we might pause for a moment and contemplate that fact.
Michael J. Murphy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (Routledge, 2019). He lives in St. Louis with his husband and tweets at @emjaymurphee.