Philadelphia’s Pride Flag Matters

A banner for a more inclusive community

Author’s Note: I wrote this as an op-ed last year for the Philadelphia Inquirer but never heard back from them. I found it while going through some old files, and decided to clean it up to publish here.

The redesigned Pride Flag. Source: Philadelphia Magazine
The redesigned Pride Flag. Source: Philadelphia Magazine

For last year’s gay pride celebration, the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs rolled out a new version of the iconic rainbow pride flag. To make clear that people of color, and specifically people of African and Latino descent, belong in the LGBT community, they added black and brown stripes to the other six.

Some responded to the new flag with hostility, insisting that the original flag has “nothing to do with race,” and that the redesign creates needless division in the LGBT community. But the fact is that racial discrimination and division have existed in Philadelphia’s LGBT community for decades. A year later, the new flag remains an important — though small — first step toward remedying that history and securing justice for the future.

It’s worth noting that black and brown people have been integral to the struggle for LGBT rights. African American and Puerto Rican drag queens were among those who rose up against police harassment and brutality at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, ushering in a new era of queer activism. The gay liberation movement that followed in the 1970s was modeled in part on the black freedom struggle that preceded it, and the two movements found common cause around the issue of police brutality.¹ Later on, black gay activists played a key role in convincing the City Council to add sexual orientation to Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance.²

And yet black and brown people have long been marginalized within Philadelphia’s LGBT spaces and institutions. Last year video of iCandy owner Darryl DePiano using a racial slur to describe black customers surfaced on YouTube. Around the same time Philly Pride youth marshal Kemar Jewel, who is black, was turned away from Woody’s, supposedly because he violated the bar’s dress code by wearing sweatpants and sneakers.

That kind of racial discrimination has been a problem in the Gayborhood for decades. In the 1970s and 1980s it was common practice for gay bars to ask men of color for multiple forms of ID, while letting white customers enter freely. In 1984 Philadelphia community groups formed a committee to investigate discrimination in Center City’s gay bars. They found that both racism and sexism were endemic in the Gayborhood, where bars used “neutral” policies such as dress codes and ID requirements to exclude women and minority customers.³ Apparently little has changed.

In the broader context of American society, race also matters a lot when it comes to the challenges that LGBT people face. One out of five kids in youth detention centers identifies as LGBTQ, but 85 percent of those are youth of color. Gay and bisexual men still represent the majority of new HIV infections, but 38 percent of those are among black gay and bisexual men. (African Americans represent about 12 percent of Americans overall.) In 2017 at least twenty-eight transgender people were “victims of fatal violence,” according to the Human Rights Campaign. Most of them were black trans women.

Adding two more stripes to the rainbow flag doesn’t solve these problems. But symbols matter, and the pride flag is a powerful symbol of queer identity and community. Expanding that flag to include black and brown is an important statement that queer people of color are part of our communities, and that injustice against one of us is an injustice against all of us. The reaction to the redesigned flag shows that much work remains to be done, but that work is crucial if LGBT people want not just to celebrate pride, but to build a community of which we can all be proud.

1. Jared Leighton, “‘All of Us Are Unapprehended Felons’: Gay Liberation, the Black Panther Party, and Intercommunal Efforts Against Police Brutality in the Bay Area,” Journal of Social History.

2. Kevin J. Mumford, “The Trouble with Gay Rights: Race and the Politics of Sexual Orientation in Philadelphia, 1969–1982,” The Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (June 2011): 49–72.

3. This is documented in the Coalition on Lesbian-Gay Bar Policies records, held at the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives of the William Way LGBT Community Center.