November 20, 2017

What’s in a Color? The Addition of Black and Brown to the Rainbow Pride Flag

12_01446By Angelique Harris

Pride celebrations occur in major cities and small towns throughout the nation and the world. Many of you have probably heard of LGBTQ Pride, or if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve probably noticed an increase in rainbow flags and discussions about LGBTQ identity during the June and July months. Pride celebrates lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) identity and rights and is a cultural event that includes parades, festivals, marches, and other celebrations.

During Pride celebrations, the pride flag is prominently displayed throughout the parade routes, on t-shirts, and outside of buildings and restaurants. In some cities with large LGBTQ populations, like San Francisco, the rainbow flag is even painted on city streets. Traditionally, the pride flag has been the least controversial aspect of pride celebrations until this past summer, when the city of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs unveiled their newly updated pride flag, with the colors black and brown added to the flag, and hoisted it above the Philadelphia State Capital in an effort to bring attention to diversity within LGBTQ communities.

Most people have seen the pride flag, the rainbow six-striped flag which displays the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Originally designed by gay activist Gilbert Baker in 1978 and commissioned by famed activist and politician Harvey Milk, the pride flag originally displayed eight colors including turquoise and hot pink, with symbolic meaning assigned to each color. Yellow is symbolic of sunlight; red is symbolic of life; and violet is symbolic of spirit.

Barker maintained that the rainbow flag was designed to represent the diversity within LGBTQ communities. In 1979, the color pink was removed because of difficulty in finding the hot pink fabric. Since then, the six-colored flag has been the most well known. Throughout the years, the flag has gone through a number of variations in an effort to call attention to a particular group or social issue facing queer communities.

For example, at some Pride celebrations, a black stripe has been added to recognize those who have died from AIDS complications. In South Africa, the LGBTQ pride flag uses the familiar rainbow color with the “Y” shape found in the traditional South African flag over it. The pride flag and rainbow have come to symbolize LGBTQ support and pride, such as when the rainbow flag was illuminated over state capitals in honor of not only Pride Month but also to commemorate same-sex marriage or to honor the victims of the Pulse Night Club shooting. The rainbow pride flag has come to symbolize much for many LGBTQ people, but importantly, the flag has been altered a number of times, so it is curious that when the flag was altered to include the colors black and brown, it was so controversial.

When the updated flag with the black and brown stripe was added and unveiled in early June, redesigned by the city and a Philadelphia-based design firm, they explained their reason for updating the flag, writing:

In 1978, artist Gilbert Baker designed the original rainbow flag. An iconic symbol of LGBTQ+ unity. So much has happened since then. A lot of good, but there’s more we can do. Especially when it comes to recognizing people of color in the LGBTQ+ community. To fuel this important conversation, we’ve expanded the colors of the flag to include black and brown. It may seem like a small step. But together we can make big strides toward a truly inclusive community.

These activists believed that changing the most “recognizable icon for the LGBTQ community” to include and recognize black and brown activists would help elicit a discussion about the racism and marginalization that people of color experience in LGBTQ communities. This includes whitewashing, where stories of people of color are erased or whites are cast in the roles traditionally held by people of color while erasing the roles that black and brown activists have played within LGBTQ communities.

An example of this marginalization and whitewashing can be found in the history of pride celebrations themselves as they commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, where queer activists fought back against the police who raided a gay bar, assaulting and arresting the patrons. Black and brown trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were reportedly the ones who initially stood up to the police and initiated the movement. However, their identities as black and brown trans women caused their histories to be erased or “whitewashed” from the narrative of the LGBTQ rights movement. In fact, the film, Stonewall, which was released in 2015, focuses on a fictional cisgender white gay male character and was accused of being racist and whitewashing the history of the LGBTQ rights movement by creating a fictionalized account of how the movement started.

The designers of the Philadelphia Pride flag also wanted to draw attention to the racism and violence that LGBTQ people of color experience. For example, queer people of color often face discrimination from their white counterparts. This is especially prominent in dating and social relationships, where studies note that white gay men often discriminate against men of color on online dating sites. Importantly, people of color are also more likely to experience violence, in particular, trans women who disproportionately face violence and are murdered at higher rates than their cisgender counterparts.

The responses to the Philadelphia pride flag were swift. Although many praised the flag, others thought that it further caused unnecessary decisiveness in an already marginalized queer community as this helped to bring about further discussions of race, racism, and discrimination within LGBTQ communities. In fact, many noted the very need for the flag considering the divisiveness caused by adding in these colors.

What do you think about the inclusion of these colors? When you think of the types of people who have access to power and resources within LGBTQ communities, which racial/ethnic group typically comes to mind? When you think of the LGBTQ people most prominently represented in the media, on television shows, and in the movies, which groups do they belong to within LGBTQ communities? And before you answer, there’s one more thing you should note, bisexuals make up the largest share of LGBTQ people, followed by women and blacks, Latinx, and Asian Pacific Island Americans, who are more likely to identify as LGBTQ than whites.

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