How the rainbow flag is evolving to embrace everyone

Malte Mueller/fStop/Getty Images
ByMatthew Terrell
Originally Published: 

As America has appeared to collectively wake up to the injustices marginalized communities — especially Black Americans — face daily, a controversy has been brewing around a beloved symbol of queer identity and diversity: The rainbow flag. Many members of the LGBTQ community have called for the update of the rainbow flag for the sake of representation.

Some suggested adding a black and brown stripe to the rainbow flag to represent people of color. Others called for the addition of pink and baby blue (the colors of the trans flag) to make the rainbow flag more inclusive of trans people. So as of 2018, there’s been a snazzy and significant redesign — otherwise known as the Progress Pride Flag — with a chevron of black, brown, pink, and baby blue.

That redesign, however, is far from the end of our conversation about intersectional identities. As variations of the rainbow flag and other sub-community flags have proliferated, it’s clear that there is no single capital-Q Queer identity that can be expressed by a few colors on a piece of fabric. Today, at Pride events around the nation, you can see people flying or wearing countless iterations of the rainbow flag, but there’s still tension about which “official” flag should represent the community. And while it might seem somewhat superficial to some, this symbol matters profoundly.

Even within the LGBTQ community, there is a curious conservative contingency that is resistant to any changes to the flag. These folx argue that the rainbow flag is meant to represent all people (in a sort of abstract way) and new designs have a sort of “designed by committee” feel to them. These traditionalists also say that literal rainbows don’t include stripes of black, brown, pink, or baby blue so that addition wouldn’t make sense, aesthetically. These viewpoints reflect the tension within the queer community to be more inclusive of marginalized voices — and not just the white, cisgendered individuals at the forefront.

Mixmike/E+/Getty Images

A reminder to those traditionalists: There is no authentic rainbow flag. Even what people view today as the “classic” rainbow flag is one of many variations the LGBTQ community have used, with the number of stripes or exact colors changing over time. The rainbow flag — as a concept — has inspired a coterie of other flags for every corner of gender and sexual expression in the LGBTQ community. There’s the leather flag (not necessarily a queer thing, but you're probably less likely to see straight people fly a flag to signify their commitment to leather and BDSM), the bear flag, and the pansexual flag, for example.

A little background: The first rainbow flag was designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker in San Francisco, and was inspired by the hippie movement. The colors, as it's told, don’t represent individual groups in the LGBTQ community. Instead colors represented an abstract ideal important to the LGBTQ community — hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for serenity with nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. This 8-stripe symbology has a very 1970s, new-age feel to it; however, it was quickly changed to suit the commercial needs for flag production.

Some of the first flags reportedly sold commercially were seven-stripe overstock from the International Order of Rainbow for Girls — a mysterious Masonic organization meant for young women — and nothing like Baker’s original design.

Eventually, we arrived at the modern 6-stripe design because it was easier to manufacture for public use. The 6-stripe style (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet) is the one recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers — but that clearly didn’t mean LGBTQ people were stuck with that design. Rainbow flags became such a prominent and popular aspect of gay pride events, that other sub-communities started to design their own versions. It was an ever-changing indication that we recognized ourselves as intersectional, multi-layered, and deserving of every identity we embody. Many queer people have had the freedom to explore specific identities — and that’s part of what has made community flags grow in popularity. And to that, I say: the more, the merrier.

In 1989, Tony DeBlase introduced the world to his design for the aforementioned leather flag: alternating blue and black stripes, a single white stripe down the center, and a heart in the corner. The black represents leather, blue is for denim (another material fetish in BDSM communities), white for purity, and the heart for the love leatherman share for each other.

The bear flag, which you might likely see flying outside of a picket-fence bed and breakfast in Provincetown, is exactly what you would expect. It's an earth-toned motif with stripes of brown, beige, black, white, and everything in between. These colors are meant to represent the fur of animals of the world (gay Bears being very proud of their body hair), but has an added bonus of looking like the colors of skin tone from around the world. In the corner of the flag is the paw print of a bear — just to confirm the obvious. Should you see this flag flying outside a house, you can expect to find hairy, burly men inside — but also the kind of men who would know all the words to “Hello, Dolly!”

There’s no one established flag that represents lesbians but the most commonly used lesbian flag is a purple field with a black inverted triangle in the middle (a symbol used to denote lesbians in Nazi concentration camps — a sort of reclaiming of a symbol) with a labrys, which is a double-bladed hatchet, in the center. Perhaps the reason this flag didn't really fly is because it was designed by a cis man, Sean Campbell, for an article published by a Palm Springs newspaper in 1999.

And then there is the pansexual flag. The asexual flag. The intersex flag. There's a cowboy pride flag which features a horse on it, and the American Pride flag which queers up the classic stars and bars. Clearly, the symbols we use to represent the LGBTQ community are flexible and allowed to change over time.

Perhaps people should focus less on fighting to change the flag, but instead embrace the one they identify with most — or one that supports a community in need of more representation. Either way, flying any variation of these can help us eschew the historic pattern of burying queer identities and lumping all queer people into one corner of the margin.