Flag Race // A Queer History of the Rainbow Flag

Happy Pride everyone! I hope everyone reading this is decked out head to toe in glitter, rainbows and body paint. To mark the momentous occasion, there has been a victory within the gay community; the pride react button is back on Facebook. Truly, this is an event up there in the pantheon of queer successes along with gay marriage, the return of Will & Grace and this.

Everyone loves rainbows right? They’re fun and colourful and 9/10 times there’s an untouched pot of gold at the end; surely that should be reason enough for the LGBTQ+ flag to be a rainbow right? And what’s up with the recent brown and black additions? What kind of rainbow has brown and black stripes? Let’s have a look at a brief history of the most fabulous flag the world has seen.

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pink is not our colour

Sadly, the rainbow flag wasn’t the first symbol for LGBTQ+ people; we’ve got the Nazi’s to thank for that. During World War 2, an inverted hot pink triangle was used to publicly mark homosexual men as a badge of shame. These badges would continue to be used in concentration camps. Following the liberation of concentration camps at the end of the war, many of the pink triangle prisoners were denied compensation, and some were even sadly imprisoned by the Federal Republic of Germany. Under Nazi law, homosexuality was reclassified as a felony rather than a minor offence, and after the war, both East and West Germany took their sweet homophobic time in changing that; 24 years to be specific.

Immediately following WW2, Holocaust historians and scholars didn’t deem it appropriate to discuss the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community; it wasn’t until the 70’s when survivors started released their memoirs that such a topic started getting mainstream exposure. The community reclaimed the pink triangle as a symbol of pride against adversity, and it continues to be the second most popular LGBTQ+ symbol.

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a growing sense of pride

As with so many other gay things, the story of the rainbow flag starts in San Francisco with an artist called Gilbert Baker. Born in 1951, Baker became an icon for gay rights. In the 70’s, with the increase in anti war and gay rights protests, Baker taught himself how to sew, so that he could make banners for all the protests – so next time you can’t be bothered to buy a poster board and a sharpie for the next protest, just remember this guy taught himself how to sew pre YouTube tutorials.

During this time, he met and befriended politician and gay icon Harvey Milk. Milk was one of the first openly gay elected to public office in the US, and his spirit, determination and pride made him an icon. Also, he somehow made Sean Penn bearable in the biopic, which is a feat considering that Sean Penn is unequivocally garbage. Milk persuaded Baker to design a flag specifically for increasingly frequent pride parades, and this history was born.

In the spirit of Betsy Ross, Baker and thirty volunteers hand made the first two flags, acquiring specific dyes and sewing it himself. The original incarnation originally had eight stripes, with each colour representing a different aspect of the LGBTQ+ community:

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  • Hot Pink for sex
  • Red for life
  • Orange for healing
  • Yellow for sunlight
  • Green for nature
  • Turquoise for magic / art
  • Indigo for serenity
  • Violet for spirit

Following the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978 demand for the flag rose rapidly; to meet demands, Baker had to ditch the hot pink because hot pink dye / fabric is damn expensive and capitalism is always a bitch. Paramount Flag Company also started selling their own version without the pink. Soon enough, everyone realised that a standard six colour flag might be more aesthetically pleasing, and the turquoise was ditched.

The flag has been through a few different reincarnations, including the addition of the pink triangle to commemorate queer holocaust victims, a black triangle or stripe to commemorate early victims of HIV/AIDs, and in recent months, brown and black stripes have been added to recognise people of colour within the LGBTQ+ community.

no rice, no curry, no blacks

Pretty much everyone agrees that the Stonewall Riots were a pivotal moment for gay rights. Despite common misconceptions that people were killed, Stonewall was actually a death free riot against police raids at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. Located in Greenwich Village (super diverse btw) the Stonewall Inn was one of the few establishments to allow people to dress in gender non-conforming clothes (which was a crime at the time) and became a regular hotspot for the LGBTQ+ community. Police raids became a regular occurrence, where police would line up the patrons and literally check their genitals to see if it matched their clothing. On June 28th, 1969, the raid didn’t go as planned; the patrons stopped complying. As butch lesbian was being escorted out by the cops, to the growing crowd, she shouted: “Why don’t you guys do something?” Black activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson was thought to be one of the first to do something and threw the first rock – after that, the crowd went berserk. After years of discrimination, criminalisation and institutionalisation, at that point, the LGBTQ+ community just wanted to be left the fuck alone. After Stonewall, the queer community and their perception was irreversibly changed, and who was at the forefront of the riots? Black transwomen and black drag queens.

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In 2015 Hollywood finally released a major motion picture about this momentous event.

It starred a white cis man.

Ugh.

And here we are in 2017 when racism is a major issue in the queer community. The very same community that essentially has POC to thank for the major milestones in gay rights. A quick scroll on grindr will show thinly veiled racism under the guise of “preferences,” and POC are majorly fetishised in the queer dating scene. So many white cis gay men will claim that they can’t be racist because they’re part of a marginalised community, and they don’t have any privileges over POC at all. I mean, that’s obviously bullshit, but it’s a worryingly common thought.

In 1978, Baker created the LGBTQ+ flag to represent everyone in the community; the 2017 update with the black and brown stripes does exactly that. It directly speaks to marginalised members of the queer community to say that they are welcome and they are accepted.

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-Q

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