A Symbol of Pride

New Flag Draws Mixed Response, but there’s a Bigger History We Should Remember

A redesign of the “Pride flag” has gone viral recently as protests for racial equity continue across the country, sparked by George Floyd’s violent death. The design includes stripes of black, brown and the colors of the transgender Pride flag (light blue, pink and white) in a triangle entering the left plain of rainbow colors. It was designed by Portland, Ore. artist Daniel Quasar following a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018.

Progress Pride Flag

Some are calling for it to become the new symbol of the LGBTQ community.

“With everything happening right now, this year feels like a good moment to make this flag the mainstream, default symbol for the LGBTQ community,” wrote Chris J. Godfrey, a journalist for the U.K. newspaper The Guardian with a tweeted image of the flag.

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Others advocated for the new design as a tribute to activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two activists who were instrumental in the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, as the community celebrated the 50th anniversary of Pride Month this year.

Philadelphia Pride Flag

According to Quasar, the symbol is formally known as the Progress Pride Flag and was intended to build on a similar design by the City of Philadelphia in 2017 which added black and brown stripes to the original design by Gilbert Baker.

Both designs have been met by waves of negative comments from some in the community, claiming that Baker’s 1978 design, which today is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, did not need to be updated and that it represented ideals of the community and not segments of its people. The six stripes in the design included red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, blue for peace, and purple for spirit.

However, the flag previously had other iterations including the original that had two additional stripes, with hot pink representing sex and turquoise for magic. According to historians, those were removed in a 1979 modification following the death of San Francisco politician and activist Harvey Milk.

When we look back, we realize that much like the history of the LGBTQ movement, there is no one symbol to represent our community. “The only commonality in LGBTQ+ life is the risk people take in being themselves,” wrote Smithsonian Curator Katherine Ott in a 2019 National Museum of American History blog titled “The Most Radical Thing About Stonewall Wasn’t the Uprising.”

Here is a look at a small history of symbolism in the LGBTQ community.

PINK TRIANGLE

Queer iconography has long included the pink triangle — re-appropriated by the LGBTQ community after the Nazis used it to label mostly gay men in concentration camps — a dark period of our history. It is believed that somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 men were sent to concentration camps for reasons related to sexuality and the number of those who died may never be known. A TIME magazine article in 1977 noted that gay rights activists in Miami had attached the symbol to their clothes as “a show of solidarity while protesting a vote to repeal a law protecting gay people from housing discrimination.” The activists and accompanying story brought national attention to the reclaimed symbol, and the 1979 Martin Sherman play “Bent” brought even more awareness to the pink triangle’s history. By that time, AIDS was threatening the gay community and activists at ACT-UP started using the symbol right-side up, compared with the Nazi-era upside-down triangle. Today, the symbol continues to be an empowering symbol used in LGBTQ rights demonstrations around the globe.

Two overlapped triangles (one blue and one pink) has also represented bisexuality in a symbol referred to as biangles.

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THE LABRYS

The labrys lesbian flag was created in 1999 by graphic designer Sean Campbell, but the symbol was adopted by lesbian feminists in the 1970s. The flag design includes a labrys, an ancient religious symbol, superimposed on an inverted black triangle. Asocial women, including those who were homosexual, were also condemned in the Holocaust because they did not conform to the Nazi ideal of a woman. While the pink triangle was used to identify gay men, the black triangle was used on these women and in the same way was reclaimed when recognition of the atrocities against queer people by the Nazis became more widely known in world history. The double-headed axe of the labrys was associated with Amazons, as well as various goddesses including Laphria, Artemis and Demeter.

GREEN CARNATION

The green carnation likely conjures up Oscar Wilde for good reason. In 1892, Wilde instructed an actor in his play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” along with a dozen of his admirers to wear green carnations on opening night. Scholars vary on its origination, however, some stating that he had borrowed the tradition from the gay scene in Paris while others believing he thought of it himself. Either way, the symbol has been around since the late 19th century. “The Green Carnation,” a novel by Robert Hichens, features two main characters based closely on Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

LAMBDA

The lambda, a lower-case Greek letter, was initially the symbol of the New York chapter of Gay Activist Alliance in 1970. It was chosen by designer Tom Doerr, who wrote that it represented “a complete exchange of energy — that moment or span of time witness to absolute activity” and “it signifies a commitment among men and women to achieve and defend their human rights as homosexual citizens.” In 1974, the International Gay Rights Congress held in Edinburgh, Scotland officially adopted it as a symbol for lesbian and gay rights. According to “The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality” (1990), “it sometimes appears in the form of an amulet hung round the neck as a subtle sign of recognition which can pass among unknowing heterosexuals as a mere ornament.”

LAVENDER RHINOCEROS

One of the most surprising symbols, a lavender rhino caused a lot of controversy in Boston during the 1970s, according to The History Project, a non-profit archive focused on the history of New England’s LGBTQ communities. Two of the city’s artists reimagined the rhino for a public ad campaign for Gay Media Action which went out in press packets in 1974. “It is a much maligned and misunderstood animal,” said Bernie Toale, one of the artists. Toale and Daniel Thaxton chose the animal and the color (a mixture of pink and blue) as a symbolic merger of the masculine and feminine to encourage visibility of the LGBTQ community. Following a price dispute with the MBTA, the Lavender Rhino made its debut at Boston’s Pride March that same year and was effectively immortalized as a symbol of protest and resistance. In 1987, a Lavender Rhino flag was raised at Boston City Hall.

This list is far from complete and does not even explore the myriad of flags representing various cultures and identities to this day. The fact is that the LGBTQ community has utilized many symbols, flags, colors, clothes and even gestures to represent our identity, either proudly or secretly. As society has changed and legislations have oppressed or liberated us, those representations of our identity have understandably evolved. You do not have to like them or agree with them, but will a single symbol ever fully define the myriad of beautiful identities that make up our rainbow?

In a recent online lecture, Ott spoke about the flag debate while discussing the curating of “Illegal to Be You: Gay History Beyond Stonewall” which opened at the Smithsonian last year. The exhibition included the first transgender Pride flag designed by Monica Helms, while across town Gilbert Baker’s sewing machine used to create the first rainbow flag was on display at the Newseum. “The rainbow flag or the opened-up flag — it’s not the last symbol by any means,” said Ott. “Especially with the younger generation of people who are way more fluid and willing not to be boxed in, who knows what the next iteration will be — if it’s a flag, or — who knows?”

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