When I first saw a link to an article about the More Colors More Pride campaign and their new flag, I admit I was a bit confused. My specific thought was, “But the black stripe goes at the bottom…” because I’m already very familiar with the Victory Over AIDS version of the Pride flag. In that flag, the black stripe represents our being in mourning for the loss of hundreds of thousands of members of the queer community due to AIDS, and it is the bottom stripe on that flag because the idea is that we are determined to be victorious over AIDS, right?
Anyway, my confusion lasted only milliseconds, because I hadn’t even finished reading the headline before I understood that for this flag, the new stripes represented Queer People of Color. Which made perfect sense. But, as an article that I included in the most recent Friday Links noted, the new flag wasn’t greeted enthusiastically by everyone: The Surprising Controversy Surrounding A More Inclusive Pride Flag.
I’ve seen some of the negative reactions on my own social media, and one thing I couldn’t help noticing was that every person I saw objecting, if you checked out their profile, they were white and male (Full Disclosure: I’m white and male, myself). And their objections are, to a one, ludicrous. I especially liked the guy who said something along the lines of “if you don’t see yourself included in the universal symbol of the rainbow, you need to do some soul searching.” Because first of all, it isn’t a universal symbol, is it? As just one example, we have all the whacko Christian fundamentalists who get all angry and in our face claiming that we’ve stolen the rainbow from god. When the flag was first created (and hand sewn) under the direction of artist Gilbert Baker in 1978, some people in the queer community didn’t like it for a variety of reasons.
And it isn’t as if the flag has remained completely unchanged since its original creation. In the fall over 1978, after the assassination of Harvey Milk, there was a sudden demand in the San Francisco area for more of the rainbow flags. To meet the sudden demand, Baker and a flag company decided to use existing stock rainbow fabric (red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet), so they lost the hot pink and changed the indigo to a lighter blue. And a year later the official banners for the San Francisco Pride events switched to a six-color version ( red, orange, yellow, green, royal blue, and violet). There are two different explanations given for that change: some say it was because when the seven-color versions were hung vertically from street lamp poles the middle stripe wasn’t always visible, others say that there was difficulty getting both the turquoise and indigo fabric. The point is, the rainbow flag changed several times, with the original artist’s blessing, in the first few years of its existence.
I mentioned above that not everyone was happy with it. Some weren’t happy because they thought the rainbow was two generic. Others because there were already symbols being used by lots of queer people (for example: a pink triangle or a labrys on a black triangle), and they thought we should stick to those symbols for various reasons. Other folks have made other variations. And a lot of people in the community didn’t think that the rainbow (or the Pride marches themselves) should include anyone other than exclusively gay men and lesbian women. I remember public arguments about whether the words bisexual or transgender should be added to the official name of the Pride Parade in Seattle during the 90s, for instance. There many other arguments still raging about who should be included.
I wasn’t around the community for the arguments about the rainbow flag when it was first introduced, but in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was just coming out, the arguments about why the rainbow wasn’t a good symbol for LGBTQ+ people were still raging. I knew more than one person who was adamant that the Pink Triangle was a better symbol because it represented a time gay men were targeted for extermination in Nazi Germany, and we had taken the symbol back. Of course, there were plenty of people who didn’t like the Pink Triangle, either (some because it was considered to represent only men; others because of its origin as a symbol of our oppression). Or only liked it if it were used along with other symbols commonly associated with lesbians.
So claiming the current six-color rainbow flag is universally recognized as including everyone even within the community simply isn’t true.
There’s another big hint that something like the More Colors Flag is needed: white queers wouldn’t be offended (and the folks objecting are definitely offended) at the flag if the problems it addresses weren’t real. Not only that, all of the arguments I’ve seen used to explain why the More Colors Flag is unnecessary sound exactly like the homophobic arguments given for why queers don’t need representation in movies, books, TV and such or why laws against queer discrimination aren’t needed. And they also are exact parallels to racist arguments used to argue we don’t need laws about racial discrimination (among other things). As they say, if it looks like a racist argument and sounds like a racist objection…
None of this will sound unfamiliar to anyone familiar with discussions about intersectionality. In case you don’t know what intersectionality is, let’s start with the definition (I warned you in the title we would get to dictionary topics in this post!):
intersectionality noun the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
So another reason that you can’t claim that the rainbow is a universal symbol that applies to all queer people is because the experience of being queer isn’t the same for all categories of queer people. It’s kind of like the people who make that argument that you shouldn’t let a black actor portray James Bond or a woman portray Doctor Who because that would make the shows political. Insisting that the hero must be a white male is just as much a political statement as asking why the hero can’t be something else. Similarly, suggesting we should do something to make people of color feel more welcome is not racializing the Pride flag any more than resisting that inclusion is.
I’m a cisgender white man. I also happen to be queer. I have faced discrimination (and worse) because I’m a gay man. But I also know that I have been shielded from certain types of discrimination because I’m a guy and because I’m white. I don’t know all of the times that this happened, but I understand how systemically racism and sexism are baked into our culture, and therefore there are times when I experience no obstacles, where a person of color or a woman would find things less welcoming. The types of discrimination I experience and the ways I encounter discrimination as a gay man are often very different from the types and ways experienced by queers of color. The same kind of discrimination that I might be able to somewhat sidestep because of a bit of white male privilege I don’t even notice at the time can be a much more devastating experience to someone who does not have those two advantages.
Recognizing this isn’t about trying to decide who is more oppressed. This isn’t the Oppression Olympics. The truth is, that a lot of white queer people are unaware of their own racism. Most insist that they aren’t at all, which is literally impossible. You can’t grow up in a racist society without being conditioned to the assumptions of racism. Asserting that the rainbow already includes everyone ignores the fact that there is a lot of racism within the queer community, some of it really subtle because it is just a manifestation of the systemic racism of the whole society, and others of it quite blatant. It’s blatant while also being rationalized away. The photo here of the sign that was seen at the Equality March earlier this month talks about one of those examples. Please note that this sign was at an Equality March, not a Pride March. But it underscores a real truth: a lot of queers, particularly certain white gay men, have these racist attitudes. And yes, it absolutely is racist to say in your dating profile “no blacks” or “no asians” or “no latinos.” The usual counter argument is that they’re just talking about a preference.
I have a preference for redheads. Yet I have never refused to date a non-redhead. And a good thing, too, since neither my late partner, Ray, nor my husband Michael are redheads. I lusted after and occasionally dated redheads, but I wound up falling in love with two different men for reasons other than their hair color. That’s because while I have an attraction toward redheads, I recognize that’s all it is, and that there are other reasons to like or dislike a person than their hair color. The same holds true for race. If you completely exclude someone from consideration because of their race, there is no word other than racism to describe it. And while we’re on the subject: fat-shaming and fem-rejection aren’t any better, and if you’re doing that you’re just being a different kind of bigot, but no less of a bigot than the racist, so don’t do it.
Nobody’s free until everyone is. And one of the steps to setting everyone free is recognizing that not everyone is as free as everyone else. We have to find a way to actually be inclusive, not to simply say that being inclusive is a good thing. And being inclusive requires us to recognize intersectionality. To understand that there are different degrees of discrimination. Society imposes different types of disadvantage on people based on categories of race, gender, sexuality, economic class, and other things. Those differences are real. The pain and suffering they cause is real. And the benefits that other categories of people receive at the expense of that pain and suffering is also real. Fighting for equality means not just giving lip service to inclusivity and intersectionality, it means taking steps to do something about those problems. You have to look for the people who are having trouble getting into the freedom tent and work to help them inside and to feel welcome. That requires first listening, really listening to try to understand–not pretending to listen while we’re really just waiting for our turn to talk.
If my queer kindred of color tell me that they don’t feel welcome in many queer spaces, then I have to take that seriously and ask what I can do to help. And then I have to actually help. Which is why I say that intersectionality isn’t just a noun. Because those of us who have some privilege, however little it may be, have to stick our necks out and use that privilege to help those who don’t.
Pride should be for all of us.