The Curious Case of the Philadelphia Pride Flag

by Micah J. Fleck

In June, the city of Philadelphia raised a new LGBT pride flag featuring two new colors (black and brown) in order to recognize and highlight a particular subgroup in the broader LGBT community: gay and trans people of color. The initiative behind this addition, More Color More Pride, is led by black queer activist Amber Hikes for the purposes of drawing attention to what she sees as a type of in-group bigotry within the LGBT community against its black and trans members. The new colors, which frankly look pretty damn cool up against the traditional rainbow, are being reported as having caused a divide in the LGBT world. But I think in an ironic way the additions merely put a spotlight on a rift that was already there.

The divide in question is being seen between the white and black LGBT members, as well as between those who are cis and trans. Now while this is certainly not true across the board (broad brushes make sloppy paintings), it’s common enough for me to have come across it firsthand despite being a mere ally who doesn’t live every second of my life in the gay or trans stratosphere. I’ve even had a few conversations with people who are cis, white, and gay, and who seem to be deeply irritated by the change. Before weighing in on which arguments I actually find reasonable and which I do not, let’s establish first a quick history and purpose behind the flag as well as how ubiquitous the color additions actually are.

First of all, the flag itself in its original form. It was designed by gay activist and artist Gilbert Baker in 1978, and originally did have two more colors than its final rendition. Though they were removed simply because the particular shades were more expensive to obtain in cloth at the time. What the world ultimately saw was a flag that featured the following colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. And each color represented something abstract and elemental, yet experiential (i.e. an emotion, like joy, or a natural interaction, like sunlight). In this way, the flag ensured to encompass the human experience broadly enough that it would be as inclusive as possible. It is a flag for all—including those who are gay. Because underneath the surface we all share these elemental and positive desires.

This is the intended symbol of the flag—inclusivity and humanity, no matter who you are. It’s a positive message, and had it been universally upheld for its values within the LGBT community, I seriously doubt there would even be an issue in the first place. But the reality is that many gay communities and events have been known to segregate themselves based on race, gender, class, or citizenship across the country—from Phoenix to Virginia to Philadelphia, and beyond. And this has been a thing for some time, dating back at least the 80s when lesbian majorities would keep blacks and men out of their gay bars, which were often the only places of refuge at the time, even if they too were part of the gay community. There’s also the ongoing problem of mainstream pride movements such as the Human Rights Campaign being accused of things like excluding conservatives or not investing any real money into trans-specific causes.

And the greater reality is that despite the more all-encompassing title of “pride” it now bears, this movement was originally just known as “gay pride,” which has caused confusion even among some of the modern gay activists I spoke to on this topic regarding how welcome trans people really are in it. “It’s gender, not orientation,” one woman in the movement explained to me; “Maybe they don’t belong in this movement and should have their own.” Apparently ‘separate but equal’ is back in fashion, at least for some in the gay community who can’t seem to wrap their heads around non-heteronormative genders being just as in need of pride representation as non-heteronormative sexual preferences.

Now of course there is indeed a trans rights movement all of its own—it even has its own flag of badass colors! But the point is that the pride movement at large has grown into something bigger and more encompassing than what it was when it began. And that’s absolutely okay. The entire point of pride parades, etc. is to show that one does not need to feel ashamed or marginalized for being oneself. To celebrate one’s humanity and social worth, regardless of what prejudices or discriminations are unfairly hoisted upon one’s very existence. Do trans members of society not qualify for that? Are they seriously not welcome in the pride movement simply because their plight is due to social clashes with their gender rather than who they are naturally sexually attracted to? Aren’t both of these things equally worthy of delineating a self-identity?

And what of the racism in particular that is seen in the LGBT community? It seems to permeate into the subconscious of so many LGBT people to the point where it causes exclusionary friendship and dating habits, according to some reports. And even if that itself isn’t as blatant or intentional as it could be, it comes back around to the principle that failing to provide welcome to others in the same rights crisis is akin to denying them refuge. Why in the world would human beings do this to each other?

Which brings us to the final piece of evidence in favor of the inclusion of the additional stripes to the Philadelphia flag: the murders of trans women of color that occur every year in the double digits and beyond. This has been called an epidemic by trans advocates, and whether or not one wants to go that far with the rhetoric, it’s hard to see it as anything other than targeting  of a specific demographic when one takes into account the very small percentage of trans individuals alive today in the U.S.: 0.3% of the total population. Now take that number and slice it even thinner by focusing not just on trans females, but trans females who are black. Why in the world are so many of them dying per year if their murders are just random occurrence and not specifically because of who and what they are? Why does the LGBT community, even in patches, seem disinterested in helping raise awareness about this group, and as a result take steps toward humanizing them? Protecting them?

This, the compilation of all the previous points, is the strongest case I have found for why the added colors were deemed necessary by the activists led by Amber Hikes. There is evidence that the LGBT community isn’t as inclusive as the flag supposedly represents, and for the specific demographics being ostracized, perhaps a visual cue or reminder that they matter too is needed—especially in Philadelphia, where we’ve already established this sort of exclusion goes on. From the perspective of someone in the position of Hikes, Philadelphia in particular needed a wake up call. It is, after all, just a local flag in Philadelphia; it’s not yet been accepted as the official worldwide flag. Who knows if it will, but even the fact that the flag was changed in an unofficial way in a single city has already caused an uproar with many gay activists. Considering the evidence put forth… Why?

The arguments against the additional colors vary, but the most reasonable one to my eye is the one that aims to preserve the legacy of what the flag was originally about. As it stands right now, the new flag’s colors do not seem to have an elemental meaning to them; they simply are the colors, and nothing more. Which makes the flag about race, now, and this is something Gilbert Baker was clearly trying to transcend. However, perhaps that transcending was, like many ideal things, a bit premature. After all, the LGBT community is still struggling with racism and transphobia, and the response from within to these additions do seem to confirm that a subconscious desire to exclude exists. What I can understand is the initial pushback to the idea at the conceptual stage, and for conceptual reasons; what I have a harder time wrapping my head around is the outright anger and division that has been occurring since the change was already made. What good does it do to literally say “you can’t add your colors to our flag… Because you’re welcome?” It becomes a contradictory rhetoric that seems more concerned with undoing an inclusive visual than taking genuinely inclusive action. And the latter is all the added colors were ever really after.

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