As humans, we gravitate to putting meaning to things and events. This often translates into using symbols for those things. Symbols can give us direction and meaning, hope and belief, and inspiration and courage. But can also get mired in their meaning and stuck in a time where their relevance may be lost? Can we, as people, lose sight of what they stood for and not see past the limitations we have placed on them?
Young man finding solace in a symbol
As you have read, no doubt, I came out in college but I didn’t fully come out in my hometown for almost a year after my first coming out in college. When I returned to my small town in the mountains of Virginia, I got a job at a gas station. I wanted desperately to come out and meet other queer people but I wasn’t brave enough at the time. During my time in college, I learned about some of the early gay symbols. I knew about the pink triangles from studying about Anne Frank in high school. Having met a few queer people in college, the rainbow became familiar, as well. With this knowledge I decided to hatch a plan to subtly out myself.
At the gas station, my shift was typically the third shift. One night, I decided to take some pink nylon ribbon we kept for truckers to use and cut out a pink triangle. I then affixed the triangle to my shirt above my heart. I remember how fast my heart beat when I first attached it to my shirt. Who would see it? Would they acknowledge me as their own? Would a family member see me wearing it and out me? The whole first night and subsequent two shifts I barely got a second look. One summer night about two in the morning, one man came in and looked at me and smiled. At first I couldn’t understand why he was smiling weirdly at me. I guess he read my look of confusion and simply said, “nice shirt.” I said my customary thanks and handed him his change. I watched his back as he walked away, a thunderbolt me when I remembered the pink triangle. I was enthralled by that brief acknowledgement.
I left that job and went on to work in the warehouse of our local Sears. I had been out at home, to a few people, for a couple months now and was still having a hard time meeting others. I decided to step up my game. Using thermal labels i got from work I decided to DIY my very first gay rainbow to put on my car. I meticulously painted each one in their corresponding colors. Since I was staying with my parents at the time, I snuck out at night and slowly and deliberately put them on my bumper. This one act changed everything. I had people beeping at me on the highway and waving. Men and women stopped me when I was getting out of my car to say hello. I felt a part of something larger than me and loved it.
That one symbol solidified my being a part of a larger community and I truly felt a part of it… at that moment.
A multitude of symbols
As queer people, we have used symbols as a means of recognition to others like us. As laws were put in place to punish us for being who we are, the need for identification became important to ensure our safety. In earlier times, lesbian were known for using the lambda symbols of a Labrys (double edged Amazon Axe). Gay. Men used the color lavender, tattoos, colored hankies, and a pierced ear to mark themselves.
Earlier times, many used code words or language to self identify, polarii for example. Terms like “family,” “friend of Dorothy,” or forward, instead of using the term straight, were all ways that one could identify themselves to others. Later, images like the pink triangle would become a popular method to self identify. The pink triangle traces its roots back to Nazi concentration camps where it was used as a way of segregating queer prisoners from others.
Symbols change as often as the times do.
Hope at the end of a rainbow
San Francisco 1978, Harvey Milk asked Gilbert Baker to create a symbol of pride for the LGBTQ community. This was a time when LGBTQ rights had started their fight almost a decade earlier. Being gay was still considered to be illegal and dispised by most of the country. Milk was pushing for acceptance and running for city council at the time. Baker decided that the most powerful symbol he could create was a flag. It would be a shield for us to defend ourselves and a blade with which to fight against the segregation we endured.
“Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live the truth, as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, ‘This is who I am!’’ – Gilbert Baker
In the post free love era of the 1960s, Baker decided to draw inspiration from the natural world, for his symbol. He viewed it as the natural flag from the sky, so the rainbow became his inspiration. He used eight colors for the original stripes and gave meaning to each.
- Hot Pink – Sex
- Red – Life
- Orange – Healing
- Yellow – Sunlight
- Green – Nature
- Turquoise – Art
- Indigo – Harmony
- Violet – Spirit
These were the very values that early queer activists felt were worth fighting for. Due to fabric availability issues in the next couple years, hot pink and turquoise were to be left off. Much like many of us, those colors went back into the closet. That led to the six color revision that some of us are familiar with. This flag became the symbol at the early pride marches and filled queer safe neighborhoods. It was a way to welcome those seeking family and a rally cry for protesting who you were.
Over the years, the flag would take on other adaptations to try to increase inclusivity. We have seen the inclusion of black and brown stripes to include queer POC. There has also been the inclusion of the transgender flag and even most recently incorporating symbols for inter-sexed into the flag. It is by no accident that Baker chose a flag to be the symbol, for many years flags have been vocabulary for nationalism, creating citizenship, and designating borders. They are a way to create a collective imagined community amongst people. “Flags as symbols facilitate socialite between strangers, inviting community between people who may never actually meet,” says Elliott Tilleczek, a PhD candidate from University of Toronto’s studying queer activism. These symbols create a sense of belonging and give a collective sense of community to those seeking solace from a harsh world.
Inherent limitation of symbols
Looking back on history we can see where symbols create barriers and limitations more than interconnectedness. Symbols were not consistent between all types of queer people, many of which were only accessible if you came from specific places in society. While they are meant to represent “US,” it implies there is a collective “US” to represent. The Pride Flag, while meaning to “stitch together” the queer community often leads more to feel left out. We are an ostracized community that ostracizes members of our own community. Many feel that the inclusion of the additional elements is no better than the original, where it is supposed to create this impression of inclusion; it is simply a performance without any real commitment behind the actions.
Natalia Shmueli, a 25 year old tech entrepreneur in Tennessee was quoted as saying, “I don’t think cutesy flags actually highlight anything for LGBTQ [people} other than [making] us look kitschy and marketable.” This quote comes from The Pride Flag Has A Representation Problem article from the Atlantic.
Shmueli’s views are not singular, many feel that there is a need for flags as useful and powerful images to fight the oppression the Queer community endures. Feeling that it is sometimes the only hope many LGBTQ people have in their world, But many others feel they are becoming symbols for others to make money off of us.
During pride, there are very few places you can turn where you do not see some corporation, business, or supposed ally flying a rainbow flag and proclaiming solidarity in LGBTQ struggles. You may think that this kind of acceptance is proof that we are making strides forward but is that always the case. Are these places also seeing Pride events as a means to make money off of us instead. As corporate sponsorships grow this time of year one can’t help but wonder how much further away from the origins of Pride marches is it taking us.
Pride should be about celebrating our queer ancestors, the struggles they had to face, and the courage of a few who rose up and proclaimed “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Now, many mainstream Pride events are predominantly white cisgendered events that leave many feeling they do not have a place at the table. Also, we do not question those same sponsors for their motives. We simply accept their sponsorships and claim it a victory that they choose to swaddle their company in the colors of the original rainbow flag during the short pride time, leaving the rest of the year up to their normal dealings.
The monotone closet of “Pink-Washing”
There was a time in the not too distant past where queer activists fought for our rights, environmental issues, healthcare reform, and equality for all those oppressed. They stood up as radicals against government institutions that sought to keep us in our small places and not let us thrive. They stood up to healthcare establishments to ensure that AIDS patients received the care needed. They fought against those that only sought to subdue the people.
Go to Pride events now and you see corporate sponsorships like L3Harris and Northrop Grumman, both are companies that make money off of warfare and surveillance of people. You can also see support from Wells Fargo. That may seem less than an issue of the previous two, but Wells Fargo invested heavily in the Dakota Access Pipeline. The same pipeline that sought to take tribal lands away from indigenous people of the United States. These very acts are examples of “pink-washing.”
If you have never heard the term before, its not overly surprising. However, that term is becoming a pressure point for events like Pride. It is a way for companies to hide their participation in oppressive and occupational acts by donating money to Pride events and swathing themselves in rainbow colors during Pride month. Our own community isn’t immune from it. Pete Buttigieg actually places an anti-racist Philadelphia flag on his 2020 campaign merchandise while at the same time supporting policies that endanger people of color.
The shedding of things no longer needed
Who we are as queer people was historically considered criminals and radicals. The very movements that started and got us here were led by people who lived in marginalized communities and lived in poverty. Stone wall was pushed by those that were sex workers and anti-imperialists. Their marches and activism riots are what led us to the very precipice we are at, now. They fought out against capitalism and assimilation for acceptance. We were the ones that shirked the system in hopes for a better way.
As time has progressed we have fallen to corporate branding and backing that has since white-washed what Pride meant to all of those queer ancestors. As the LGBTQ community, we fought for affordable housing, health care, to decriminalize sex-workers, and to put a stop to the policing and incarceration of our community. We traded those things in for acceptance and corporate sponsorship. Those symbols have come to lose the meaning and power they invoked. Now they are a product to sell that sets inclusion on the back burner and that leaves queer people being a distant second to corporate interests.
Perhaps our very symbols of power have lost their relevance. Perhaps it is a time where we, as a community, finally come together to create the solidarity and community those symbols were meant to inspire.