Okay, so can we just calm the farm over the rainbow flag debate already?
I understand that there is a petition over in the States at the moment to add two new stripes to the pride flag to represent queer people of colour, and now – shock horror – the community is once again at odds with itself.
Let’s just back the truck up for a moment and take a deep breath. The rainbow flag is supposed to be a unifying symbol of the LGBT+ community as a whole and, at least from my position as an apparently ‘privileged’ white cisgender man, is about as inclusive a symbol as they come.
For those unfamiliar with its history, the rainbow flag was created by Kansas-born, San Franciscan artist, Gilbert Baker. In 1978, activist and America’s first gay elected official, Harvey Milk, challenged Baker to create a symbol of pride for the gay community to replace the pink triangle that, although reclaimed as a symbol of pride in the early 70s, still represented the horrors of Nazi persecution.
Rising to the challenge, Baker crafted a flag in eight brilliant stripes of hand-dyed colour. Hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet. Respectively, they stand for sexuality, life, healing, sunlight, nature, art, serenity and spirit. The flag encompassed a broad range of individual ideals in one unified symbol, with the potential to resonate within everyone.
Baker’s flag was created and first flown in 1978, and later that same year, Harvey Milk was assassinated alongside San Francisco Mayor, George Moscone. Also of note that year was the protest that gave birth to Mardi Gras and sparked the greater gay rights movement in Australia. 1978 is a big year in queer history.
The time eventually came to produce the flag for the masses. Some of the colours in the original flag could not be readily manufactured on such a scale at the time, so it was reduced to seven and eventually an even six stripes for ease of production. The six-stripe flag is now the world’s most recognisable symbol of pride that represents the wider LGBT+ community. Since then, technology has caught up with Baker’s vision and if you look hard enough, you can find flag makers who stock the eight-stripe version – although they are a fair whack more expensive than the tchotchkes sold in bargain stores the world over.
Personally, the idea of simply adding more stripes to the pride flag is a terrible idea. It speaks to an ignorance concerning the flag’s original design and meaning, but also, at least to me, is an insult to the artist. Baker’s design heralded a new era of pride and the ideas infused into his flag were not meant to represent one person or any particular section of the community. They were to give hope to all. Baker sadly passed away in March this year. It’s been less than three months since his death and I find already having a conversation about altering the flag is just a tiny bit tactless.
However, I wholeheartedly understand that a marginalised community might be making a move to seek more visibility and representation. And if you examine the evidence, there are some compelling reasons.
Dear fragile white people, let’s not kid ourselves. As a minority within a minority, the struggles of queer people of colour are significantly more challenging than those of us whose biggest disadvantage is we burn in the sun more easily. Queer people of colour face obstacles in practically every aspect of their day-to-day existence.
Think about it. Firstly, there are the usual challenges that all queer people face on their coming out journey. Now, couple that with the casual and not-so-casual racism faced by people of colour in their everyday lives, regardless of their sexuality.
The majority of queer friends that I have lost to suicide have been people of colour. In the States, queer people of colour make up a higher number of the victims of violence perpetuated against the LGBT+ community. If you look at the news reports coming out of the US regarding the murders of trans people, more often than not the victims are people of colour.
But if that wasn’t enough, the worst, and probably most psychologically damaging, are the challenges queer people of colour face within the LGBT+ community itself, and it is even reflected here in the queer community of Australia.
Genderfluid entertainer Mykki Blanco made headlines in 2016 when, via Twitter, she and others called out the blatant whitewashing of gay men’s magazines, thus proving this issue is more than simply a mainstream media problem. It sparked the hashtag #GayMenSoWhite and even pointed out that on the covers of the most popular gay rags, even straight white men were given preference to queer men of colour. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As gay men, the consumption of pornography is, let’s face it, pretty standard fare. While I understand the need to categorise porn, the titles and content often speak volumes about how we are almost conditioned to classify race as a fetish, that it is somehow something that you are ‘into’. Take into consideration the lack of sex education gay teenagers have access to, pornography is often the first outlet and ‘instruction’ that they get. What sort of message does porn send about how we look at sex and race?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I were a person of colour in America, I would probably consider being constantly stereotyped as ‘thug’ or ‘papi’ to be reductive, to say the least.
On the gay scene, there are dance parties and themed nights that specifically cater for a particular racial demographic and the men who sleep with them. While there are valid arguments for and against this, at the base level it still perpetuates this fetishistic view of race.
However, probably the worst example of racial marginalisation faced by queer people of colour within the gay community is also, sadly, the most prolific. I’m talking about gay dating apps and websites. I don’t care if you justify it by claiming it as a ‘sexual preference’, or you think you’re doing others a ‘favour’ by not wasting their time; the ‘no Asians’ or ‘white only’ in your profile is downright offensive. You’re half right though, they shouldn’t waste their time on you – but that’s because you’re not worth their time, rather than the other way around.
All you are doing is rejecting someone while protecting yourself from dealing with the aftermath of that rejection. It’s a cowardly, selfish and hurtful tactic disguised as a ‘filter’. Imagine if, without even talking to anyone, everywhere you looked was the message that you were unwelcome, and not worth the time of day simply because of your race. For someone who may have been rejected at home only to learn they are even more easily rejected by the very community that ostensibly extols acceptance only serves to compound the shame and decreased sense of worth – with potentially disastrous results.
Let me put it to you this way – how does someone having ‘no Asians’ in their dating profile differ from a cake shop having a sign that says ‘no gays’ in their window? How is one of those less offensive or damaging than the other? How can you class one as being homophobic, but yet the other isn’t considered racist?
Before closing the apps for good several years ago when I met my boyfriend, I considered it a blocking offense if that sort of message or any variation thereof appeared as part of a profile. In the early days I tried to call it out when I saw it, but it was unfortunately a losing battle and frankly quite emotionally draining. It became so widespread that it eventually lead to campaigns such as Sexual Racism Sux. From all accounts, however, the practice is still just as popular as ever.
There are three major things I would like to see happen.
First, I would love the pride flag to have the previously excised colours revived and for us to fully embrace Baker’s original design. His legacy should live on it all its brilliant, unadulterated glory and remain as the umbrella symbol for the queer community in its entirety, representing the sum of its many beautiful parts.
Secondly, I would love to see a variation of the pride flag that fully represents queer people of colour. After all, there are many flags out there representing specific subcultures of queer identity including leather, bears, lesbians, the trans community, bisexuals, non-binary – everyone seems to have a flag unique to their identity. So, get your best designers on it and go nuts. As just one example, I absolutely love this design created last year by Queer Witch Queen of Colour.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would like to see more queer people creating environments that are less segregated and cliquey and truly embracing of the many differences that we all share. And I mean beyond the once a year gathering that is Mardi Gras and Pride March.
I am not a queer person of colour. For those of you reading this, I’m not trying to speak on your behalf, nor do I claim to know or fully understand your experiences. I also do not seek to claim that every person of colour is a underprivileged, or that every white person is privileged. But I am man enough to recognise my own privilege when I see it.
For instance, I have never been exclusively rejected, or pursued, for a sexual encounter simply on the basis of my race. I have only once felt like the token white friend. I have never felt overlooked on my path to education, healthcare or employment because of my race. I have never felt underrepresented in the gay media or in gay culture, and not since Will & Grace began have I felt a lack of visibility in mainstream media. So no, I do not claim to share the experiences of many queer people of colour.
I speak only as a human being who believes very strongly that we each need a space to celebrate our individual identity while at the same time being included as part of a wider community. I think there are ways in which we could better achieve this end, though I don’t claim to have all, or even any, of the answers.
Things we can do, quite easily, for starters, is call out sexual racism online for what it really is. We can spark a dialogue with our queer brothers and sisters and learn about each others lived and shared experiences. We can have queer events that actually celebrate cultures, rather than race and sex. We can nurture and celebrate the talents of queer people of colour in all their shades, showing the community that they too are worthy of our admiration.
The problem with having adequate representation and making progress towards more mainstream acceptance is that we sometimes – not always, but sometimes – start to become a bit apathetic to the ongoing struggles of those who might not have quite caught up yet. If we are truly the inclusive community we claim to be, rather than dismissing the struggles of queer people of colour as ‘not my problem’, or whining that the ‘minorities are causing a fuss’, take a moment to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that they were there in the trenches, being beaten and arrested right alongside us as we stood for the right to exist and thrive – a right being fought for all, not just ‘the majority’.
The battle for equality has not been won, not by a long shot, but our opponents are already shifting their targets to those they view as more vulnerable and easier prey. There are two new civil rights movements right on our doorstep, indeed they have already begun. Central to these movements are the trans community and queer people of colour. These are members of our very own and we must not let them stand alone. More than ever, we need solidarity to show that if they come for one of us, they come for all.
I believe that when it comes to community, no man gets left behind. So as far as I’m concerned there are no exclusively ‘queer people of colour issues’ or ‘lesbian issues’ or ‘trans issues’. At the end of the day, if part of our community is hurting then our community as a whole is wounded and we need to work as one in order to heal.
Should the flag be altered to incorporate race-based colours? No – and I reiterate my previous sentiment that it contravenes the meaning of the flag as it was originally intended. More than that, it does nothing to address the actual issues and, ironically, the debate has only created further segregation and division, with polarising opinions on the meaning of a symbol that was meant to put the unity back in community.
Instead of complaining that the flag isn’t fifty shades of gay, or bitching that the queer alphabet is becoming too hard to spell , remember what Baker’s flag actually stands for – sexuality, life, healing, sunlight, nature, art, serenity and spirit. It represents hope, love, acceptance and community for all LGBT+ people regardless of age, gender identity, size, race, proportion of body fur or any other way in which we almost obsessively compartmentalise the members or our community.
Instead of arguing over whether our symbol is ‘inclusive’ enough, time would be better spent looking at our services, our spaces and even our selves and asking – what can we do on the ground to be more inclusive? Could we be more inclusive in our language, our interactions online, our venues and events? What can we being doing, that it is not already being done, to close the gap and work on better cross-sector community engagement? How can each of us grow our understanding of what being racially diverse as well as queer entails?
In other words, what can we do that isn’t merely symbolic and will actually have an impact?
The flag can be one of two things. It can continue to be a symbol of hope and pride for everyone. After all, I don’t know anybody who exclusively identifies as green, or red, or indigo. Personally, I identify with the rainbow flag as a whole. Or, we can start adding colours that represent only one section of the community, and the flag can become an emblem of our evolving separatism. In doing so, it will become a constant reminder that, in spite of our best(?) efforts, we are increasingly splintered.
Like every individual in our community, each colour of the flag represents something unique and worthy of celebration in its own right. However, it is only when the symbol and our community is united, and viewed as a whole, that its aim becomes clear and our power truly becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Divided, we are merely the fragments and tatters of a torn rainbow flag. But if we stand firm under a single unifying banner, we will continue to be unstoppable in our movement that has one aim – to achieve equality for all LGBT+ people.
I want to wish all our community a Happy Pride Month. Pride Month commemorates the Stonewall riots of 1969. For Australians, we can also remember June of 1978, with the first ever Mardi Gras and subsequent demonstrations that galvanised the queer rights movement in our country. The day following Sydney’s first march, also in June 1978, the Pride flag was flown for the very first time in the streets of San Francisco – a flag that was, and remains today, a symbol of equality for our entire community.
There is still action to take, and our pride has not, and will not in the future, come free. As the struggles for equality continue, it is a time to remember and a time to push our movement forward. Now is not the time for apathy, and more than ever we need to be one community – members and allies. So, in the immortal words of Heather Small, I ask you: What have you done today, to make you feel proud?