When the rainbow flag first started showing up everywhere in the early '90s, my friends and I referred to it dismissively as 'the fag flag.' After all, we weren't a 'nation.' What on earth did we need a flag for? Clearly no one agreed, as the goddamn thing proliferated and now storefronts and banks use it to lure in gay customers.
Last week the flag was in the news again, when Philadelphia Pride unveiled a new design, adding a brown stripe and a black stripe. They are meant to represent people of colour. By this logic, only red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple people are currently represented. Furious dissenters wanted to know so where's the white stripe, or why are there no brown or black rainbows in the sky?
"If You Hate the New Pride Flag, You're the Problem" screamed the finger-pointing headlines at The Advocate. Honey, I hated it even before they added the new colours. The rainbow flag first appeared in the early 1500s, to represent unity and social change, which it still does. Rainbow flags have been used by Germans, Buddhists, Peruvians, the peace movement, and Meher Baba. Then, in 1978 a San Francisco-based artist named Gilbert Baker copyrighted his design and unleashed it onto the world. Rainbow flags first came to prominence during Harvey Milk's funeral. Legend has it that they were so rushed by events of the day that the first shipment of flags came from surplus stock made for the International Order of Rainbow for Girls.
Back then, it made sense to create a new symbol to identify the emerging gay liberation movement. It helped replace that dismal pink triangle, which had been used by Nazis to identify gays in the concentration camps. It was embraced because it was inclusive, and showed diversity. Back when coming out was the biggest issue facing most gay people, Gilbert Baker said that "when a person puts the Rainbow Flag on his car or his house, they're not just flying a flag. They're taking action." And making money for the cause. My favorite part of any Pride parade is when they march down the street with one of those big-ass rainbow flags that require about 20 people to carry it, and people throw in coins to help cover the cost of the event. Those are big fucking flags. I've never seen a Canadian flag that big.
Over the years, there have been endless variations of the rainbow flag's design, representing bears, bisexuals, pansexuals, the leather community, the trans community, even the Fat Fetish Pride community. So why not add a few more colours? I'd love if it looked like the paint chip wall at Canadian Tire. The rainbow flag is not sacred, so adding new colours really isn't such a big deal. It's just that the thinking behind Philadelphia Pride's re-design is so literal. If black represents black people, is yellow meant to represent Asian people?
The truth is, the world has fundamentally changed in the last decade.This was driven home last week when Bill Maher endured a torturous dressing down from his friend, black writer and intellect Michael Eric Dyson, who finally put it in terms we all can understand. Though Maher rationalized that as a comedian he felt he had the right to use terminology from another century in a satiric way, the truth is any use of the N word is just that - a slur. No context can justify it, not even quoting cool rap lyrics, reading aloud Mark Twain novels, or dancing to a particular Patti Smith song from 1978. Decent people have no option but to oblige and to do so with courtesy. If a black person wants to add a black stripe to the rainbow flag, so be it. There may not be pure logic in it, but to disagree just seems like sour grapes.
So welcome the new rainbow flag, gang. I'll admit, I kind of like it. But I worry about Pride committees all over the world, now having to sew on yards and yards of black and brown fabric onto their giant flags. Hopefully, the wider flag will catch even more loose change.