Waving the flag

Earlier today, in “Maple Donuts, coffee shops, and unapologetic identities”, besides those three things I looked at the American flag and what it might mean to those who fly it: for some, it’s a symbol of reflexive patriotism, tied to “pro-gun, pro-life, pro-military, pro-God, and pro-conservative” stances; for some, it represents a history of racial oppression and exclusion; for some, it evokes the sacrifices of those who have fought on the American side in wars; for some, it’s the visual equivalent of the slogan E pluribus unum; for some, it suggests the threats of a police state; and on and on. There’s a physical form (the stars and stripes, in particular colors, arranged in a particular way), and then there are many meanings, sometimes combined, sometimes in contention.

That’s the way of symbols. What a symbol means to someone depends on their experience with it, their experience of how it has been used.

Just so with the lgbt pride flag.

From a Teen Vogue story back in June, “Philadelphia Pride Flag Opposition Is a Sign of Racism in the LGBTQ Community” by Phillip Henry on 6/21/17:

In this op-ed, writer Phillip Henry explores how the backlash against a more inclusive pride flag served as a reminder of racism inherent in the LGBTQ community.


Last week [back in June], the city of Philadelphia unleashed a new pride flag, adding a brown and a black stripe to the already existing rainbow. The new stripes were added as a message of solidarity with its LGBTQ people of color and as a reminder of the need for inclusivity within the LGBTQ community. Yet this change from the standard rainbow flag received a lot of negative reactions by members of the community. Many were critical of the new design because it challenged them to think in a way that doesn’t center around their fragile worldview, and shined a light on something that shouldn’t be a source of pride during this or any month: the racism and exclusivity within the LGBTQ community.

The flag was explicitly designed as a symbol of inclusivity — taking in all the colors of the rainbow, so metaphorically taking in all sexual orientations and gender identities — but then it’s put into use at public events where racial and ethnic minorities often find themselves unwelcome.

At about the same time,  a linguist friend of mine attacked the issue in a posting on racial inclusivity in the gay community:

So THIS is the conversation we want to have about race in the gay community? That the rainbow flag can’t get black and brown stripes because the red and yellow and green and blue weren’t intended to represent racial categories in the first place? And that adding brown and black stripes “misses the point?” And that rainbows don’t have brown and black hues anyway?

No, boys, this is not right. For two reasons. First, this is not the way meaning works. Meaning is not reducible to the intentions of a speaker or an author or an artist or a manufacturer or any other person who produces any thing that can be interpreted and understood. Meaning is instead understood in context and through experience. Meaning is not fixed. It is not constant. It is not invariant.

… So you may *think* that the flag symbolizes inclusivity because that’s what you have experienced or have been told. But – surprise – there are people who have different experiences from yours, and wouldn’t it be nice if we paused our indignant outrage about the flag to hear what they have to say. And this is point number 2: THERE IS A RACIAL INCLUSIVITY PROBLEM. And it is much bigger and more important than the colors on a flag.

Digression on Phillip Henry. The op-ed column above was his first for Teen Vogue. He’s a hoot. On his Twitter account,he says he’s located in NYC and describes himself as “Stunt Queen. Twitter Sweetheart Pageant judge.” On his website:


Disco dancing, Streisand loving, Teller-of-jokes. Phillip Henry is a stand-up comedian, actor, singer, writer, producer and wannabe professional Netflix addict.

Here you can watch the video “gAySPCA: An ASPCA Parody by Phillip Henry”.

Backlash against the Philadelphia pride flag. Most of the rage directed at the 8-color inclusive flag seems to arise from the belief that the meaning of an invented symbol (like a flag) is the creator’s intended meaning — an idea that has been turned into this jokey image:


Yes, the 6-color lgbt pride flag isn’t white, but it can still be understood by some to be a white — that is, White — flag, even when it’s worn by a black — that is, Black — guy.

Inventing flags. Other sex/gender-related flags have been created in recent decades, usually through negotiation within the relevant communities. On this blog:

on 4/3/17, “Signs and symbols”: #1 transgender pride flag

on 9/23/17, “Bear chairs”: #6 gay bear flag, #7 leather pride flag

Of course, these might pick up other associations through usage.

You could easily imagine flags other than the one in #1 that would provide racial/ethnic reference. For example, you could add a canton (a square in the upper left corner) with stars for racial/ethnic groups, say the classic five of folk racial classification: black, white, brown, yellow, red, perhaps on a ground of lavender.

One Response to “Waving the flag”

  1. [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky shares some thoughts on people of colour and the LGBTQ rainbow […]

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