Changing the Rainbow Flag: A Colourful Cop-Out

Two new colours won’t remedy the problem.

Earlier this year, Manchester Pride – one of the largest pride festivals in the UK – revealed their revamped flag for 2019. In addition to the colours of the rainbow traditionally used to represent the LGBT community, Manchester’s flag includes two new colours hovering over them: black and brown. The chief executive of the event, Mark Fletcher, stated that ethnic minorities in the LGBT community still have ‘a long way to go’ to be fully recognised and that the additional stripes are a part of a concerted effort to highlight their importance and continued underrepresentation. 

These observations will hardly come as a surprise to anyone with even the most elementary experience with the gay community. As reported by Stonewall, over half of all black, Asian and ethnic minority people in Britain have reported negative treatment or discrimination in the LGBT network simply because of their ethnicity. The problem has become so bad that the app Grindr – hardly known as a bastion of morality and virtue – had to release a campaign specifically to stamp out racist bullying and other forms of ‘toxic behaviour’ from its users. 

Photo: Flickr

In this context, it is admirable that Manchester Pride is making a concerted effort to address racism and the continued underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the LGBT community. However, I cannot help but feel like the additional colours on Manchester’s pride flag amount to a well-intended but nonetheless misplaced idea. This is not due to aesthetic reasons (although having black and brown stripes stuck on at the top of the flag does clash horribly with the other colours). It is that, if simply adding new colours to the flag amounts to a real and tangible effort to address discrimination in the LGBT community, then surely having black and brown stripes is no way near enough.

The fact is gay people are often not nice to each other for a number of reasons. While racism is undoubtedly one of these factors, there are many others too. In a survey of 3000 among retired and non-retired LGBT individuals, 77% reported that the community was ageist, with 43% saying it was ‘totally’ ageist at that. Overweight people suffer similar prejudice, receiving bullying and fat-shaming which makes some feel like ‘outcasts within the gay community’. And if you’re a stereotypically ‘feminine’ gay man? As highlighted in a 2016 European study, a third of ‘straight acting’ gay men believe that feminine gay men give the community a bad reputation, seemingly oblivious to the damage to the reputation of the LGBT community their own attitudes may cause. 

Photo: Flickr

Now, I am not trying to say that gay people are inherently nasty or prejudiced. But it cannot be denied that dominant attitudes within the LGBT community are often hostile to the very individuals within it, whether it is due to race, body type, age or gender expression. If changing the rainbow flag to represent these groups constitutes a progressive movement in addressing these issues, then why stop with just two stripes? Surely, we should add a range of new colours to reflect this needed change.

The logical conclusion of this line of thinking, however, is not only impractical, but has the potential to be counter-productive. What should represent overweight people? A slightly wider stripe? And what about feminine gay men? A flimsy pink one?

Clearly, trying to represent the number of discriminated groups in the LGBT community leads to a minefield of offensive sub-categorisations and so many changes that the rainbow flag may cease to be a rainbow at all. Rather than trying to change the pride flag, I believe that it would be far better to reflect the values that the rainbow flag embodies itself. 

Photo: Flickr

Designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker, each colour of the rainbow flag represents a particular value or quality. Red for life, orange for healing, indigo for harmony, violet for spirit, and so on. These colours do not separate people in terms of crude physical characteristics. Instead, they demonstrate everything the gay community should be – inclusive, diverse and unapologetically celebratory. If we embodied these values, then perhaps we might start being a little kinder to each other. Perhaps we could successfully address the very real grievances behind calls for greater representation, so that future generations would not experience the bullying and discrimination from our own that too many gay people go through. 

Adding black and brown stripes to the rainbow flag is a well-intentioned idea. But in order to see real change in the LGBT community rather than pay lip-service to racism and prejudice, we need to embody the values of the existing flag, values that transcend race, size, age and gender expression. If we want to change the LGBT community for the better, it does not start with changing the rainbow. It starts with changing ourselves.   

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