Earlier this week Manchester Pride made the announcement that they will be updating the official rainbow flag used at all their events. The new flag will include a black and brown stripe to symbolise the struggles of queer people of colour.
This flag is modelled off one designed in 2017 by the advertising agency Tierney for Philadelphia Pride in the United States and its announcement for Manchester Pride has already stoked controversy.
People in the community have fallen to one of two sides of the debate: the flag is either a great symbolic gesture to the BAME community (black, Asian and minority ethnic), or it’s a completely unnecessary addition to a piece of iconography that already symbolises universal inclusiveness.
"The suggested flag is patronising and offensive to BAME LGBT communities," Jon, from Sheffield, told Radio 1 Newsbeat.
"The whole point of the rainbow flag is it literally represents anybody and everybody.
"Once you start including this group or that group you've lost that diversity and universality."
“The black and brown stripes are an inclusionary way to highlight black and brown LGBTQIA members within our community.”
While other’s have praised Manchester Pride’s decision: "The criticism comes from cis-white gay men who have never gone through half of the things I have gone through in my life," Phil Samba, a sexual health worker from London, told Newsbeat.
"They've never experienced stereotypes to the extent I have. They've never been objectified sexually in the way I have."
Sifting through the commotion it’s best to look at where the new flag design originated. Tierney’s redesign came as an answer to accusations of extreme racism and discrimination in the Philadelphia gay scene. The flag was designed as a way to acknowledge the problems of that specific localised area.
"The new flag was intended to be a step toward inclusivity, to spur dialogue within the community, and to impact the worldwide conversation."
“The black and brown stripes are an inclusionary way to highlight black and brown LGBTQIA members within our community,” said one of the members of the flag raising ceremony.
“With all of the black and brown activism that’s worked to address racism in the Gayborhood over the past year, I think the new flag is a great step for the city to show the world that they’re working toward fully supporting all members of our community.”
The new flag was intended “to be a step toward inclusivity, to spur dialogue within the community, and to impact the worldwide conversation,” said a spokesperson for the event.
Another redesign of the flag was proposed a year later, this time from Portland based artist, Daniel Quasar. Quasar’s design proposed moving the black and brown stripes to the side and positioning them with additional blue, pink and white stripes in a triangle to symbolise the struggles of transgender people, as well as the struggles of the BAME community.
“The six stripe LGBTQ flag should be separated from the newer stripes because of their difference in meaning, as well as to shift focus and emphasis to what is important in our current community climate,” Quasar explained.
The original rainbow flag was created by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 and has already gone through several small variations – the flag once had a hot pink stripe, and some versions were vertical instead of horizontal. Gilbert’s mission statement was to create a unifying symbol of pride for the gay community.
“The rainbow came from earliest recorded history as a symbol of hope,” he said. “In the Book of Genesis, it appeared as proof of a covenant between God and all living creatures. It was also found in Chinese, Egyptian and Native American history.”
After the assassination of Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978, demand for the flag surged as the community desperately wanted a symbol to rally behind. It has been cemented as part of the LGBT+ identity ever since.
It has now appeared on the White House after equal marriage was legalised in the United States, it was lit on monuments across the world after the Orlando shooting, it has been a stable at every pride event, every gay bar and club. It has become an emotive and powerful symbol for every LGBT+ person. So, it is understandable that a significant redesign has caused some controversy.
“My initial reaction to both proposals was similar: they’re conceptual and aesthetic train-wrecks that disrespect a 40-year old flag embraced worldwide as a symbol of LGBTQ+ people, pride, and community,” wrote M. J. Murphy, an Associate Professor of Gender Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois.
“One of the beauties of the original rainbow flag was that each colour represented an abstract concept, not a specific group or identity. This allowed the flag to be claimed by a wide range of people — as it has been.”
The original flag’s colours loosely represented the concepts of sex, life, healing, sun, serenity with nature, art, harmony, and spirit. Murphy’s argument is that adding separate colours for different aspects of the community obscures the intention of the flag: which is to symbolise unity. He also questions how the flag would work outside of the US or UK, how would it work in Asian or African countries? It’s no longer an international symbol in his mind.
“That symbolism echoes scientific racist thinking that distinguished “the races” according to the colour of their skin: red, white, yellow, black, brown. This typology treats “race” as a natural function of physical or biological features, rather than a complex social and cultural phenomenon only loosely associated with phenotype.
“But if a black stripe is meant to represent Americans of Black-African ancestry, in Quasar’s flag it is also intended to represent those living (or dead from) HIV/AIDS, and the stigma still surrounding that disease. However, for almost 40 years, the colour red has been associated with HIV/AIDS activism.”
While others have pointed out the flag simply isn’t aesthetically pleasing with these additions and “violates” basic design principles – which include over complicating matters with too many symbols.
Manchester Pride has explained their decision to add the stripes in a statement:
"All Manchester Pride did was reveal the flag they were going to use and everybody lost it,” points out Phil Samba.
"That is a start. Doing things like that, and triggering people, is how you make change."
Flying the flag won’t solve these intrenched problems in the gay community, but it does highlight the need for them to be addressed. The original message of the flag was a call for unity, if a part of our community is being discriminated against shouldn’t we honour that message and extend a hand to them? Even if a black and brown stripe is only symbolic, it’s at least a start.