A History Of The Pride Symbol

Symbols revolutionize social and political movements and celebrate a collective unity, community and history. Symbols define origin stories. A catalyst for the expansion of pride parades was the creation of the symbolic LGBT+ pride flag.

Classification of queer people occurred throughout World War 2 by Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler adopted the use of pink triangles in the uniforms worn by concentration camp prisoners as a symbol to identify the gay community. Automatically, the symbol demonstrated that any gay individual was, “the lowest of the low in the camp hierarchy.”

Creation of a pride flag demonstrated an act of defiance against the institutionalized oppression that had continued to occur at the conclusion of World War 2. Though a positive symbol of pride was much needed to celebrate identity for the war atrocities, another catalyst for a need for the pride flag was the Stonewall Riots of June 1969. Riots at Stonewall Inn in June 1969 are considered by many to be the grassroots of LGBT pride, a defiance against a system and its leaders, which were anti-LGBT.

The first LGBT pride march was held in 1970, a year after the riots at Stonewall, to continue to protest for LGBT rights, and celebrate pride through unity and acceptance. The pride flag was developed because of a quintessential need for a symbol representation in the community for use in pride parades, marches and protests. A young gay designer Gilbert Baker created the first LGBT rainbow pride flag for $1000 for use in the June 1978 pride events by Harvey Milk, a LGBT rights activist. A few short months later, Milk was assassinated. To commemorate Milk’s contribution to the LGBT rights movement, the LGBT community adopted the rainbow pride flag.

Baker’s philosophy was using colour as a symbol for unity and acceptance within the LGBT community. He believed that after systemic oppression and hate crime, the community, “needed something that was positive, that celebrated our love.” His vision dictated that the flag did not belong to him as it was owned by everyone who identified with it. Subsequently, his choice to allow open access to the flag rather than copyright its use, has allowed for the symbol to be representative power for all. Representation and celebration through use of the pride flag symbol strongly aligned with his values as he believed, “flags are about proclaiming power.” After the aforementioned systemic Nazism symbol for gay people, the use of the symbolic pride flag reclaims the power from the historical oppressor for the LGBT+ community to proclaim the power and unity over their pride.

Originally, the representative flag was eight colours, all of which had an assigned meaning; hot pink represented sex, while turquoise symbolized magic or art. After Milk’s assassination when the flag went into wide production, the flag was redesigned for practicality; the hot pink section was dropped as the colour pigment was not readily available, while the turquoise section was dropped to create a symmetrical image when flown from balconies and banners. 2017 brought controversial change to the flag adding two stripes; black and brown to encourage more acceptance from both inside and outside the community, for representation for people of colour. The new eight-coloured flag, has been adopted in some areas but is not widely used. Since the origination of the first pride flag, various minority representative communities within the larger LGBT community have created their own flags. In 1998, the famous pink, blue and purple bisexual pride flag was created for the bisexual community to proclaim power and visibility for acceptance, both within the LGBT community and in society. Other minority representative flags include the pansexual, transgender, asexual and the agender community flags. While there has been significant advancement and change to create further representation, the current flag has six colours and is recognized worldwide as a symbol for the LGBT+ community.

Use of the pride flag has significantly evolved since its creation. Originally, the flag represented systemic oppression and struggle with people protesting for their human rights. Today, the rainbow pride flag is used much differently.

One negative impact of Gilbert Baker allowing his flag to be used by everyone, is the commercialization of pride, the pride flag symbol and the corporatization of what pride means. Over the years brands have increasingly used Pride Month as a marketing strategy, including sponsoring pride events, using the symbol for pride in their merchandise and design content for store fronts, Facebook pages and company websites. A number of these companies only use pride as a marketing platform and have little or no impact on the pride community. Bustle cited a recent study which demonstrated that only “64% of companies doing a Pride campaign donated to an LGBT cause.” Bustle did not cite what percentage of profits these companies donated from LGBT merchandise, as it is well known many of these companies only use tokenistic figures when donating to LGBT causes. One example of this is Listerine’s Pride Mouthwash Campaign; Listerine’s parent company Johnson and Johnson is a U.S. $81 billion company, who, despite using pride marketing in a number of their branding, has only donated $1 million to pride projects in the last eight years.

President Donald Trump has found his own way to commercialize Pride Month, by selling pride merchandise on his official campaign website. Here, we see a gross misuse of the symbol from an anti-LGBT politician who has a significant record of rhetoric against the community and of implementing policies that demonstrate a culture of discrimination towards the LGBT+ community. Recently in June, Trump would not allow a number of U.S. embassies to fly the inclusive LGBT+ pride flag symbol for Pride Month. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, the fear to use the pride symbol has increased in areas of the United States, as Trump’s misuse of the symbol demonstrates significant misunderstanding of what the symbol means to people from the LGBT+ community. Trump used a sacred and powerful symbol as a campaign and economic strategy all the while declaring his anti-LGBT beliefs. Trump’s control of the powerful symbol during performances at campaign rallies and speeches, outlines a new era of oppression for the LGBT+ community within the United States.

Pride and its flag have a long history of use at events across the globe. The provocative symbol has been used in events like London’s pride parades in 1995, and its projection onto the White House to celebrate gay marriage legalization in 2015. This is particularly significant as it symbolizes not only the extent of the struggle for the LGBT+ community in a modern society but an acceptance from the government of their right to exist. In the Western world, pride parades and performances increase year after year in viewership with the 50th memorial commemoration of the Stonewall Riots parade in New York City in June welcoming over a million participants. The wide use of the pride symbol in the parade illustrates the unification of people from all walks of life to celebrate their unique identity and the acceptance that the LGBT community in particular the unity from Baker’s pride symbol gives them.

For many, the pride flag still represents the struggle against oppression, where in South East Asia, Africa and Russia, gay marriage is illegal to the extent that a number of countries still carry prison sentences and even the death penalty for being a part of the LGBT+ community. Religious fundamentalism is also a significant issue in areas like Ukraine, Russia and Uganda as the LGBT+ community is heavily targeted because of the right-wing anti-LGBT religious conservatives. Use of the pride symbol in performances of protests and parades for people in these areas carries heavy consequences.

While this research has focused on the larger global picture, New Zealand is not immune to discrimination. Conversion therapy is still legal within New Zealand, the recent Auckland Pride Parade tore apart the queer community over debate as to whether police who identified as LGBT should be allowed to participate. A complex and nuanced debate which demonstrated a desire for pride to be, “more queer, more political, less corporate, and more balanced – with a grass roots community feel.” Commercialization of pride in New Zealand is still a significant issue. However, the most significant LGBT issues within New Zealand arguably are the issues between alt-right wing conservatives and the LGBT+ community, the correlation between being a part of the LGBT community and mental health resource access, the increase of biphobia within the community and outer society, gender neutrality within schools, and funding for transitioning drugs for the transgender community.

The aim of this research was to convey the complex, intersectional and historical relationship of pride and the pride flag symbol, as well as how over time these events have evolved from its original and grassroots intention to becoming a commercialized and marketable month of events. From Nazi Germany to Stonewall to present day, the LGBT+ community still faces discrimination and in a number of countries people face convictions and even the death penalty for being a part of the LGBT+ community. The relationship between LGBT and the use of the pride flag as a symbol is heavily subjective depending on various factors including age, geographic location, education, sexual orientation, and gender identity. I view the rainbow pride flag historically as an important symbol for pride, defiance, rebellion, strength, unity and acceptance but in modern society, I view the rainbow pride flag as too heavily commercialized and prefer to use my off-shoot minority pride flag symbol for bisexuality because it promotes visibility and still represents a symbol of defiance and pride but because it is relatively new, is not influenced too heavily by commercialization.

Sophie Simons
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