Those of you who follow LGBT issues and politics with an eagle eye will most certainly be aware of the controversy caused when Philadelphia Pride added brown and black stripes to the iconic ‘rainbow flag’ at this year’s Pride March. The rest of you may not have known about this. Consider yourself enlightened.
I was interested to see that almost immediately two camps emerged. Those in favour of the addition of the stripes and then those who were opposed to the stripes being added. The whole debate was quite wide ranging and touched on issues of class, race, culture, history and indeed that dreaded word ‘identity’. It seems that everyone has an opinion regarding this.
I saw many posts on Facebook and other social media platforms and more than a few news sites picked up on this. I am not here to give you a detailed analysis of the coverage. If you want to know more and get some first hand knowledge, please feel free to Google to your heart’s content.
I am more interested in the way the LGBT community reacted to this. It seems some people acknowledged the need to acknowledge the role people of colour played in the gay rights movement and acknowledge that people of colour are still often marginalised in society (both gay and straight) and that adding these stripes was an important symbolic act. Others said that the rainbow flag, by definition, represented everyone and this was thus unnecessary and yet others seemed to say there is no issue with racism in the LGBT community and anyone wanting to add the stripes was just ‘grand standing’ or looking to garner attention or possibly even sew descent and divisions within the community, where no such divisions existed.
To nail my colours firmly to the mast, let me say that I believe racism is real. It exists in almost all societies everywhere. The LGBT community is not immune from it. Pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away, it just normalises the behaviour and makes people who do experience it, identify it and object to it feel exceptional. In short failing to acknowledge racism entrenches racism in society. No group is immune from adopting racist identities, ideologies and prejudices. It is true that black people experience racism negatively and often in an institutionalised manner and that therefore the refrain ‘black people can not be racist’ is true at this time (they experience the sharp end of it). But that does not mean that this is immutable. It is possible for black people to be subverted by this malignant thought process just as white people have been in the past. It is fallacious to assume that just because you were once the victim of one prejudice that you can never hold a prejudice. If that were true, there would be no black homophobes, no black transphobes and no black sexists. This is patently not true. We are all susceptible to our prejudices and fears and we need to actively work to be better people. I am therefore fully in favour of acknowledging racism and prejudice.
I am also of the opinion that any symbol is ultimately far less important than what is being symbolised. Unfortunately, symbols are very powerful things and we often become unduly attached to that symbol, to the extent that sometimes to the detriment of the very values that symbol embodies. This can be seen when, for example, people love their nation’s flag so much that they react negatively to people criticising a political system, or some other aspect, as they believe that criticism is somehow anti-patriotic, even when their country was (perhaps) founded on the principles of freedom of thought and speech and a deep suspicion of authority.
This process seemed to play itself out in relation to the addition of the black and brown stripes to the rainbow flag. I have reflected below some of the comments I saw that I believe represent the views expressed by many LGBT people:
‘People have amended, adapted and played with Gilbert Baker’s flag, because it belonged to all of us. The core will always remain…’
‘I disagree with their action. Adding the colours implies the groups were excluded before. The flag has always symbolised diversity and acceptance to break down walls of categorisation. Adding the colours categories again.’
Simply put, I cannot agree. The symbol is less important than what it symbolises and the societal change that the symbol seeks to effect. If the symbol no longer adequately reflects the values, people and issues that represents then it needs to be changed and it should be changed. If at least one group of people who are part of the community find the symbol to be exclusive then it should be made to be inclusive.
There is simply no need to be overly attached to our symbols. They are just that symbols. What truly matters are the people and the values that we hold dear. These are the things that we need to defend, not the symbols.