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Flying The Rainbow Flag With Purpose

Where the rainbow flag came from and what it means to fly it with Pride…
 
“My dearest friend in the world is gone,” wrote prominent HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ rights activist Cleve Jones on Facebook in March of 2017 following the death of the man who had given the world the iconic rainbow flag. “I can’t stop crying. I love you forever Gilbert Baker.” The first rainbow flag was a hand-sewn piece created by Baker and dozens of volunteers for his friend Harvey Milk to use at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade in 1978. Those marching and celebrating at the event did not know that just months later Milk would be tragically assassinated and that the rainbow flag would go on to become a globally recognized symbol of pride, community, and the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights.
 
“Since the creation of the rainbow flag, there has been an acceptance of it as a unifying symbol by the LGBTQ+ community. Businesses, restaurants, homes and street signage display the rainbow to signify that the premises, places and spaces are LGBTQ+ safe spaces,” says Dennis Findlay, president of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA). Such an important symbol warrants examination of where it came from, and what it means to fly a rainbow flag with pride.
 
The colours of the flag each have a meaning, originally ascribed by Baker. Red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, indigo for serenity and violet for spirit. Although nobody owns the image of the flag, a version with these colours is widely recognized as the most common composition. As is the case with many iconic images that are not trademarked, the rainbow flag has been used in a variety of ways by individuals, organizations and businesses to amplify their own message of LGBTQ+ inclusion. In 2017, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs created a version of the Flag that included black and brown stripes. It was part of a campaign called “More Color More Pride,” an initiative that sought to promote the inclusion of people of colour in Pride activities in Philadelphia. While the conversation about the initiative was sometimes polarizing, the move drew focus to the very real issue of racial discrimination and cultural exclusion within LGBTQ2+ communities and events that exists beyond just one city. The reaction online was fierce, with some supporting and adopting Philadelphia’s version of the flag, and others feeling the symbol should not be altered in any way.
 
The fact is that the flag has undergone several changes throughout the years, and has transformed with agility based on the various challenges LGBTQ2+ people have faced. The original design included the colours pink, symbolizing sex, and turquoise, symbolizing magic. This version of the flag had been hand-dyed and hand-sewn. However, pink and turquoise were removed from the design by Baker when demand for the rainbow flag warranted mass production and dyes of those colours were not widely available. The adjustment, made to increase access to the symbol, actually helped propel it forward to become the icon it is today. In the 1980s, various community groups, who were advocating for more to be done to confront the AIDS epidemic, added black stripes to the rainbow flag. One version, dubbed the Victory Over AIDS Flag, placed the black stripe below the other colours to symbolize that the community’s pride and unity would one day overcome the struggles associated with HIV/AIDS. These transformations mirror the trajectory of other symbols that have changed and grown over time to reflect the broad diversity of the community, such as the acronyms used to represent various identities. While it was once common to hear only about “gay rights,” one can now find acronyms like LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQ2+ (or even longer ones) being used around the world.
 
Because the rainbow flag is not trademarked, there are no formal criteria for businesses that display it. However, Christopher Hudspeth, vice chair of the Church-Wellesley Village BIA in Toronto, says, “I think it’s expected that the business [that displays the flag] will not just be welcoming, but will adhere to employment practices that are in line with promoting people within our community.” Individuals, community organizations and brands that employ the Rainbow Flag and associated imagery therefore need to consider how it is being used and whether they are acting authentically. “If people are going to use a symbol that represents a community, then they must adhere to the values that the flag represents,” says Raegan Swanson, executive director of the CLGA. “Unless they are actually practising inclusivity that considers intersectionality throughout their business practices, then they are misrepresenting themselves as allies.”
 
As more companies embrace the rainbow flag by incorporating its colours into their logo, using it in advertisements and waving it on parade floats, it rests on the LGBTQ+ community to ensure that this image of our movement is being used appropriately and with purpose. Many larger employers support LGBTQ2+ employee resource groups (ERGs) and spaces for LGBTQ+ employees to come together to create an inclusive work environment. The best employers lean on ERGs and outside community groups to make recommendations about how to incorporate the flag into Pride activities authentically so that workers can not only show pride for their community, but appreciation for the strides their employer has taken to include them as well as LGBTQ+ clients and customers.
 
When you enter a business that displays the rainbow flag this Pride season, ask the people who work there what the symbol means to their employer. Inquire as to what the business is doing to support LGBTQ+ workers and how they are working to bring down barriers to employment for members of our community. Ask whether their efforts take into account the experiences of LGBTQ+ women, people who are trans and LGBTQ+ people of colour.
 
Considering the long history of people who have fought—often at great personal sacrifice—for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, and the considerable challenges that our community continues to face, displaying the rainbow flag could be considered a badge of honour. A lot of companies want LGBTQ+ dollars this Pride season. Before you spend, make sure the flag is being flown with purpose.
 

 
COLIN DRUHAN is the executive director of Pride at Work Canada, a not-for-profit organization that empowers employees to foster workplace cultures that recognize LGBT employees. For more information, visit prideatwork.ca.
 

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