Allan Stratton: Don't mess with the rainbow

Slapping the “Progress” chevron on the Rainbow is like slapping the fleur de lys on the Maple Leaf. It creates resentment and division to the sole benefit of performative social climbers

By: Allan Stratton

Question: What do the following have in common: A hammer and sickle, a Union Jack, five interlocked rings, a Black fist, a cross, a Star of David, and the Rainbow flag?

Answer: They are internationally recognized symbols. Not spring fashions. Not cool memes. No. Symbols that communicate across all languages and countries in the world. 

That’s what’s so infuriating about the push by hashtag activists to replace the Rainbow flag with the so-called “Progress flag’” The Progress flag takes the pink, blue, and white stripes of the trans flag, adds black and brown stripes for race, turns those five stripes into a chevron tipped on its side, and ploughs it into the rainbow in an eleven-colour pile-up. It’s a regressive, ill-considered mess that looks like a child’s Crayola box.

Naturally, it’s the creation of a Portland designer who whipped it off one night while suffering insomnia. The story of Daniel Quasar (ze/them) and their flag is a real-life satire, featuring moxie, hustle, viral posts and a Kickstarter campaign. Ze and their (not surprisingly) all-white team have leveraged ze’s design into Quasar Digital, a company that sells Progress flags, pins, patches, T-shirts, tank tops, notebooks, clutch bags, coffee mugs, stickers, slappers, socks and more, individually and in bundles. 

Marketed with the trendy buzzwords progress, diversity and inclusion, the Progress flag has been a viral hit with woke straights and nouveau queers as well as corporate PR departments at places like Goldman Sachs and TD Bank, who signal virtue while screwing customers of every gender. But by separating specific races and a single identity from the rainbow, the Progress flag creates divisions, hierarchies and exclusions. And it trashes the power and weight that a 43-year-old symbol of hope and strength gives to people worldwide who continue to be imprisoned, beaten and murdered for being LGBT+.

Before the Rainbow Flag, our symbol was the pink triangle. It’s what we wore to the Nazi gas chambers. After the concentration camps were liberated, men wearing the pink triangle were the only group kept incarcerated, and erased from Holocaust history into the Seventies. In the words of Dachau’s mayor, “Many criminals and homosexuals were in Dachau. Do you want a memorial for such people?" 

In 1978, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the first out gay man elected in the United States, asked Gilbert Baker, Lynn Segerblom (aka Faerie Argyle Rainbow), James McNamara, and other grassroots activists to create a positive alternative: A flag to signal “the dawn of a new gay consciousness and freedom.”

Segerblom wanted a version of the Stars and Stripes — a rainbow with stars in the upper left corner. Gilbert’s simplified epiphany came at a Bicentennial Ball. “Everyone was there: North Beach beatniks and barrio zoots, the bored bikers in black leather, teenagers in the back row kissing. There were long-haired, lithe girls in belly-dance get-ups, pink-haired punks safety-pinned together, hippie suburbanites, movie stars so beautiful they left you dumbstruck, muscle gayboys with perfect mustaches, butch dykes in blue jeans, and fairies of all genders in thrift-store dresses. We rode the mirrored ball … in a swirl of color and light. It was like a rainbow.

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“A Rainbow Flag was a conscious choice, natural and necessary. The rainbow came from earliest recorded history as a symbol of hope. 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. Now the rioters who claimed their freedom at the Stonewall Bar in 1969 would have their own symbol of liberation.”

The Rainbow flag also connected the community to the Civil Rights Movement. The same year as Stonewall, the Black Panther’s Fred Hampton created the Rainbow Coalition, an anti-racist, anti-class, multicultural movement to fight poverty, corruption, racism, police brutality, and substandard housing. The Reverend Jesse Jackson borrowed the phrase in his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, calling for “a rainbow coalition” of racial minorities, “homosexuals”, family farmers, the poor and working class, and white allies. 

Harvey Milk’s fellow pioneers made two large, hand-dyed, hand-sewn, rainbow flags for the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade. Five months later, Milk was assassinated, a martyr was born, and the flag he helped birth took off. The original design had eight colours, but demand was so high that the Paramount Flag company used the stock seven-band rainbow fabric. This was reduced to the current six the following year to enable three large colours to be paraded down each side of the street.

The Rainbow Flag’s importance to the movement cannot be overstated. In the Seventies, most of us were in the closet. (Toronto’s first march was in 1981, with attendance in the hundreds.) The flag gave us visibility and courage. It rallied us through the AIDS pandemic of the Eighties and Nineties. It made us proud, even as the World Health Organization labelled us mentally till 1990, and anti-sodomy laws made our relationships illegal in many American states into the Aughts. Its colours lit up the White House when the U.S. achieved marriage equality.

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The Rainbow Flag symbolizes LBGT+ legal and legislative victories on equal marriage, adoption, and protection against hate speech and discrimination: Sexual orientation and gender identity were read into the Canadian Charter of Rights in 1995; today, those rights are explicit. Almost all Western nations are in the same place. And while many American states are regressive on family law and services, the U.S. Supreme Court has granted marriage and adoption rights, and prohibited employment discrimination, based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

Sure, Canada has pockets of intolerance, and the balance between a few LGBT+, religious, and sex-based rights remains contested, as it always will in an open, pluralistic society. But having won our major wars, together under the Rainbow, we’re now free to direct our energy to a wider, more brutal world that can only hunger for our freedom. 

Instead, we fret about pronouns that people actually honour, and add and rearrange redundant letters to our acronym: “P” for Pansexual is the old Bisexual with bells and whistles; it means you find genitals irrelevant to sexual attraction. “Q” for Questioning means you don’t know what turns you on. “A” for Asexual means you aren’t interested. And “NB” for non-binary means you’re genderqueer, genderfluid and/or agender: all of which, in English, mean you don’t fall within gender stereotypes. 

Today, every letter has its own flag: Wikipedia lists nineteen; other sites list 30. Terrific. Who cares? A national flag isn’t affected by a provincial or state flag, and every sports team has its own pennant separate from its league. Flags express identities and enthusiasms, and we all have more than one. So have at it. Let a thousand flags flap. 

But don’t mess with the Rainbow. 

Slapping the “Progress” chevron on the Rainbow is like slapping the fleur de lys on the Maple Leaf. It creates resentment and division to the sole benefit of performative social climbers keen to wave their Alphabet status and cachet. Step outside the West to see what it really means to have people out to "deny your very existence.” To trade the Rainbow, the symbol of our suffering and resilience, for a viral craze is bourgeois privilege at its self-indulgent worst.

Allan Stratton is the internationally award-winning author of Chanda’s Secrets and The Dogs.


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