There has been some controversy recently in some corners of the LGBTQ community when group in Philadelphia introduced a new variant on the rainbow flag. This time there were 2 new stripes added – a black one and a brown one.
I don’t object to this addition by any means. There have been a lot of variants on the rainbow flag over the years. And in light of how in many cases LGBTQ people of color are less visible than white people – particularly cis white gay men – I understand the desire to add those extra colors as a way of adding visibility.
It surprised me though – and not because I think of the rainbow flag as a symbol of something colorblind. Quite the opposite. As I have been reflecting on it, I had specific experiences around the time that I came out that very clearly cemented the rainbow flag in my mind with inclusion of people of different races and ethnicities.
My coming out process proceeded quickly after I arrived at college in 1987. Being outside my parents’ house and on my own in a liberal environment meant that within 2-3 months, I was coming out to many people in my daily life and learning about everything involved in embracing my identity as a gay man, including the ideas behind the rainbow flag.
Another major cultural force in the United States was using the rainbow as its symbol at the time – the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson. Jackson had run in 1984 for the Democratic nomination and again in 1988. In that second campaign, he was the second-highest vote getter for the Democratic nomination, behind the eventual nominee, Mike Dukakis.
Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition (later merged with PUSH to form the Rainbow PUSH Coalition) was a politically inclusive movement built very explicitly on racial and ethnic diversity. And I believe that Jackson was the first and only major party nominee addressing LGB audiences around the country (sadly, I can’t vouch for the inclusion of Trans people at this time). I saw him speak at the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church – an expressly LGB Christian denomination) in Minneapolis. And he was standing underneath a giant rainbow flag. The symbolic power of this candidate combined with this rainbow was huge – even if ultimately the Reagan/Bush version of conservative America was the one that voters chose.
Since these two uses of the symbol of the rainbow were combined in my consciousness, the Rainbow flag has always been – without any doubt – a symbol of inclusion of people of all races and ethnicities, as well as being a symbol of inclusion of LGBTQ people. And I think I’m just realizing that maybe that strong link is more personal for me than anything that is communicated to most people viewing the rainbow flag today.
Let’s be honest: there is a huge problem with racism within the LGBTQ community. Of course there is. There’s a problem with it within our society, and LGBTQ people are raised in and exist within our society. We learn all the underlying racist attitudes and bias that everyone else does. They don’t just go away. They need to be challenged all the time – by ourselves and within our communities.
Here in Chicago, for example, some of the most visible gay neighborhoods are largely white. This is a very segregated city. There have been longstanding tensions between white property and business owners in these neighborhoods and young LGBTQ people of color who are seeking out a community that purports to welcome them. Unfortunately, many of these young people of color are met with suspicion and prejudice instead of a welcoming attitude.
If adding a couple stripes to the flag address this in some way or help to bring awareness to the lack of representation of people of color in the LGBTQ press and within our community organizations, I will welcome it. Sorry, if it’s going to just take me a minute to get used to the fact that I see a meaning in that rainbow that nearly everyone else doesn’t.