Thursday, 5 July 2012

Putting Out the Union Jack

Whatever your opinion of the Union Jack (as a national symbol of pride, or a hated symbol of imperialism) you have to admit that it’s a design classic. You can hardly miss it this year with the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. But this week you’ll see it turn London pink because today the World Pride is taking place in the nation’s capital as well.

There was already a good reason to call the Union Jack the gayest national flag around because the design was chosen by one of the “Queens” of Great Britain, James I.

Before we go any further, let’s clear up a common misconception. This flag IS called the Union Jack – named after its use as a flag of national identity flown from the jack staff on a ship. It is also called the Union Flag – it is the flag of the union of the crowns of England and Scotland. The name was given parliamentary approval on 14th July 1908 when the UK government issued the statement that “the Union Jack should be regarded as the national flag [on land]” - actually the first time in history that the UK officially adopted a national flag. Places like Australia used it long before we did when they adopted the UK naval ensign as their national flag (all the colonies used the blue or red naval ensigns before independence). Before 1908 the Union Jack was a government and naval flag.

So to James I. He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and her 2nd husband Lord Darnley, an arrogant bisexual cross-dresser who was blown to bits by Mary’s 3rd husband. In 1603 James inherited the English throne from Queen Elizabeth I. James was quite open in his choice of “male favourites”. In fact, when he succeeded to the English throne pamphlets were circulating with declared “Elizabeth was king, now James is queen”.

Politicians then had a problem. In previous centuries, with sea trade and exploration and the accompanying growth in piracy and naval warfare, it was necessary for ships to display national insignia so that your own ships don’t fire on them. Flags were easily seen, so ships around the world carried the first real flags of national identity (as opposed to identity on land being signified by the coat of arms of the person who owned it – like the king). England flew St. George’s Cross and Scotland flew St. Andrew’s Cross. But with the united crowns which flag should the new Great British ships fly, the English one of the Scottish one?

Under international law it should be the Scottish flag because the kingdom of Scotland is older than the kingdom of England. It was decided that the new flag for ships would be that of England and Scotland combined in such a way that neither had preference. The College of Arms came up with these suggestions, with the Lord High Admiral giving his signed approval.

But none of these met with “Queen” James’ approval. Even in those days it was a “queer eye” that taught the straight guy about good design! So James told them to go away and try again. So the heralds went back to square one and came up with a more familiar design …

Heraldically speaking this does gives Scotland precedence – the blue background and white saltire is described first, and the red cross of St. George last. James liked this design and it was used on British ships right up to 1801 when the United Kingdom was created and the Irish cross of St. Patrick was added.

But “Queen” James didn’t provide the only lgbt contribution to the Union Jack. Quite early in the modern gay rights movement this flag emerged in Pride marches. Naturally, it’s just the Union Jack with the red crosses turned to pink.

A much more popular version, below, has been seen everywhere in recent years (including thousands of miles away at Santiago Pride 2008 in Chile). Obviously, it’s called the Pink Jack. It’s the sort of idea that is so obvious you wonder why you didn’t think of it first. The man who did think of it first was David Gwinnutt, an artist and photographer from London who thought that the Rainbow flag was too American. He wanted to create something that said gay and British. In 2005 he created the first Pink Jack for an art exhibition about sexuality. Later that year he carried his flag at several Pride events and he began to manufacture all kinds of Pink Jack merchandise. Just like every other flag, there is no copyright on flag designs and he was happy to let the community adopt it in great numbers.

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