Friday 17 February 2017

A New Flag Rises

Throughout history campaigners and fighters for human rights have used flags to rally their supporters. As we in the UK are celebrating LGBT History Month the USA is celebrating Black History Month. The black civil rights movement was the largest of those which emerged in the second half of the last century. Yet, like the lgbt community, there is still sections of society which need improvement to eliminate prejudice.

Last summer a new flag emerged which, it is hoped, will come to be a familiar symbol of pride for the black lgbt community. It was unveiled for the first time on 14th August 2016 during the Montréal Pride parade. Below is a photo of the flag being waved at the head of the parade.

Jonathan Lamothe, one of several members of Arc-en-ciel d’Afrique who carried the new flag at the head of Montreal’s Pride parade on 14th August 2016 (photo from Arc-en-ciel d’Agrique Facebook page)
Flags were a main feature of last year’s MontrĂ©al Pride. The theme for the parade was “Our Flag, Our Nature”. The Quebec-based organisation which supports the black lgbt community in the province, Arc-en-ciel d’Afrique, was invited to lead the parade. It was an excellent opportunity to highlight the challenges of prejudice and racism which the community faces.

As an enthusiastic vexillologist (flag-lover) I was particularly pleased with this design. Far too many lgbt community and diversity flags follow the striped format and look too similar. There are not enough flags that are distinctive. Another positive element I like in the new flag is its clear symbolism. The design speaks for itself and needs little explanation as all the elements are already well-known and recognised. The black background, the pink triangle, the clenched fist and the rainbow colours all derive from some form of activism or protest.

The black background became an “official” symbol of black African identity in 1921 when it was defined in the Universal Negro Catechism. This was published by the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), one of the earliest black rights movements in the USA. The UNIA had adopted a flag of red, black and green horizontal stripes in 1920 which was created as a protest against racist attitudes in America at that time. I loath to repeat derogatory words, but as Marcus Garvey, the great black rights leader, said himself, “In song and mimicry they have said, ‘Every race has a flag but the coon’ … They can’t say it now …”. The flag became known as the Pan-African flag, and its colours have been incorporated into many flags of African nations and states ever since.

The pink triangle, as we all should know, has its origins in Nazi Germany. Its history and use within the lgbt community began in Germany itself when it was used as a symbol of activism by the gay liberation group Homosexualle Aktion Westberlin in the early 1970s. Since the creation of the Rainbow Pride flag the pink triangle has gradually declined in use in the community though. Here is it re-appears on this new flag as a white triangle.

The Rainbow Pride flag, the flag of 6 stripes which we recognise today, was an adaptation of the original 8 striped version which first appeared at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade on 25th June 1978. The 6 striped version came about due to the practicality of production as much as protest. When San Francisco’s Harvey Milk was assassinated a few months after the Gay Freedom Day parade he was the first openly gay man who has been elected to office in the USA. Many San Franciscans wanted to show their protest against the deliberate homophobic murder by waving copies of the 8-striped flag, a giant version of which Milk had stood in front of on Gay Freedom Day. Some of the dyes used in the original flag were hand-mixed by its creator, Gilbert Baker, and demand was so great that he had to provide commercially available 6-striped flags instead. Those 6 colours have appeared in thousands of lgbt flags and logos ever since.

The clenched fist may be one of the oldest symbols of protest in existence. It appears in ancient statues, though it may be more symbolic of power rather then protest. Our modern interpretation dates back to a hundred years ago and the Industrial Workers of the World, an American left-wing worker’s union formed in 1905. They used a clenched fist on a campaign illustration. From then on the fist came to be identified with political militancy, and from there it became a general symbol of defiance and the fight for the rights of various communities. As a symbol of gender rights it was used extensively by the feminist movement in combination with the female gender symbol. Perhaps the most well-known use of the fist was during the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games when John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the gold and bronze medallist in the 200 meters, raised their gloved fists during the medal ceremony. This sign of protest had been used by the Black Panther Party and had become closely associated with the black civil rights movement.
All of these four elements came together last year in the distinctive new flag for the black lgbt community. I look forward to seeing the new flag flying at Pride events in the near future.

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