A flag is a cloth designed to be the symbol of a nation, state, territory, municipality, or group. In addition to symbolizing a social identity, flags may be used for visual communication (signal flag for a ship, or lifeguard’s flag on the beach advising swimmers of conditions) or a cause (POW-MIA flag to remember prisoners of war and military personnel missing in action).
For the LGBTQ community, flags are markers of identity and group affiliation. The horizontally rainbow-striped Pride flag is used to indicate that an area is Gay-friendly. LGBTQ flags are not usually used, however, in opposition to other groups, which is one of the original purposes of flags as battle standards.
The rainbow flag (also known as gay flag and pride flag) is an internationally recognized symbol of the Gay community, and is one of the earliest flags developed for the community. It was conceived by Gilbert Baker of Chanute, Kansas in 1978 with eight colored stripes placed horizontally from top to bottom: red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, violet, and hot pink. Since its creation, hot pink and turquoise are no longer used in the standard form of six stripes.
The rainbow flag has non-Gay antecedents, such as the wiphala for Native South American Andes peoples consisting of diagonal rainbow arrangement of squares in seven colors (or seven horizontal stripes), the municipal flag of Cuzco in Peru with seven horizontal stripes, the rainbow flag of the Indian mystic Meher Baba, designed by Meher Baba in 1924 with seven horizontal stripes (the top being sky blue for enlightenment), and the Italian 1960s peace flag with seven colored horizontal stripes and PACE, Italian for “peace,” in the middle.
During Gay Pride celebrations, major North American cities and campuses will prominently display the rainbow Pride flag. Some Pride parades feature immense rainbow flags (sometimes hundreds of meters in length, such as one used in New York City in 1994) carried horizontally on parade routes by crews of volunteers.
On the American Flag Day (June 14) in 1989, the American flag was officially raised along with the Pride flag at the Harvey Milk Library in San Francisco. This was the first recorded instance of a public institution flying the rainbow flag as a symbol of Gay pride.
The rainbow may be combined with a country’s national flag, as with the Canadian national flag combined with the rainbow, the colors of which may be placed in horizontal stripes on either side of a central white area with a maple leaf in the middle. The Stars and Stripes of the USA national flag of the USA may likewise be modified, the alternating seven red and six white horizontal stripes replaced with the six stripes of the standard rainbow flag. Placement of fifty stars in a blue field in the upper left quarter remains the same. In addition to national flags, the Pride flag has been modified to represent a number of LGBTQ identities, organizations, and sentiments, such as rodeo (cowpoke hat in upper right corner), Lesbian identity (with two interlocked symbols for woman), Gay male identity (two interlocked symbols for man), or goodwill (smiling face).
Community and Identity Flags
The Bisexual community has a flag consisting of two thick horizontal stripes, magenta for same-sex attraction and royal blue for heterosexual attraction, with a thinner lavender stripe between them that represents the overlap of same-sex and heterosexual desire and romance.
There are two different flags for the Bear community. One has diagonal stripes (white, black, and brown) between a blue triangle in the upper left corner and a green triangle in the lower right and a yellow bear paw print in the upper left corner. This flag was first flown in Seattle, Washington and is found mainly in the northwestern USA. It had a predecessor in Denver, Colorado that was made in 1992 by the Front Range Bears, and features two dark bear paw prints and yellow, brown, white, gray, and black diagonal stripes. A more recent Bear flag (1995) has a black bear paw print in the upper left corner, and a series of horizontal stripes (brown, rust, light yellow, tan, white, gray, and black) that represent hair color and skin color.
The Leather community has a flag consisting of alternate horizontal black and blue stripes with a white stripe in the center. A red heart is in the upper left corner. The Leather Pride flag debuted in 1989 at the annual International Mister Leather weekend in Chicago. Its creator, Tony LeBlase, refused to assign meaning to the colors, leaving it to the observer to interpret the flag. LeBlase’s refusal notwithstanding, the flag is often interpreted in the following way: black and blue for sado-masochism/bondage/dominance (“black and blue” are connected with physical bruises) and the red heart signifying goodwill when engaging in the controlled violence and rough physical contact of Leathersex. One interpretation of the white stripe could be pure intentions of Leatherfolk when engaging in sex.
Military Pride Flag
At the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries, US Army veteran Todd Shinkle designed the Military Pride flag for Gay US veterans. It consists of a dark blue horizontal rectangle in the upper left corner with a gray eagle (with wings spread) in the center of the rectangle. The eagle has a pink triangle on its chest, and a labrys (double-headed ax) within the triangle. There are six horizontal strips: red, beige, white, medium gray, blue, and Kelly green. The overall design is similar to the USA flag, but with fewer stripes and of different colors, and with the eagle, triangle, and labrys instead of stars. The six colors indicate the Armed Forces and/or various terrains on which Americans have fought. On the far right, there is a black vertical stripe indicating dire distress because of the inequality that LGBTQ Americans have faced when serving their country. The pink triangle is an LGBTQ symbol taken from the patch that homosexual men were forced to wear in the Nazi concentration camps, and the labrys is a symbol of the Lesbian community.
A dedicated vexillologist (student of flag lore), Shinkle worked to have his flag recognized internationally, finally succeeding in 2005. He displayed the internationally-recognized Military Pride flag officially for the first time during the Qualia Festival of Gay Folklife that spring.
Cruikshank, Margaret. The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Kampf, Ray. The Bear Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Those Who Are Husky, Hairy, and Homosexual and Those Who Love’Em. Binghamton