Flags, in this author’s humble opinion, do not receive the attention they deserve. There is but one journal dedicated to vexillology (that being the technical term for the study of flags) in existence, sustained through single annual issues with a limited number of contributors. Not a single faculty post exists at any university on Earth for a specialised vexillologist to fill. Flags go, for all intents and purposes, largely unnoticed, outside of a half-a-million-strong community on Reddit. They wave stoically in the wind, ever-present and steadfast, but largely in the background. Frankly, this lack of attention is bizarre, if only for their ubiquity. Every single nation-state on this planet, each of the political building blocks of our world, is represented by a flag, as are countless other cities, towns, and organisations across it. More than and in combination with this, though, is the pure symbolic power they possess. They are not merely coloured pieces of fabric that stand only to communicate the name of what they represent. Every flag is an attempt ‘...to unite a population behind a homogenous set of ideals, aims, history and beliefs…’ (Marshall, 2017). Woven into the fabric of every flag are a myriad of associations, which differ widely from person to person. They represent the very principles that serve as the foundation for what they represent - histories of triumph and defeat; of oppression and revolution; the lives of communities and individuals; the diversity of languages, cultures, and religions. There are no aspects of human life potentially unreachable by the flag. Yet, they are taken for granted, or as simply one symbol in a list of many.
If this is the case for flags in general, then it should come as no surprise at all that those representing marginalised communities have flown especially under the radar. Already having to be recovered from historical banishment by a vanguard of modern scholars, the stories of these peoples continue to be sidelined in favour of traditional narratives, which often exclude them explicitly. This trend is shifting, slowly and thankfully, but largely without much attention being paid to the symbols which these groups have borne to represent themselves, of which flags are a crucial example. I contend that flags form an essential part of understanding any group of people, let alone those who have been paid so little attention for so long.
Specifically, the LGBTQ+ community, which encompasses a vast spectrum of both gender and sexual identities, have a strong and unique relationship with flags. Not only is the most prominent symbol of this community a flag, but its sub-communities and identities are almost-universally represented by one also. ‘Pride flags’, as they will here be generally termed, are a specific kind of banner designed to represent a subsection of LGBTQ+ people. They are frequently generated by people within these subsections, and the most successful can be seen commonly in spaces populated by them, such as on social media and at pride parades. Almost every entry on both the Gender and Sexuality Wikia pages, perhaps the most detailed sources of information for their respective topics on the internet, is accompanied by a flag. They are, in short, integral to the identification of people within these sub-communities, and the community more broadly. Yet, outside of the rainbow flag as a symbol of the community as a whole (for example, Laskar, Johansson, & Mulinari, 2016), they have received no academic attention whatsoever, as far as this author can tell.
In recognition of their centrality to these communities, in reparation of their lack of attention to this point, and in the spirit of the celebration of the lives and contributions of LGBTQ+ people, this piece thus seeks to bring pride flags to the fore. It will begin with a brief exploration of the history of the pride flag. The second section will deal with the vexillography (that is, the design) of pride flags, utilising Thomas Sebeok (2001)’s typology of signs (as applied to flags by Knowlton, 2012) to analyse the effects that it has on the ways in which these flags are perceived. The third and final section will deal with the functions of pride flags, detailing the many ways in which they are used, and for what purposes.
The history of the pride flag
Pride flags are just one of many of what one might call ‘pride symbols’ within the LGBTQ+ community. A great many of these symbols developed in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, amid an active and growing movement for equal rights. For example, during this time, the pink triangle, which had originally been a patch used by Nazis to identify homosexuals at concentration camps, was reclaimed by the gay community and began to be used as a representative symbol by them (Lamda.org, 2005 ). Many such triangles now exist for a wide variety of LGBTQ+ identities.
As to flags specifically, it is generally accepted that the first pride flag was the now-ubiquitous rainbow flag, created in 1978 by gay rights activist and drag queen Gilbert Baker. Baker claimed that the idea for such a flag came to him during a dance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Observing the diversity of revellers who attended the party, Baker remarked that they were ‘...all in a swirl of color and light…[at that moment] I knew exactly what kind of flag I would make’ (GilbertBaker.com, no date). The idea followed discussions about a symbol for the gay community Baker had had with California politician Harvey Milk (Gonzalez, no date), the first openly-gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. Baker’s original design [Figure A] had eight horizontal stripes, ranging from hot pink at the top to violet at the bottom, each intended to represent a constituent part of pride.
Keen observers will note that Baker’s original design is not the one that has become so well-known today. The modern rainbow flag [Figure B] only incorporates six horizontal stripes, having lost the hot pink and turquoise of the original over time. There is no single authoritative account of why exactly this occurred. Most, though, accept that it was the former that went first, apparently for the simple reason that the company approached to manufacture the flag simply could not secure enough of that colour of fabric (The 6th Floor, 2011). This turquoise was apparently removed slightly later, after Milk’s assassination, to make it easier to divide the colours of the flag evenly between the two sides of the street used for a parade in his honour (Gay Pride New Orleans, 2016). Thus, the six-colour flag was born, and has largely stayed around until the present day.
The rainbow flag has undergone another evolution in recent years, with the creation of the ‘Progress’ flag [Figure C], which was designed in 2018 by Daniel Quasar. This design features the six-striped rainbow with five chevrons in the flag’s hoist (that is, the side closest to the flagpole when the flag is flying). The white, baby pink, and baby blue chevrons are intended to represent transgender and non-binary individuals. The brown and black chevrons represent marginalised people of those colours, whilst the black on its own has a double meaning, also symbolising those living with AIDS, and those who have lost their lives to it (Progress Initiative, 2022). This flag has been variously criticised for being reductive and overly-specific (Murphy, 2018), not inclusive enough (Jossell, 2021), and for having become associated with corporate ‘pinkwashing’ (that is, the accusation that a corporation co-opts the beliefs and desires of queer people dishonestly and to make profit) (Green, 2021). In spite of this, it has many supporters, and has come to be used increasingly to represent the community as a whole, and to demonstrate support for said community during Pride month.
These are, of course, only flags that are intended to represent the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of others, for all of the ever-expanding group of sub-communities that exist within it. Some, like Monica Helms’ transgender pride flag [Figure D] have become quasi-official symbols of the communities they represent, with Helms’ specifically having been legitimised by organisations such as Unicode (who are responsible for emojis), and through various protests and parades since its 2000 inception. Other communities, such as the lesbian one, do not have a single official flag, with several being seen as legitimate symbols [Figure E]. The trend for creating these sub-communal flags has accelerated markedly through the 2010s, with the blogging website Tumblr acting as an important centre of the initial distribution of designs, particularly for smaller, less-established identity groups. The pansexual [Figure F] and agender [Figure G] pride flags are two of the more prominent which originated in groups on the site. Indeed, it is these sub-communal flags which make up most of those in existence, and from which can be drawn the bulk of our observations about the general design and function of pride flags as a whole.
Vexillography, as previously stated, entails the design of flags. We might say that the totality of a flag’s design can be divided into three levels, beginning with the most immediate and ending with the least. The first of these is a flag’s physical vexillography; that is to say, the purely visual aspects of the flag, separated from any conceptions of meaning external to what is immediately perceived. This includes any shapes, colours, lettering, or images per se that a flag might contain. The second of these is its semantic vexillography. Semantics being the discipline concerned with how signs (i.e. things that are indicative of other things) relate to objects or concepts, this means the symbolic meanings communicated by the physical aspects of the flag. For example, the colour red is literally the colour red, but also might be symbolic of blood or revolution to an observer. The third and final of these is its syntactic vexillography. Syntactics is the discipline that studies how signs relate to one another (Szabó, 2005). In this context, this means the relation of the physical and symbolic aspects of the flag to any other flags or symbols. These other symbols will normally be in some way related to what the flag represents. For example, the above ‘Progress’ flag is syntactically related to the rainbow flag, because it deliberately references it in its choice of colours and shapes. The latter two of these three levels can be said to form a flag’s semiotic vexillography, being that semiotics is ‘...the discipline that studies how communication occurs when one thing…represents another…to an observing third party’ (Knowlton, 2012). Pragmatics, the sub-discipline of semiotics which studies how context affects the meanings of signs, is relevant to flags as well. It is not, though, something which is realised through a flag’s vexillography. The fact that a flag’s meanings may change depending on who is waving it or where it is waved is important, but it is not a choice on the part of the designer.
The first of these three levels is the easiest to draw conclusions about, since it involves no interpretation other than the visual. In order to do this, though, it is necessary to take a representative sample of what is being interpreted. Figure H is such a sample. It is a collection of 66 pride flags, half of which represent a gender identity, and the other half a sexual one. This number was chosen because it represents roughly a tenth of the total entries which have flags attached to them on the Gender and Queerdom Wikia sites, which are perhaps the most prominent and detailed sources of information on these identities. They are also, importantly, largely authored by people who possess these identities, who are the same people at the forefront of naming and designing the flags for them. In order to choose the flags, a random letter generator was used to select a random letter. This was used to identify the first letter of the identity that would be selected. From there, the first entry beginning with that letter alphabetically was selected. The entries were then individually assessed against these criteria:
Does the entry have a flag attached to it?
Does the entry have a clear provenance? In other words, it is stated who coined the term for the identity in the entry OR who created the flag that represents it?
Is the entry recognised by the editors of the sites as being actually in use in the LGBTQ+ community?
The reason for the first criterion should be self-evident. The second was selected to mitigate the fact that the sites are largely user-generated and thus can be edited by almost anyone. They are actively edited and moderated, but inevitably some trolling or other such vandalising behaviour will slip through the cracks. The third was as a further guarantee of the authenticity of an identity. ‘Recognised’ essentially means here that the given entry has not been classified as ‘uncommon’ or some equivalent term by the editors of the sites. This process was repeated until the requisite number of flags was reached.
Some immediate descriptive observations can be made from this sample. The first of these relates to the colours employed. Figure I is a bar chart demonstrating the percentage of flags on which a given colour appears. White is the most commonly-used colour on pride flags, with 54.5% employing it, followed by purple, blue, and pink, with 51.5%, 48.5%, and 43.9% of pride flags using them respectively. The least commonly-used colours on pride flags are red and brown, which appear on just 12.1% of them. The number of unique colours used on these flags is also of note [Figure J]. Most commonly, pride flags appear to feature five colours, with 19.7% of them doing so. Seven is the next most common number, whereas it is relatively uncommon to see a pride flag with more than nine unique colours on it.
In terms of primary design, the overwhelming majority of pride flags use horizontal stripes, at 89.4% [Figure K]. Of the 10.6% which do not use horizontal striping as a primary design, there are only two which do not use any kind of striping for this purpose. This makes ‘stripes’ by far the most common design element in a pride flag. It is interesting also to note the number of horizontal stripes used on the flags that feature them. Figure J shows that the most common number of stripes is seven, with roughly a third of all pride flags having this many. This exceeds the percentage of flags which use seven unique colours, though both are still relatively common. Roughly three-quarters of these flags use an odd number of stripes which seems somewhat unusual, at least superficially, given the reasons for changing the original rainbow flag above so that it contained an even number. All of them are rectangular in shape, which is highly typical of flags in general.
All of these descriptive features constitute the physical vexillography of pride flags, but are nothing without the meanings associated with them. To uncover these, an examination of their semiotic vexillography is necessary. Few studies have applied semiotics directly to flags, but one notable example of this having been done comes from Steven Knowlton, who has applied Thomas Sebeok’s ‘typology of signs’ to political flags. For his part, Sebeok devised his typology as a system of categorisation for the various kinds of signs he observed in the world, dividing them into six ‘species’ (here split into five owing to the grouping of two):
Signals - ‘...a sign which mechanically…or conventionally…triggers some reaction on the part of the receiver’ (Sebeok, 2001). In the case of flags, Knowlton gives the example of the ‘meatball’ (black and orange) flag, used in motorsport to signal that a driver has a mechanical issue which they must come into the pits to fix (Knowlton, 2012).
Symptoms - these are signs which arise naturally, concomitantly with, and as a result of, the things they signify. The characteristic rash of chickenpox is one example of this kind of sign, as it is both caused by and indicative of that disease.
Icons - Sebeok says that this kind of sign has a ‘...topological similarity…’ (Sebeok, 2001) with what it signifies, by which he means that the sign is similarly physically arranged to the thing it represents. Sebeok uses the example of a photograph of the Mona Lisa (ibid.), which is iconic because, in depicting the painting, the photograph is similarly composed to its subject. Mona Lisa’s body parts and background are still all in the same positions relative to one another, in spite of the fact that the photograph is only a representation. One could also say that the painting itself is iconic, because it shares these same similarities with the woman in it.
Indexes & Symbols - these are grouped together here because it is easier to understand them in relation to one another than it is separately. Both kinds of sign are non-topological representations of the things they signify, but differ essentially in how arbitrarily their elements are selected for such representation. Indexes make use of elements which have meanings already assigned to them, and which are actually in common with what is being represented. For example, the use of a cross on a map to signify a church would be an index, as the cross has been selected for its association with Christianity, but does not resemble the church itself in any topological way. Symbols use elements which do not have meanings already assigned to them. Rather, the meaning of their elements is usually assigned by the signer or the receiver. The use of a codeword is an example of symbolic signing. It does not matter what the word is, so long as those using it understand that it is being used representatively, and know its assigned meaning.
Names - this is summed up neatly by Knowlton, who understands this kind of sign as ‘...an arbitrary linguistic symbol for a mental concept.’ (Knowlton, 2012) Essentially, this is any word used to signify a thing or an idea. All words are in a sense arbitrary, because ‘...different languages assign different words to the same concepts.’ (ibid.)
Some of these kinds of signs apply to flags much more readily than others. For example, it is probably impossible for a flag to be classed as a name, because they are inherently non-linguistic symbols. They also cannot really be symptoms, as they do not appear naturally with the things they represent - they have to be designed. Furthermore, it is rare that pride flags specifically (or any kind of flag representing a group as opposed to an action) act as signals. As such, the following comments will be based primarily on the three remaining categories of signs.
Flags are icons, according to Knowlton, insofar as they resemble the physical makeup of the entity they are representing in some way. Knowlton’s application of Sebeok’s typology was limited to political flags, so he gives the examples of flags which include maps (like that of Cyprus) and those whose design elements correspond to some topological fact about the country (for example, the fact that the Malaysian flag has fourteen stripes because it has thirteen states and one capital region) (Knowlton, 2012). Of course, pride flags do not represent political entities: they represent identities. These can still be reflected ‘topologically’ but not in a way that can be physically observed, as with geographical realities. Many pride flags do, though, reflect what might be called a topology of identity; that is to say, their symbolism is chosen to reflect the various perceived aspects of a given identity, which together constitute the identity as a whole. The pangender flag (Figure H, eighth row, last column) is an example of one of these topologies. Identifying as pangender means feeling an affinity with all genders across the spectrum. The colours of the flag have been chosen to reflect this, with the white a representation of all genders (as white is a combination of all colours); the light pink combinations of female and male; the light red ‘...the transition to the genders which are related to female and male’ (Queerdom Wiki (a), no date); and, the yellow for those genders which are not related to female and male identities. Just as there are fourteen states that make up Malaysia, there are four aspects which, when combined, make up the pangender identity. Both of these are reflected in their respective flags’ symbolism, and thus can both be said to topologically reflect the things they represent.
Yet, the pangender flag also contains features consistent with both indexes and symbols. Indeed, though the latter categories probably comprise the vast majority of pride flags, many of these flags can and do reflect a combination of several of these categories. The neoboy pride flag (Figure H, eighth row, first column) is an example of such a flag. Its use of blue is indexical, as that colour is well-established as a representation of masculinity, which is what it represents here. Its other colours, though, are probably symbolic. Black is intended to represent non-binary genders, purple is for binary genders which are not neatly described by ‘male’ or ‘female’, and white is for gender transition (@erikaispanlol, 2020). These colours do not appear to have been selected based on any explicit prior association with the things they represent. The non-binary pride flag does have the colour black on it, but not for the same reason as the neoboy one (thejasmineelf, 2015 ). As such, they are symbols, because they have been assigned a meaning by the creator of the flag. This perhaps highlights a weakness in Sebeok’s typology, as there is evidently a great deal of possible overlap between his various ‘species’.
There are, naturally, some flags which are exclusively indexical or exclusively symbolic. The greysexual flag (Figure H, fifth row, fourth column) is an example of the former. Purple and white here represent asexuality and allosexuality (i.e. the feeling of sexual attraction) respectively, and are indexical because they are lifted directly from the asexual pride flag, with which greysexuality is closely linked (Hynes, 2020). Grey has been chosen by the creator to reflect the area between asexuality and sexual attraction, and this has been done seemingly because it is well-established that the term ‘grey area’ communicates a similar idea to the one the creator was trying to get across. Thus, as these colours have been selected non-arbitrarily, they can be said to be indexical. The multisexual flag (Figure H, seventh row, fourth column), is an example of the latter. According to its creator, the purple represents peace, the white unity, the light blue freedom, and the pink love (Queerdom Wiki (b), no date). Without this clarification, it is unclear to the receiver of the sign what these colours are supposed to represent. They have, in other words, been chosen arbitrarily. As these colours make up the entirety of the flag, the whole thing can be said to be symbolic.
Functions and uses
Thus, we have examined both the history and vexillography of pride flags in some detail. It will be obvious to the reader, though, that these flags are not merely meaningful strips of colour, which exist detached from the real world. They are signs which are used in a wide variety of everyday contexts, which affect their function, perception, and, indeed, their meanings. In order to fully appreciate and understand the pride flag as a phenomenon, an examination of some of these uses is necessary. This is the aim of the final section of this piece.
The function of a flag, or indeed any sign, is influenced by its pragmatics, which, as previously mentioned, constitutes the ways in which the context of a sign’s deployment affects how it is interpreted. Indeed, it is probably the case that pragmatics influence the interpretation of flags more than many other kinds of sign. This is because, unlike words, their display is not bound by rules such as syntax, which can be deterministic of, and place limitations on, the meanings that a sign can communicate (Leone, 2021). That is to say, we understand flags less by their association to each other than we do by the context of their use. So, what contexts might there be in which pride flags are employed, and how do they affect how they are interpreted?
One of the most common is what might be termed an associative context. This is when a pride flag is used to demonstrate some form of connection with the identity, or the group more broadly, which corresponds with the flag. This can be further divided into two more specific contexts: the self-associative and the communicative-associative. The former of these entails the use of a pride flag purely to demonstrate to oneself an association with the relevant identity. For example, it is not uncommon for LGBTQ+ people to display pride flags in their bedrooms or other such private spaces. The purpose of this is evidently not to demonstrate an association with that identity to other people, as the flags are not displayed where others can routinely see them. Instead, display in this context can be understood as an extension of the self into the material world, or a kind of physical, palpable affirmation of one’s self-perception. Belk (1988) and others have demonstrated that possessions are frequently perceived as media of self-expression. They are both reflections and constitutive parts of a person’s identity. Thus, given their strong connection to fundamental aspects of said identity, it is easy to understand why this function of pride flags might be carried out. The latter essentially involves the use of a pride flag to demonstrate one’s connection to the relevant identity/group to others. The pride flag in this function forms part of what Goffman (1956) called the ‘personal front’ of a person’s performance of themself, or, in simpler terms, ‘...expressive equipment, the items that we most intimately identify with the performer…and that we naturally expect will follow the performer wherever [they go].’ (ibid.) For example, a person may wear a pin badge bearing the design of a pride flag in a social context. This could have a self-associative function, but is also inherently performative and thus communicative-associative, as wearing such a badge necessarily communicates some connection to the identity/group represented by it. This could be done for a variety of underlying reasons. One could, for example, be expressing a stance on that identity/group. This seems to be especially relevant in official contexts, and can be both genuine (Rosputinský & Rošteková, 2018) or cynical. Corporations are often accused of employing the latter function to garner the support and thus capital of the identity/group, whilst actually being indifferent to their issues (Oakenfull & Greenlee, 2005). One could also be attempting to foster connections with others who have a similar association to the identity/group (Wolowic et al., 2017), by communicating one’s own affinity for it.
Indeed, establishing connections between members of an identity/group seems to be another significant usage of pride flags. Often, this is undertaken in an attempt to increase perceived connectivity, or the degree to which it appears as if an identity/group is homogenous to either its members or outsiders, or both. This is a key interest of many groups represented by flags due to the fact that, as Anderson (2006) has famously outlined, they are essentially ‘imagined communities’. This is in the sense that most members of the group do not know each other, yet believe that they have something in common, owing to shared histories, languages, cultures, and, importantly here, symbols. Flags exist to emphasise the ‘community’ aspect of this conception, as they aim to encapsulate the perceived ‘...deep, horizontal comradeship…’ (ibid.) of their groups under one banner, and reify it.
Callahan and Ledgerwood (2016) have explored this in terms of entitativity, which was defined by Campbell (1958), and which the former scholars understand as a ‘...perception of realness’ (Callahan & Ledgerwood, 2016). Their study, while applying to flags in general, found that a group’s having of a representative symbol for itself did make it appear more ‘...cohesive…entitative and real’ (ibid.) to perceivers of the group. There is little reason to suspect that pride flags could not serve a similar function, as they do not significantly differ in purpose from the flags considered in this study. In fact, it may be that identity/groups with pride flags have an especial interest in this particular function, given both their historical marginalisation and their often small and disparate nature. In having a flag and thus increasing their perceived connectivity, these groups serve to justify themselves and their own existence, which may make it more difficult for those who seek to dismiss them to do so. This is especially relevant in societies and contexts in which LGBTQ+ people and identities are perceived as fundamentally incompatible with wider interests and values. For example, a study of the use of the rainbow flag in Pakistan found that it was employed by activists both to make LGBTQ+ people feel more accepted and welcome in certain private spaces, but also to allow ‘...otherwise non-visible… bodies to appear in public spaces’ (Alm & Martinsson, 2016). In this way, the use of pride flags serves as a constant visual reminder of the group’s existence and accessibility, frustrating potential efforts to silence it or cover it up.
It is worth noting briefly that forging such connections is not always done for genuine or positive reasons. For example, Israel has increasingly promoted LGBTQ+ groups and symbols as being compatible with its democracy, thus attempting to reify said groups and to include them in the national community. While on the surface a positive move, the country has been accused of doing this for nefarious purposes. Puar (2013) has highlighted Israel’s attempts to position itself as friendly to these groups as being precisely because its Islamic neighbours are perceived as unfriendly to them. In other words, Israel is attempting to co-opt LGBTQ+ people to strengthen an entrenched conception of Islamophobia in the country, by positioning themselves disingenuously as allies in contrast to their political rivals.
Finally, and on a more general note, pride flags are often used to promote inclusivity, specifically of the identity/groups which they represent. This is seen primarily in how they are perceived. LGBTQ+ youths have consistently expressed the opinion that seeing a pride flag in a space leads them to associate that space with safety and inclusion (Wolowic et al., 2017). This is the case even in spaces which have a historical association with being hostile toward them, such as churches. This stands in an interesting contrast to national flags, which are more often than not associated with exclusivity. Butz (2009) has found that national flags are often employed and perceived to elucidate divisions between those who are considered part of the nation and those who are not, as well as dividing people down ideological lines and even possibly encouraging aggressive behaviour towards outsiders. In other words, national flags are frequently employed to claim spaces as belonging to one group, whereas pride flags open them up to many. Though it is conceivable (and indeed probable) that pride flags have been used in such a capacity before (particularly by more militant groups of activists), this does not appear to happen as commonly or widely as it does with national flags.
Evidently, there is a lot more to pride flags than meets the eye. This piece has covered a wide variety of their aspects, from their history, to their design, and to their function, in an attempt to begin to highlight this fact. It is surprising, given the wealth of content generated here from this topic and the growing emphasis on LGBTQ+ inclusion in our society, that these symbols have not been considered in great detail up to this point. The author hopes that this piece has made clear that pride flags are a vital piece of a diverse spectrum of identities, which exist all around us, equally in those we do not know and that we care for deeply. An understanding and appreciation for them evidently forms a key part of any equivalent action for the identity/groups which they represent. Knowledge is the most potent antidote to intolerance that exists. If we truly believe that it is a tolerant society in which we want to live, then we should strive for knowledge of those about whom we know little, so that we may better understand how alike they are to us. The pride flag should not thus be seen as a threat to the freedoms which underpin the way we live, but as a fundamental expression of them in a unique form. It should be waved high and into strong wind, so as to say that we see, we accept, and we progress, together.
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