Notes on...

The problem with the Pride flag

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

Last month, the Pride flag was updated by the Intersex Equality Rights UK campaign group — the simple rainbow was not considered inclusive enough for intersex people. Other pressure groups had already added stripes for black people, brown people, trans people and people with Aids.

The Gay Pride flag first flew 43 years ago this week. It was sewn by the American gay activist Gilbert Baker, who performed under the drag name of ‘Busty Ross’, claiming kinship (of a sort) with the 18th-century Quaker upholsterer Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American flag. Baker had been asked by Harvey Milk, the most famous openly gay politician in America, to design a flag for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Mass movements need symbols: until then, the only symbol the gay community had was the pink triangle and Milk thought, not unreasonably, that it was time to stop outsourcing their visual branding strategy to the Nazi concentration camps.

Instead Milk outsourced it to an activist rather than a vexillologist. And that is why it is so hideous. You look at it and think the person who cobbled that flag together is a stranger to the rules of tincture. Colours should never be placed on other colours unless separated by yellow or white.


The original version was even worse: as well as the colours of the rainbow, it had shocking pink at the top. This was dropped when the flag went into mass production by the Paramount Flag Company. Hot pink is very 2021, but in 1978 fabric in that colour was virtually unobtainable. Baker accepted this — after all, hadn’t Betsy Ross changed Washington’s idea of six-pointed stars to five-pointed ones, which were easier (and so cheaper) to cut? — and next year streamlined the colours to six. It’s still too many.

I have only heard one gay person say this. You can actually hear the shock from her audience when the lesbian comedian — and art historian — Hannah Gadsby admits that she doesn’t care for the Pride flag. ‘I love what it means, that is perfect. Pride. Wonderful. But the flag itself? Bit busy.’ She can’t be the only person in the LGBT community with any visual sense, surely?

The flag has become busier still with its latest redesign. Activists don’t understand that flags have meaning because they are flags; the meaning doesn’t come from the component parts, as if it were a map with a key. Everyone knows the design of the Union Flag is a combination of the flags of England, Scotland and Ireland. But when the Irish Free State was established in 1922, there was no movement to remove the Saltire of St Patrick from the Union Flag. The suggestion was rightly ignored by Garter King of Arms, the sovereign’s principal adviser on flags since 1415.

There is no reason to suppose that, if Scotland does obtain independence, we shall lose the Saltire of St Andrew — not least because we would, at a distance, be mistaken for Georgia. I am no flag obsessive — I have the reaction of a normal Englishman on seeing the Union Flag: a brief, almost involuntary glance to check that it is hanging the right way up. But I am relying on Garter King of Arms to rise above merely contingent political reality.

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