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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Under the rainbow: How the pride flag really began

With pride months growing in popularity all over the world, the sight of the rainbow flag is becoming ever more present in today's society.
If you ask the average person what the rainbow flag stands for, they will probably tell you gay rights- or gay pride. But most people have no clue how and when the rainbow flag came to be.
Unlike the familiar story of Betsy Ross sewing the stars and stripes of our American flag, the origin of the rainbow flag is somewhat lost in history.

The story begins back in June of 1969. Judy Garland had just died, and The Stonewall riots were happening. Watching all of this unfold, openly gay artist and activist Gilbert Baker subconciously began to associate the rainbow with the gay rights movement.
Gilbert didn't have the idea create the flag right away, from 1970-1972 he was busy serving in the US Army, stationed in San Fransisco. After his honorable discharge, he began to teach himself how to sew and quickly put his new skill to use by making banners for anti-war and gay rights protests. In 1974 he met and became close friends with Harvey Milk, the cities first openly gay elected official.

Fast forward to 1978. Harvey Milk calls upon Baker to create a symbol for the gay community to be used in the city's annual parade. Baker begins to brainstorm, combining his imagery of Judy singing "Over The Rainbow" with other symbolism including the WWI victory medal, and the Flag Of The Races which was prominent in the hippie movement.
Like the Flag Of Races, the rainbow flag would share horizontal stripes, each holding a meaning. But unlike the Flag Of Races, Bakers flag would have eight stripes vs five.

The meaning of the original flags colors were as follows: HOT PINK: Sexuality, RED: Life, ORANGE: Healing, YELLOW: Sunlight, GREEN: Nature, TURQUOISE: Magic & Art, BLUE: Serenity & Harmony, VIOLET: Spirit.

Baker has since said We needed something that expressed us. The rainbow really fits that, in terms of: we’re all the colors, and all the genders and all the races. It’s a natural flag; The rainbow is in the sky and it’s beautiful. It’s a magical part of nature.”

The rainbow flag made it's debut in the San Fransisco's Freedom Day Parade on June 25th, 1978. Like modern day Betsy Ross's, over thirty volunteers huddled in the attic of San Francisco's Gay Community Center. For hours on end, they worked together to hand stitch and dye the very first two massive rainbow flags. 

It took a tragic event however, for this flag to gain popularity. On November 27, 1978 Harvey Milk was assassinated. The grief stricken LGBT community sought out the flag as a symbol of unity during this sad time. Orders were in high demand, so the Paramount Flag Company (where Baker now worked) began selling versions made from stock fabric. Due to unavailability of hot pink fabric, Baker made the decision to drop the pink stripe from the flag, leaving it with seven stripes. 

the original eight stripe flag
In 1979 the flag was changed again. When it was hung vertically from the lamp posts on Market Street, the center stripe became totally hidden. Changing the design to an even six stripes was an easy way to fix this. The turquoise stripe was dropped, leaving us with the famous six stripped flag that we see today. Baker refers to this flag as the "commercial version", because it came to be due to production demands.  For the 1979 Freedom Day Parade, they were now able to split the colors onto two flags, flying them on alternate sides of the street. 

The rainbow flag has taken on a life of it's own over years, since it's early incarnations. It notably came to nationwide attention during the 1989 case of John Stout. Stout sued his landlords and won, for attempting to prohibit him from displaying the flag from his West Hollywood balcony. During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, activists added a black stripe to the flags, calling it the "Victory Over Aids Flag". They suggested that when a cure was found, the black stripes should be removed and burned. 

The 1.25 mile flag displayed in Key West, 2003
Baker went on to design many other flags for events like The Superbowl, Democratic National Convention, and for Presidents and Kings of other countries. In 1994 Baker was called upon to create the world's largest rainbow flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. This was recreated in Key West in 2003, with all original eight stripes and stretched a mile and a quarter. 

The rainbow flag is now proudly flown all over the world as a symbol of gay pride, and the fight for LGBT equality  that continues today. It is now available in thousands of variations and forms, including the original eight stripe version. Just this week, an important recognition was given to Baker, when MOMA acquired the six stripe rainbow flag as part of it's design collection.  

Looking back, Baker says “It all goes back to the first moment of the first flag back in 1978 for me. Raising it up and seeing it there blowing in the wind for everyone to see. It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightening – that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us. It was the most thrilling moment of my life. Because I knew right then that this was the most important thing I would ever do – that my whole life was going to be about the Rainbow Flag.”

Monday, June 22, 2015

Taking back the pride march

Lady Bunny once said: "I'm from New York City, where the Pride parade is often viewed as a marketing opportunity for Red Bull and Sprint, who hire straight bodybuilders to dance on their floats. The organizers, Heritage of Pride, have now copyrighted "NYC Pride" and every configuration of it and are suing local promoters who dare to mention Pride on their invites. Copyrighting Pride, which belongs to all of us?"

The very first march in 1970 was not made to be an advertisement. It was a radical movement. There were no corporate sponsors because being gay was illegal. Sadly, pride in big cities like LA and NYC has truly lost it's original heart and rebellion. It is more of a celebration and less of the political statement that it should be. While I think it is a wonderful thing that we no longer have to riot for basic gay rights, we still have a long, long way to go before LGBTQ is truly accepted. Gay marriage is still not legal in every state- (update-as of June 26th we have victory on this front!), gay parents are being denied adoption, places like Indiana won't serve gay people pizza, and given the Caitlyn Jenner reaction in the past month, most of America still does is not able to comprehend what it is like to be Transgender. So have we really come far enough to be having a six hour ticker tape, parade of victory before the war is won?

I've experienced NYC's over six hour, endless march of corporate advertising in person. Instead of feeling pride, I felt accosted by the many promo flyers I was handed trying to get me to buy things, or go to happy hour for $17 rainbow martinis afterwards. All of the advertising overshadowed the real gay community in the parade. In fact, no one in the gay community can be in NYC Pride unless they work for someone sponsoring a float, or are part of a nonprofit. A march that started out for the people, by the people has become an elite only inclusive event. 
The march is no longer 100% spirited, proud LBGT marchers- like those who founded this event. Instead the amazing drag queens, artistic hand made costumes, dance troupes, non profits and bands are eaten alive by monstrous hoards of corporate floats. 

While it is a great thing that we have come to a point that workplaces are recognizing gay rights and employees in parades, many of them do not "put their money where their mouth is all year round." in supporting LGBT. 
The cost to be in the NYC pride march is pocket change to most companies. (A price chart is below) Even so, you NEVER see them sponsoring the march without putting in a big ass float, and sending loads of straight people wearing t shirts with their company's logo. If they care more about gay rights than advertising and logo placement, why do they need to put a float in the parade at all? Why not just donate the money to support the cause? 

Obviously, because it's more about PR than pride at the end of the day. Everyone knows you can't slap a dollar sign on personal pride, but don't be naive- that pride is valued up to a certain $ in any corporation. It is a tax write off after all. No one wants to look bigoted by not being represented in pride weeks, so the will slap some rainbow flags on a truck and celebrate equality as if the victory has happened. It hasn't. 

Pride serves a larger purpose for corporate and politicians agendas. They use their donation and participation to "pinkwash"- a PR tactic to label the entity "LBGTQ friendly" and incite purchases from the community. 
So how did we get from Stonewall riots to the commercialized march that you see today? It's been quite a journey. Back then LGBT lived in a time when the act of homosexual sex, even in private homes, was punishable by a light fine, 20 years in prison, or even a life sentence. 

I'm sure most of you know the story of what happened at The Stonewall Inn on June 28th, 1968.
June 28, 1969
Bottles and pennies were thrown at the police, followed by bricks. The crowd outside had grown to almost 600 and the police were outnumbered. Fearing for their safety they barricaded themselves inside The Stonewall. By the end of the riot, the streets had been cleared, 13 people had been arrested and almost everything inside The Stonewall had been smashed.

News of the riot spread faster than a trending tweet. Over the next few nights, thousands of people gathered at and outside The Stonewall which had reopened. Street battles, looting, fires and arrests ensued. It was described by one witness as "Vietnam on Christopher Street". When it ended, gay people lay beaten, bleeding and wounded all over. 

In November following the riots, activist Craig Rodwell had an idea. His proposal read:
"That the Annual Reminder, in order to be more relevant, reach a greater number of people, and encompass the ideas and ideals of the larger struggle in which we are engaged-that of our fundamental human rights-be moved both in time and location.
We propose that a demonstration be held annually on the last Saturday in June in New York City to commemorate the 1969 spontaneous demonstrations on Christopher Street and this demonstration be called CHRISTOPHER STREET LIBERATION DAY. No dress or age regulations shall be made for this demonstration."
Brenda Howard (known as the "mother of Pride) was largely responsible for organizing the first march, and is the reason it happens on a Sunday every year. She argued that more people would come out on a Sunday vs Saturday. She also had the idea to make a series of week long events around the march. The term "Pride" was actually coined by Howard, along with activists Robert Martin and L. Craig Scoonmaker. Pride would be used as the key word to help popularize the weeklong events.

So, on June 28th, 1970 the first ever LGBT march in U.S. history happened. A group of brave gay men, women and drag queens gathered to begin the march toward Central Park As they walked the 51 blocks, something amazing happened. They were met with little to no adversity. Hundreds and then thousands of people joined the march. No one was sponsored by Coke or Pepsi. No one had to pay to be a part of the Christopher Street Liberation Day march.

The original marches were powerful. They had something huge to fight for-basic civil rights.  Banners were made to represent gay dads, gay moms, bisexual women and more. The march was rebellious in spirit- and for the people, by the people. In the following years cities all over the country followed NYC's lead and began to have their own marches.

In 1984 an organization called Heritage of Pride (HOP) took over all NYC Pride events and disbanded from Christopher Street Liberation Day. They renamed the week "Pridefest" in 1993. 
The march went from being a free event which anyone could participate in, to something organizations had to pay to be a part of. General public could no longer march for free. NYC Pride became trademarked by HOP as if they had invented it. To add insult to injury, nowhere on the official website do they mention Brenda Howard, Craig Rodwell, or the other activists who founded Pride.

above: march advertising collides with its real meaning
Sure, HOP gives back to the LGBT community with they money they make through sponsors, But in my opinion they have not cared to preserve the radical spirit and integrity of the march. They want you to think that you are experiencing the true spirit of pride in the same way Disney Land wants you to think you are in the happiest place on Earth. 
Instead, what you are getting is pre packaged pride in a jar with a company logo. The authenticity is gone forever. 

Thankfully, there are still some events that NYC pride hasn't tainted and retain the radical original spirit of the pride march. 

Dyke March is happening this year on June 27th, 2015. The march starts at Bryant Park, 42nd and 5th at 5PM. 

DRAG MARCH- has happened yearly, since 1993.
It takes place this year on June 26th, 2015 in NYC. Gather at 7PM at Tompkins Square Park (Avenue A and 8th Street). March begins to the Stonewall Inn at 8PM.  

So this year as I search NYC for the original bohemian spirit of pride, I will be skipping any official NYC Pride functions. I challenge you to think outside the box and do the same. Don't let corporate advertising guide your week and pocketbook. 
Celebrate how far we have come this pride week, but don't forget that the war is not over. Never stop fighting for the political and social rights that are still deserved-including pizza in Indiana.