With Pride Month just around the corner, we take a closer look at the proliferation of the rainbow flag and study its sincerity in the continuing efforts of equality for the LGBT community and not just as a one-time bandwagon deal.
“We sewed ourselves, a thread’s width, into your history.” (David Levithan, Two Boys Kissing)
It wasn’t the cropped top, the shorter-than-short iridescent shorts, or the unapologetic wash of warm copper with a frost finish painted on my face that made me prouder to stand amongst the sea of equally out, loud, and courageous souls gathered in solidarity to celebrate Metro Manila Pride at the Marikina Sports Center last year, but rather, it was the medium-sized pride flag I had fashioned into a cape that bolstered me into feeling, for lack of a better word, super. Sure, everyone else had an iteration of the rainbow flag either sewn into the seams of their threads, drawn on their faces, and for most, passionately waving it with all their might for all to see and feel.
There was certainly no lack of outpouring support and solidarity, where everyone from shy and tentative first-timers, gregarious gaggles of friends, and big-time brands and multinational companies draped themselves in the rainbow flag, pledging unity in the long-standing struggle for equality. It all seems well and good, you would assume, especially since this was at its essential, a coming together for a singular, all-encompassing goal, however, one can’t help but wonder if everyone is, as the seminal classic song from High School Musical reminds us, all in it together—for the same, right reasons.
While the rainbow flag stands to be a symbol of hope, beauty, and love, carried by fierce and fabulous fighters, and sassy soldiers of the cause, to be seen, heard, and more importantly, felt, it also functions as that initial interface, that binding force that envelopes one into the fold or safe space from where it proudly waves. Tracing its origins in the human rights challenged era of the late 1960s (although it can be argued that the current timeline doesn’t stray too far from this sad past), the pride flag was borne out of a challenge from the late Harvey Milk, activist, early proponent of the LGBTQ+ movement, and first openly gay elected official in the history of California, to activist and artist, Gilbert Baker. “Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth, as I say, to get out of the lie,” he says in an interview. “A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, ‘This is who I am!’”
More than just something meant to identify with, the flying of the first pride flag on June 25, 1978, was a metaphor meant to embolden a population that was being pushed way off the margins of humanity. “It’s not about personal gain, it’s not about ego, it’s not about power, it’s about giving those young people out there hope,’” Milk said. By taking something so natural as the rainbow, one that many have looked to as a realization of pure, unadulterated happiness, we have essentially, by virtue of Harvey Milk and Gilbert Baker, made it into our own empowering symbol for people who were otherwise given no choice but to hide in the shadows replete of any color. “A true flag cannot be designed,” Baker affirms. “It has to be torn from the souls of the people.”
And so it did, and still continues to do so today. However, some people, whether we like to admit it or not, see a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, which is something we should be more careful and mindful of, especially in the days leading up to the celebration of Pride Month across the globe.
Pretty much like clockwork, brands and companies will be rolling out their efforts to unite with the LGBTQ+ community, offering pride-inspired collections and merchandises, as well as splashing the rainbow on decals, designs, and deliberately anything to encourage a sense of diversity and inclusivity. The efforts are laudable, sure. I mean, who doesn’t want to wear pride on their sleeves? But this should be taken with a grain of salt, forcing us to look in much closer and asking pertinent questions like: Are they doing this for us or themselves?
Privilege, preferences, points-of-view aside, pride is meant for all. However, if it only benefits the machinations of a select few, then that is up for serious debate. Slapping on a rainbow doesn’t instantly make you an ally; it is but a conduit to the wounds that run deep, the struggles yet to be overcome, and the parity that is to this day elusive. “There is no objection to company having Pride products or campaigns,” voices out Steven Taylor, founder of UK Pride Network. “But it’s about being ethical when doing it.”
There is no denying that the pink currency (in our case, the pink peso) moves, shakes, and cuts across multiple money-making industries, which is why there is a hot contention for its attention. The necessary thing for us to, as a community, is to safeguard the rainbow and everything it represents, making sure its history, values and meaning isn’t bought out by capitalist ventures that is opportunistic and one-sided. “[People] have to get to the core of why there is a need to have a Pride March,” says Thysz Estrada, Trustee of Metro Manila Pride. “Imagine, there is a marginalized group of people that need a march just to be proud of their existence. This doesn’t happen if we all acknowledged that ALL humans, regardless of race, sex, gender or creed have rights.”
It certainly is admirable when different brands and companies come together for the LGBTQ+ community with merchandise and manifestations of pride. Labels such as Converse, Dr. Martens, Under Armour, and H&M, have yearly pride packs during the month of June, all of which forms a cumulative campaign that anchors on acknowledging similarities, celebrating differences, and asserting a right to love and live. It’s proliferation in the market does a lot of good, especially with raising awareness and drilling the message to the mainstream consciousness that is still, for the most part, misinformed. “A badge to affirm one’s struggle to be recognized and have a place in the world, is still important,” recognizes Thysz. “The rainbow is a symbol of unity in diversity, and when we do wear or present it, it becomes a way to show or gain support.”
This support, however, has to be made for the benefit of the LGBTQ+ community, and not the deep pockets of a few. The plight of our brothers and sisters in resistance isn’t a prize to be won, nor is it singularly a form of corporate social responsibility. If you are going to stitch a rainbow, hot press “Love is love,” or light up your premises with the spectrum of the rainbow, then you have to make sure that proceeds go to independent organizations doing the great and tireless work of supporting and sustaining LGBTQ+ causes and efforts all year round. We should be aware enough to not fall trap to the cycle of capitalist exchange, but rather, we can turn it on its head, and compel its currency to be one that is geared towards tangible and long-lasting change. The aforementioned brands, for example, have all, to a degree, portioned the would-be profits of their pride collections, which will be donated to community-focused organizations such as the It Gets Better Project (Converse), OutRight Action International (Levi’s), United Nations Free & Equal Campaign (H&M), The Trevor Project (Dr. Martens), and Athlete Ally (Under Armour).
The pride flag isn’t a hot ticket item to the talk of the town, it is everything from the origin of identity, a first line of defense, and a lifetime commemoration of every aching, painful, and life-consuming struggle the brave souls of the movement have incurred for us to be able to wave the flag to our hearts content during Pride Month and even well beyond that. It is through its riveting colors that we are reminded of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going from this point forward. With full knowledge of the meaning behind what we’ve been given, it will prove to be unavoidable that the visual will be peddled, manufactured, and positioned for so many different reasons other than what it is meant to, but by protecting its seams and colors, and pushing the persisting narrative forward until liberties are equal for all, only then can the respect be rightfully earned from the community it was made for.
There isn’t a scene more empowering than seeing a sea of people, drenched in sweat and glitter, smiles plastered on from ear-to-ear, unified in their own permutations of the rainbow. It really doesn’t get old, the swelling sense of pride that quite honestly brings tears to my eyes year after year. Here we have people who have nothing but courage to be themselves and stand in camaraderie with the rest, showing the world: This Is Me. This Is Us.
“[The rainbow] is a celebration of our existence, yes, but most of all, a protest so that someday we won’t need to be in the streets,” concludes Thysz, reiterating that the pride flag, and the products and brands it inspires isn’t just for lip-service. It is a constant, conscious reminder to reassert and reaffirm our rights as human beings, because just like everyone else, we deserve a life without resistance.
Looking back, I wish I had picked up the flag way earlier than I did, which I purchased as part of a local organization’s efforts to drum up hype and gather funds for the Metro Manila Pride March. It isn’t so much the monetary aspect that gives it value. Truth be told, I could care less of its fiscal worth, because as simple as it may be, the hope, promise, and life it holds is far greater than all the world’s money combined. Today, the rainbow flag hangs by the headrest of my bed, serving as a constant reminder when I get up that my struggles aren’t singular. Weather and nature notwithstanding, I see the rainbow every day, showing me that despite the grim and glum of the world we live in today, we can stand together and make life more colorful, happier and prouder just by being our true selves. And no amount of money and marketing can ever buy that or take it away from us.
If anyone asks, I will be wearing the pride flag as a cape again this year, because much like the first time it waved freely almost 41 years ago, there is definitely no turning back to the community that it stands for.
This is for all of us.