The Pride Flag Has a Representation Problem

Since its debut, the symbol has had several redesigns in the name of inclusion. But some fear that the changes are merely for the sake of branding, absent material steps toward real equality.

A graphic of three different versions of the Pride flag flying together against a light-blue backdrop
Flags are political symbols, borrowed from the vocabulary of nationalism, with similar overtones of citizenship, belonging, borders. (Getty / The Atlantic)

Since its first flight at 1978’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco, the rainbow flag has evolved multiple times. That earliest iteration included pink and turquoise stripes, symbolizing sex and art, respectively—parts of queer life that the designers thought were worth fighting for. Later that year, though, the flag lost its pink stripe because of fabric unavailability at the local manufacturer, and turquoise fell off the year after for the same reason. The now-familiar six-stripe flag is actually a redesign.

When I was young and newly out of the closet, around 2013, I saw LGBTQ flags for every community imaginable online, including esoteric variants, such as the green, black, white, and grey aromantic flag, and a pale pink and yellow flag for slim, hairless 20-something twinks. In 2017, Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs introduced black and brown stripes to the Pride flag to recognize queer and trans people of color. One year later, the Oregon-based graphic designer Daniel Quasar added the trans flag’s stripes as a horizontal chevron to make the Progress Pride Flag. And this year brought another version from Intersex Equality Rights UK, featuring a yellow triangle and purple circle to represent the intersex community, or people born with a reproductive anatomy that doesn’t fit typical male or female definitions.

Flags are political symbols, borrowed from the vocabulary of nationalism, with similar overtones of citizenship, belonging, borders. They represent what the historian Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities”—self-constituted entities, united less by shared experiences than by shared beliefs in shared experiences. “Flags as symbols facilitate sociality between strangers, inviting community between people who may never actually meet,” Elliott Tilleczek, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto who is researching queer activism, told me. Tilleczek argued that expanding the symbolic range of the Pride flag, for example, can have real-world effects, enhancing intra- and intercommunal bonds by creating a sense of belonging: “Shared symbols … can interpolate people into a collective sense of community.”

But having a Pride flag to represent us contributes to the controversial idea that there is an us to represent. And despite the flag’s noble intentions, its latest iteration garnered plenty of online vitriol. The queer people I spoke with conveyed mixed emotions about the flag’s many versions and whether they succeed at stitching together the community. “I celebrate adding new colors to the Pride flag, especially when those colors remind us to center historically marginalized … members of the queer community,” Ari Monts, a 30-year-old religious educator based in Texas, told me. “People want to feel seen, and we should let them.” Still, Monts worries that this change may be mere performance, creating the impression of inclusion without real commitment. “Part of me,” Monts said, “hopes that it is a step towards a more liberatory queerness that rejects homonormativity and all the nonsense that comes with it.”

Natalia Shmueli, a 25-year-old tech entrepreneur in Tennessee shares Monts’s skepticism. “I am happy to see intersex health care being taken more seriously within medical contexts,” she told me, referring to the ongoing fight to end surgeries forced on people born with intersex characteristics. “Still, I don’t think cutesy flags actually highlight anything for LGBT [people] other than [making] us look kitschy and marketable.” Shmueli argued that tacking the intersex symbol on to the Pride flag inaccurately lumps intersex issues together with the broader LGBTQ imagined community, noting that the experiences of intersex people are often invoked without context or complexity, ultimately benefiting no one.

Valentine Amari, a 21-year-old New England–based artist from Los Angeles, is also ambivalent. “I’m between ‘not everything needs a flag’ and ‘flags in resistance to capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy and white supremacy are useful and powerful for the people waving them,’” she wrote to me in an email. I got similar comments from Will Damarjian, a 21-year-old student from Utah. Damarjian was raised Mormon, and when they were younger, the flag was a valuable symbol for them. “I think the flags … are pretty ugly,” they told me. “But in Utah, the ugly is sometimes all we got.”

Pride flags and parades are seen as symbolically representative of the queer community’s fight for liberation. However, as more corporate sponsorships leak into the festivities, some people see the events as being at odds with the historical movement and the rainbow flag’s progressive ethos. Amari told me that she loves Pride as a time to celebrate her queer ancestors and continue their political work. However, the predominantly white and cisgender nature of many mainstream Pride events leaves her feeling physically unsafe and politically isolated. Damarjian expressed similar concerns, pointing to partnerships between the Utah Pride Center and arms manufacturers, such as L3Harris and Northrop Grumman, as well as companies such as Wells Fargo, which invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline.

These issues reflect long-standing contention over the use of Pride’s official symbols for the sake of “pinkwashing,” the deployment of ostensibly LGBTQ-friendly discourse by corporations and governments to obscure their participation in oppression and occupation. This includes military contractors going rainbow as a PR-friendly spin, and former presidential candidates like Pete Buttigieg slapping the anti-racist Philadelphia flag on their 2020 campaign merch while supporting policies that endanger Black and brown people.

That contradiction between the progressiveness that the Pride flag purportedly represents and the material violence it often hides also connects to the much-disputed role of police at Pride events. One year before the city of Philadelphia unveiled its flag, Black Lives Matter Toronto staged a protest at its local 2016 parade, demanding meaningful inclusion for people of color and an end to police participation. Pro-police factions retaliated, Toronto Pride wavered, but BLM eventually won, which sparked further anti-police-presence protests at parades throughout Canada and the U.S. In 2021, after years of pressure from anti-racism and anti-poverty organizers who argued that police presence endangered LGBTQ people and betrayed Pride’s radical roots, NYC Pride finally agreed to exclude police floats. But permanently removing the police and military from Pride events remains an uphill battle.

This is a common Pride-time problem—in which “inclusion” and “community” are invoked for the sake of branding, absent material steps toward safety and equality. Historically and today, the movements that birthed Pride were criminalized, radical, and led by organizers living in poverty. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the mythic heroes of Stonewall, were sex workers and anti-imperialists. They both militantly resisted police brutality. Rivera was banned from reformist institutions and even publicly booed when she spoke out about the plight of queer people in jail. She also warned of those she called “normal homosexuals,” who eschewed fighting capitalism in favor of assimilation into the professional class.

The historical reality of queer struggle is lost in Pride’s whitewashed corporate branding, which is remarkably apolitical on the issues that matter to the most marginalized people in the LGBTQ community: affordable housing and health care, sex-work decriminalization, and an end to policing and incarceration. “I don’t mind the constantly amended Pride flags,” Shmueli said. “But I find that they’ve become increasingly corporate in nature in more recent years. They’re less now a symbol of LGBT liberation and more about being a product to sell.” As long as some queer people are made to feel second to corporate interests and assimilationist politics, real inclusion will always be out of reach. Focusing on the flag is a great start. But it is just the start.