It’s that time of year again when LGBTQs (and rainbow capitalists) trot out the the rainbow Pride flags to celebrate Pride Month. And with that ritual comes the perennial debate about the proper way to display the Pride flag: red stripe on top? Or bottom?
This year, we need to fly the rainbow Pride flag upside down. To signal our national distress.
The first rainbow Pride flags were hand-dyed and sewn of cotton muslin by Lynn Segerblom, James McNamara, Gilbert Baker and other volunteers in San Francisco in 1978. They were first flown over the city’s Civic Center Plaza and United Nations Plaza on June 25, 1978 for the city’s Gay Freedom Day Parade. Earlier that year Harvey Milk had been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Gay Freedom Day planning committee knew all eyes would be on the city as it celebrated the 10 years since the Stonewall Uprising. So, it commissioned the flags as an art project.
There were two different original rainbow Pride flags. One with eight horizontal stripes of equal width colored hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, aqua blue, royal blue, violet. The other mimicked the American flag with the eight stripes plus a blue field with white stars, and a silver and gold lamé star on the aqua stripe for “a touch of glitter.”
The eight stripes were later assigned meaning, the concepts of sex, life, healing, sun, serenity with nature, art, harmony, and spirit. For reasons related to the logistics of display and limitations of commercial reproduction, the hot pink and aqua blue stripes were eliminated, producing the rainbow Pride flag as it appears today.
Segerblom later recounted how the two original flags reversed the order of the stripes. The ‘stars and stripes’ flag had a violet stripe at the top and hot pink at the bottom. The other flag had the pink stripe at the top and the violet at the bottom. However, the few surviving pictures from the raising of the 30' x 60' flags clearly show both were flown with the pink stripe at the bottom.
So, from the beginning, there appears to have been confusion about the proper way to fly the rainbow Pride flag.
Over the years, a consensus has emerged that the proper way to fly the rainbow flag is with red stripe at the top and violet at the bottom. Proponents argue this reflects the appearance of a natural rainbow, formed when sunlight is refracted and dispersed by water in the air. And they’re right.
But this is a year when the rainbow Pride flag should be flown “improperly.” Upside down. With the red stripe at the bottom.
Historically, in the U.S. and U.K., flying an upside-down flag was convention under maritime law to signal “ship in distress.” At a time when the number, kind, and arrangement of flags flown on a ship could convey complex information, an inverted flag told all who saw it that a ship was in need of assistance.
And, this Pride Month, America is nothing if not in distress.
108,000 COVID-19 deaths (and counting), mass unemployment and collapse of the U.S. economy from stay-at-home orders, creeping authoritarianism by a government elected by a minority, economic inequality that hasn’t been seen since the Gilded Age, horrific police violence against those protesting police killings of African-Americans and the media covering the protests — the nation is experiencing multiple, simultaneous, collective traumas. We’re in trouble, on a number of fronts.
This Pride Month, festivals and parades have been canceled or postponed around the country to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Christopher Street West has announced a Black Lives Matter march in lieu of L.A.’s annual pride parade. I hope other Pride festival/parade organizers follow suit. And even if authorities won’t issue parade permits, I hope they march anyway. Thousands of people in the streets don’t need a permit. They just need the will. And leadership.
And when we march, we should fly the rainbow Pride flag upside down. Red stripe at the bottom. To signal our national distress. We’re a ship in trouble.
And we need help.
Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019).