The Lesbian Pride Flag Has A Long And Complex History

·6 min read
The Lesbian Pride Flag Has A Long And Complex History


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By now, you're likely familiar with the six-color rainbow pride flag, created by Gilbert Baker. It represents the LGBTQ community all year long, but it’s especially visible in June during Pride month when the rainbow is flag flown outside shop windows, adorns shirts, gets incorporated into brand labels and even food packaging.

A prominent emblem, its prevalence has made it instantly recognizable. "A true flag is torn from the soul of the people," Baker told CBS Chicago in 2012. "A flag is something that everyone owns and that’s why they work. The Rainbow Flag is like other flags in that sense, it belongs to the people."

Though the rainbow flag aimed to celebrate the queer community as a whole, not everyone was represented. "There is a history within the queer community of [that flag] not fully recognizing the needs of people with different identities," explains Chelsea Del Rio, co-chair on the Committee on LGBT History and associate professor of history at LaGuardia Community College. Recently, more inclusive iterations of the iconic flag have come into popularity, including those with additional stripes to represent the transgender community and people of color. "There was a need to create flags to indicate that the queer community reflects everybody who claims a queer identity," Del Rio adds.

Still, that doesn't mean LGBTQ pride flags start and end at the many variations of the rainbow one.

Thanks to the age of the internet, says Del Rio, flags celebrating specific communities of queer people have come into popularity throughout the aughts, including those honoring transgender, asexual, bisexual, genderqueer, and pansexual people. The lesbian community is no exception—in fact, there have been multiple iterations of lesbian pride flags created.

What is the most common lesbian pride flag?

Photo credit: nndanko - Getty Images
Photo credit: nndanko - Getty Images

An online search will likely bring up images of what's known as the "lipstick lesbian flag," referring to lesbians who present traditionally feminine. Like the pride flag, it's striped, but instead of an assortment of colors, it features various shades of pink and purple. Sometimes, it features a lipstick imprint in the upper left corner.

"The lipstick lesbian flag came to be in 2010," says Del Rio. While it's among the most recognizable of the lesbian pride flags, it still isn't widely used. "The concern was that it only represents femme-presenting lesbians," she explains, because the colors were drawn from shades of lipstick without any other notable significance to the community. Many were concerned about it excluding butch, non-femme, and androgynous lesbians.

This flag first appeared on a blog, prompting additional concerns about the creator's political views, notes Del Rio. "I've seen references to problematic and concerning statements that the creator had made," she says, referring to reports of biphobic and racist comments the creator posted online and has since deleted. "There is enough concern about the position of the creator to knock [this flag] out of contention to be the lesbian flag—with or without the lips on it."

Were there changes made to that flag?

There were. In an effort to be more inclusive, the pink and purple flag got a redesign in 2018. Using the lipstick lesbian flag as a starting point, the updated version includes shades of orange. "The creator [of this flag], [Emily Gwen], gave each stripe a specific meaning," says Del Rio.

The top red stripe represents "gender non-conformity," while the orange stripe below that is for "independence." Next, the light orange stripe honors "community," followed by white symbolizing "unique relationships to womanhood," pink for "serenity and peace," mauve for "love and sex," and lastly, magenta for "femininity."

This version, Del Rio adds, is likely the most modern take on the lesbian flag.

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Which is the first lesbian pride flag?

Created in 1999 by Sean Campbell, a cisgender gay man, the Labrys Lesbian Pride Flag is commonly referred to as the oldest lesbian flag. "My understanding is he was putting together a series of flags to represent different communities," says Del Rio.

And though the creator wasn't a lesbian, the flag's symbolism is rooted in lesbian history and referenced significant lesbian imagery. The labrys is front and center since, in the 1970s, it was a popular lesbian feminist symbol. The black triangle represents the Holocaust and the triangles Nazis used to mark lesbians in concentration camps.

Photo credit: Ecelop
Photo credit: Ecelop

The concerns raised with this flag, says Del Rio, is that it was created by a man, and "there's been resistance in using imagery that is rooted in the Holocaust, and there's also a concern about that flag being used by trans-exclusionary lesbians or trans-exclusionary feminists."

But Del Rio points out that this last concern might not be rooted in fact. It speaks to the stereotype that lesbian feminists of the '70s were uniformly exclusionary when it came to transgender women. "That is not, in fact, the case," she says. "Some were, but some were inclusive of trans women."

Why isn't the lesbian flag as popular as the pride or transgender flags?

"There seems to be a concern with inclusion," says Del Rio. In conversations, she has learned a number of people prefer the Progress Flag, another revision of the pride flag designed by Daniel Quasar in 2018. It includes white, pink, and light blue in honor of trans folks and brown and black for people of color and those lost to AIDS.

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"There were other concerns raised about flags representing nationalism; there were concerns about having standardized flags and being able to commodify lesbian pride. Others were just unaware entirely of these flags," Del Rio adds. The lack of a strong pull to adopt a lesbian flag, she says, varies.

Want to learn more about LGBTQ Pride Month? Here's everything to know:

Which flag is THE lesbian pride flag?

Short answer: None. It's unlikely that you'll find any polar identification with any specific lesbian flag, Del Rio says.

But, she does point out a common thread between the most recognizable lesbian flags: the color purple. "[Purple] plays a significant role across time and across community," Del Rio explains. "Lavender or purple has a long history as a color that represents queer folks. There are many, many, many, many different roots for that. Some reference the poetry of Sappho and her referencing violets, to effeminate cultural practitioners in the 19th century." There was also a slur used in the late '60s and early '70s that referred to lesbians as "lavender menaces." It was reclaimed and adopted by lesbian activists, Del Rio says.

She also notes that, more recently, lavender and purple have taken on a new significance as the colors that blur the lines of attraction and identity since they're a mix of the often gendered colors, pink and blue or red and blue.

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