Flags are an excellent way of identifying things from a distance – Raleigh Choppers parked at the end of a suburban street – for example. Flags are especially excellent ways of identifying things that can change ownership – like castles, parliaments, borders – anything of strategic significance during times of warfare, times when you need a rough and ready way of letting people in the distance know who is now inside the building (so back off), or on the other side of the border (or we will shoot you). White flags of surrender are also useful. But these days, what flags seem to be really good at, is attracting controversy.
For reasons unknown and unfathomable to a large percentage of the New Zealand population, we as New Zealanders are currently being asked to design a new national flag. The current flag was first used on New Zealand ships in 1869 and became New Zealand’s official national flag in 1902, and there are great reasons for keeping it as it is. It’s an honest depiction of our past, for one thing. But does it really represent contemporary New Zealand? Or is there a better way of depicting our bicultural past – or of symbolising our multicultural present? While these issues are gaining traction, the most controversy a flag has brought to New Zealand was probably in 1845, when Hone Heke cut down a flagpole displaying the British flag – and it wasn’t because he didn’t like the design.
Oddly in synch with New Zealand politics, the USA is also debating flag appropriateness, but for somewhat different reasons. When Dylann Roof recently killed nine at the African American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he did so in an attempt to reignite the American Civil War. He did so to honour the ‘confederate’ flag, a flag flown across America, and a flag which is a relic from the American Civil War. As Sidney Blumenthal describes it, the confederate flag is an “ensign of a slaveholders’ republic, revived a century later as the symbol of massive resistance to civil rights, [which] became an iconic code for the Republicans’ Southern strategy.’ That is, the ‘confederate’ flag is associated with racial oppression, and as such Americans are currently arguing for its removal from public buildings.
In response to the push to have the confederate flag removed, Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association, recently declared ‘if we come to the point where we say any flag that represents bigotry, any flag that represents hatred, any flag that represents slavery or oppression needs to be removed, then I want to suggest to you that the next flag to go ought to be the rainbow flag of the Gay Reich.’
The rainbow flag has, of course, become a widespread symbol of pride for LGBTIQ communities. The Charlotte Museum Trust has a rainbow flag within its collection. But who knew – or remembers – that “hot pink stood for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise blue for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit.” Rather than being uniquely ‘gay’, or collectively queer, the rainbow flag was designed to symbolise the kinds of things that any 1970s free-spirit would aspire to embracing. The flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in the late 1970s to replace the pink triangle popularly used at the time. The pink triangle, much like the confederate flag (and Bryan Fischer’s remarks), has its origins in oppression and hatred, where the pink triangle was the symbol used by Nazi Germany to stigmatize homosexual men. While the pink triangle had been reclaimed by gay communities as a symbol of identity, the rainbow became the official symbol of gay activism after San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978.
While our government insists we reassess our national flag here in New Zealand, I wonder if we might reassess our LGBTIQ flag in New Zealand too. Like any exercise in rebranding, the shift to a rainbow flag in 1978 obscured one thing in favour of another – it shifted our gaze from the pink triangle of bigoted hatred, to a rainbow of joyful resistance. Changing the flag of course, didn’t actually make bigoted hatred go away.
Moreover, since the rainbow flag became widespread, variants appeared for bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality, among others. Lesbians have also used interlocked female symbols on their flags instead of rainbows. The Charlotte Museum Trust has one of these, too.
However the full rainbow flag remains the symbol most synonymous with LGBTIQ pride across New Zealand. Any regional festival proves as much. But should it? Does a rainbow of joyful resistance still work in 2015?
And more importantly, does a flag originating with 1970s American gay activism, best symbolise LGBTIQ pride in New Zealand in the 2010s? Is it time we jumped on board the flag wagon and reassessed our own symbols? Or should we keep the rainbow… just so people like Bryan Fischer can see when the Gay Reich have stormed the castle.
The Charlotte Museum Trust welcomes information about flags used in New Zealand as part of lesbian activism over the years, if you have photos, even better! Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have information to share, and don’t forget to follow us on our facebook page.