The June forecast calls for plenty of rainbows, regardless of the actual weather. Once a small and highly political gesture of defiance against a government and culture that refused to grant gay and transgender people the same rights and respect as other citizens, Pride Month has become a big, heavily branded celebration of anything connected to any gender or sexual orientation that isn’t conventionally heteronormative.
Some of the rainbow branding veers into the absurd: electric toothbrushes, bottles of wine, CBD oils, hamburgers. Skittles, already rainbow-colored, hilariously decided during 2020’s Pride Month to eliminate all its colors and sell specialty packs full of pale gray candies with the motto, “Only one rainbow matters during Pride.”
That motto isn’t really accurate: There are dozens of different rainbows now. The past few years have seen an explosion of colorful flags allowing ever-more-specific labels for spots on the gender and sexuality spectrums. There are specific flags for lesbians, pansexuals, trans people, asexuals, nonbinary people, kinky people, and more. If you drill down further, you’ll find flags marketed to masculine or feminine lesbians, to specific types of gay men, or to various kink interests. There is more than one flag for asexuals. The familiar rainbow flag itself was revisualized in 2018 to become what’s called the Progress Pride Flag, with additional colors that represent more specific minorities, though the classic version still persists too.
All the marketing reflects the fact that most of America now embraces gay rights. But the past eight years have also brought a socially conservative backlash. There is a loud and concerted effort to push all these rainbow flags (and the ideas they represent) out of schools, libraries, and the public square.
Sexual minorities aren’t the only ones who love to wave identity flags. At the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021, U.S. flags were in abundance, but so were Confederate flags and Gadsden flags, among others.
In times of war, sales of national flags skyrocket amid public shows of patriotism and unity: They are demonstrations of belonging, of identifying with one’s home. The culture war has brought flag waving of a different kind—not of nations, but of identities and ideologies. As part of that culture war, participants are attempting to use the government to control which flags are permitted to fly.
In Florida, a father is suing to compel his school district to remove rainbow flags and other pride imagery from his son’s classroom because he has religious objections to teaching about LGBT issues in schools. On the other end of the spectrum, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2014 ordered the United States Postal Service to investigate whether an image of the Gadsden flag, with its “don’t tread on me” motto, on a worker’s cap could be evidence of a discriminatory work environment—not because the flag itself stands for racism, but because sometimes white supremacists wave the flag while engaging in racist activities.
At the most basic level, all these flags say, “I am here,” and sometimes, that is itself an act of defiance against state repression. More broadly, these banners represent constituencies trying to influence the government and culture. We should defend their right to wave a flag in the same spirit that we defend their right to speak, even when that flag says something we object to.
These Colors Don’t Run
Gov. Ron DeSantis helped stoke this culture war with laws meant to control how race, gender, and sexual orientation are discussed in schools. In 2022, the Florida Republican fostered two headline-grabbing bills—one commonly called the Stop WOKE Act, which limited how schools and workplaces could teach about systemic racism, and the Parental Rights in Education Act (nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by opponents), which limits how educators can talk about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Both laws now face legal challenges arguing they violate the First Amendment. But a completely different law, a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” passed in 2021, started a flag-related controversy. Francisco Deliu of Wellington, Florida, invoked that law when suing The School District of Palm Beach County over what his 12-year-old son was experiencing at Emerald Cove Middle School. This law gives a parent the right to “direct the education and care of his or her minor child,” the right to shape the child’s religious training, and the right to pursue alternative forms of education, such as a private school, a charter school, or homeschooling.
That sounds very reasonable on paper, but what does it mean in practice? Deliu’s lawsuit, filed in October, claims a computer science teacher hung up two rainbow flags in the classroom, used a search engine in class to find “websites about homosexual lifestyles,” and “proselytized to students in class.” The nature of this proselytizing is not detailed, but Deliu wants it to stop—and he wants the flags removed. He also claims to have sent the school a “straight pride” flag and to have demanded that it also be put up; the school, he says, did not respond.
In January, the district asked a judge to throw the case out. The school board’s lawyer argued that a parent’s rights are not infringed when a child is merely exposed to an opinion that is contrary to the family’s religious values: “It would be virtually impossible for a public school system to have a curriculum and discussion in the classroom every day that was perfectly consistent with the moral or religious beliefs of every single student and their family.”
For Deliu, who describes himself as a libertarian in the lawsuit, the rainbow flag represents the state’s encroachment upon his family. That would be a surprise to the first generation to wave that flag; gays and lesbians have had to fight for decades to convince governments to recognize their right to live as they choose and to create their own families. To many, the flag represents the same thing Deliu demands: self-determination.
That’s one of the challenges of flags. People’s interpretations of a banner can vary widely, depending on whether they think the flag represents or excludes them.
The Miscreant’s Veto
In 2014, Jerad and Amanda Miller barged into a Las Vegas pizza parlor with guns, shouting, “This is a revolution!” They killed two police officers, then draped two flags over one of the bodies—a Gadsden flag and a flag bearing a swastika. The EEOC referenced that event when it decided the U.S. Postal Service should investigate whether a white employee’s Gadsden cap meant a black employee was being subjected to racial harassment.
The complainant insisted the flag was racist because it was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a wealthy slaveholder from South Carolina. But its original meaning had nothing to do with slavery: Gadsden had designed it for naval and military use during the American Revolution. So the Postal Service dismissed the employee’s complaint.
The flag and its motto have struck a chord with a large number of Americans who place a high value on individual liberty, the vast majority of whom have little in common with the Millers. But some racists do wave the Gadsden flag, and the EEOC decided it was possible that the worker wearing the hat was one of them.
To be clear, the agency wasn’t ruling that the employee definitely was racist; it was telling the Postal Service to investigate the possibility. Still, the case raised the possibility that a flag’s meaning, and the legal repercussions of that meaning, could be determined by its worst uses. Call it the miscreant’s veto.
Years after the EEOC’s order, the Gadsden flag’s appearance at the Capitol riot raised the question: Who is the “me” in “Don’t Tread on Me”? The answer, again, depends on who is hoisting the flag. Some Americans clearly care only about government authority when it threatens their own liberty or the liberty of people like them, with no concern for the use of police power against immigrants, the homeless, or people whose ideologies do not match theirs. One Amazon vendor offers a two-pack that includes both the Gadsden flag and a Thin Blue Line flag, a banner that represents support for the police—and, by one widespread interpretation, for aggressive police enforcement.
Just as the market provides for a colorful parade of different pride flags, there are all sorts of variations of the Gadsden flag that more clearly delineate what “Don’t Tread on Me” actually means to the person waving it. Yes, there’s even a rainbow Gadsden flag (several variations of them, in fact). For those who want to make it clear that they really do have a broad view of liberty, there are flags that say “Don’t Tread on Anyone,” some with the familiar snake and some with a porcupine, a mascot associated with the Libertarian Party.
You won’t find the traditional Gadsden flag at Flags For Good, a shop launched in 2020 by vexillologist Michael Green. But you will find a variation where the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto appears not with a rattlesnake, but with a uterus.
Green has been interested in flags since childhood. He traveled a lot as a kid, and he says recognizing different flags helped him “create a sense of place” during his journeys. When he grew up, he studied graphic design, which made his love of flags even stronger. “It’s the simplest form of design, but we have deep emotional connections to these simple designs,” he tells Reason.
“Flags can be good as identity markers,” Green says. “They can help you find your tribe.” But they can also tell you that you don’t belong. Which side of the thin blue line are you on? Does anybody care if you’re the one being trodden upon? So Green decided to create a shop that “only sold flags that promoted inclusion and expression of people’s identity” without anything he sees as signaling exclusion. So there are no Confederate flags and no Thin Blue Line flags. (His lack of traditional Gadsden flags doesn’t stem from this ethos, he says, but from his sense that the market is already saturated with them.)
Green brought up flags’ oppressive authoritarian potential in a TEDx talk in 2019. He noted that Georgia didn’t incorporate Confederate iconography into its state flag until 1956, a gesture of defiance against federally mandated school desegregation that alienated black Georgians. In Nazi Germany, he notes, Jewish citizens were banned in 1935 from flying German flags: “And in this way, the Germans, more than any other time in history, used the dual power of flags to both unite but also to divide. Flags were used as identity weapons.”
Fortunately, few in the U.S. are using flags as symbols for a murderous purge of the out-group. More often, they use them to represent political constituencies. The more flags any particular group is able to bring to bear, the less likely a politician is to ignore them.
Many identity flags are kin to the Gadsden flag. “We’re gay, don’t tread on us.” “We’re black, don’t tread on us.” “We’re Southern, don’t tread on us.” “We’re police, don’t tread on us.” Green notes that the Gadsden flag rebels against one of the five fundamental rules that vexillologists say make for good banners: It has text on it. Yet one reason the flag thrives is exactly because it violates this rule. The slogan resonates, perhaps because it says aloud what other flags leave as subtext: Let me live my life, or I will fight back.
Don’t Tread on Me Either
A new identity flag dropped last November: More than 30,000 polyamorists voted on a new pride design.
Jim Evans, a musician turned software engineer, had designed an earlier polyamory flag back in 1995: three wide horizontal stripes, blue, red, and black, with a yellow Greek pi symbol to represent the first letter in the word polyamory. As the internet grew and polyamorous people were better able to communicate with each other, a truth became clear: Most of them thought the thing was absolutely hideous. Evans didn’t disagree. In a 2016 blog post, he explained that its design had been limited both by his skills and by the tools he had available at the time.
In 2021, a group of volunteers formed an organization called PolyamProud to see if they could design a flag the community would rally around. Through a ranked-choice voting process last fall, participants settled on horizontal bars of blue, magenta, and purple with an asymmetrical white triangle and a golden heart inside.
Flags For Good offers this new polyamory flag. Other polyamory flag designs are available online as well. Appropriately, you don’t have to commit to just one of them.
Those who practice polyamory are still very much part of the out-group in America. When Congress passed a bill last year to enshrine federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages, the bill needed to be amended to clarify that polygamous relationships were not covered before enough Republican senators would support it.
“I think initially [a polyamory pride flag] was to help polyamorists find each other,” says PolyamProud Director Kristian Einstman. “Now that’s still part of it, but it’s more to help the rest of the world see how big and present of a community this is.” Because their families are not recognized by any of the states or the federal government, polyamorous unions face challenges whenever dealing with the courts or schools. (In some states, they even risk criminal charges.)
“People who have a presence on social media with polyamorous families are subject to all manner of hate speech and degradation, with or without a flag,” Einstman says. “It begets an equal and opposite reaction. The more hate we receive, the more likely we are to take up the flag.”
Maybe polyamory will enter the American mainstream, and maybe it won’t. But the more common the flag is, the more visible the community will be—and that, Einstman hopes, will give the movement a boost.
So it is with every movement that adopts a banner: The flags represent an aspiration for influence, even as those who wield them hope to avoid being trampled underfoot. No wonder they’re so visible in the culture wars.