Hoisting our colours: A brief history of the bisexual pride flag

flag1The bi pride flag has become internationally recognised symbol of our movement, so it’s surprising that so many people don’t really know where it came from of what it represents. Now, we can’t have that, so with a little help from thewaybackmachine, and the good people at BiNet USA, Biscuit presents a history of the bisexual flag.

There are lots of symbols that represent homosexuality. From the (pun not intended) gaiety of the rainbow flag to the somber significance of the inverted pink or black triangles or the mythological connections of the labrys, you can usually find a motif that suits your purpose.

But until 1998, when Michael Page designed the flag that would become a global shorthand for bisexuality, there was no universal symbol under which the movement could unite. Many bisexual people did not feel a connection to the already iconic rainbow flag, which seemed to belong only to lesbian and gay people. But the rainbow flag had been undeniably effective. In 1998 it was just 20 years old but already an icon, a utensil of mass visibility and a banner under which to rally. The right flag, clearly, could be a potent tool.

“We wanted to let the larger world know that we were here, we’re proud, and we demanded respect,” Wendy Curry, then president of BiNet USA, told me. “The flag, unlike our pins and even t-shirts, was something we could rally behind as we demanded equality. It gave us a sense of power and strength, something that was lacking before”.

450px-Bi_flag.svg

The Concept

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The triple triangle motif, sometimes referred to as the ‘biangle’ was used by some groups in the US, and it was from this that Page took his inspiration. The bi pride flag comprises fesses of magenta, lavender and royal blue in a ratio of 2:1:2. If you don’t speak vexillography (that’s flag design to you and me), two fat stripes in pink and blue, with a thinner purple stripe sandwiched between them. Each colour had a specific meaning: pink, a colour often associated with homosexuality, represents same sex attraction; blue, its opposite in the common consciousness if not on the colour wheel, different sex attraction; and the purple a melding of the two.

The lavender stripe that runs through the flag also serves as a link to the wider queer community. In the first half of the 20th century the colour was strongly associated with queerness – think of Cole Porter’s lyric to I’m a Gigolo (1929), “I’m a famous gigolo, and of lavender, my nature’s got just a dash in it” –  which still survives in terms such as ‘lavender marriage’ and ‘lavender menace’. The inclusion of lavender in the bisexual pride flag indicates our place in the history of the LGBT movement and our intent in being a part of its future.

But there’s even more to the symbolism than that. Our invisibility is woven into the digital fabric of our banner. Page wrote on the now defunct biflag.com:

”The key to understanding the symbolism in the Bi Pride Flag is to know that the purple pixels of color blend unnoticeably into both the pink and blue, just as in the ‘real world’ where most bi people blend unnoticeably into both the gay/lesbian and straight communities”.

A reading of the flag that sees it as a metaphor for the Kinsey scale, widely shared on Tumblr,  is not mentioned in what remains of Page’s notes on the design process.

Raising the flag

The new flag was unveiled on 5th December 1998 at a birthday party for Page’s site bicafe.com (also now defunct), with a first official outing on 22 March 1999 at Equality Begins at Home, a rally held in Tallahassee, Florida, where it was caught in a shot  by a photographer for the Tallahassee Democrat. The photo graced the front page.

tallahasse democrat

The flag was called, by no less an authority than Fritz Klein in the Winter 1998 BiNet USA Newsletter, ‘a most important new Bi symbol’, and it caught on like wildfire.

“Our community was SO tiny back then,” said Curry, “I don’t think there were more than 200 of us worldwide.

“Bicafe was getting attention, as there was nothing like it. But the listservs were ground zero for bi activism”.

Wayne Roberts, and activist from Queensland who was active on the listserv groups took the flag to Australia, where it appeared at Mardi Gras in March 2000. Two months later it was at World Pride in Rome, bearing the url of bicafe.com.  By 2002, Reykjavik. Meanwhile, BiNet USA printed badges and stickers and distributed them widely.

Curry credits Marcus Morgan, now coordinator of the Bisexual Index, with bringing the flag to the UK. When I ask him he doesn’t remember consciously doing so, but Curry is not surprised. “We just did our bit, with no idea at the time that it would matter to anyone”.

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As we’ve moved into the 21st century, the bi pride flag has become exactly what it was intended to be: an icon. Purple is the de facto colour of the bi* movement, an exercise in branding queerness that may have its roots in the lavender menace and The Colour Purple, but which has its future in the vast and nebulous world of online activism.
Bicafe.com closed in 2012 but an international bi community thrives on Web 2.0. First LiveJournal and now Tumblr have become hubs of online activism and community organising of a sort that did not exist in the 1990s. No longer is the bisexual community that small knot of activists working mainly out of North America and the UK; today it is a vast and interconnected network that uses the internet to  facilitate community organising on an unprecedented level.

Social media is a place where the colours of the bisexual pride flag are almost universally recognised, so ingrained into online queer culture that we don’t question where it came from. It is a constant presence, a backdrop to our activities online and off and it continues to give us the power and strength that those early adopters at BiNetUSA drew from it.

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From little seeds, mighty oaks. Michael Page disappeared from the bi scene soon after bicafe closed, but his legacy is strong.  The bisexual pride flag and the colours it uses are reflected in logos for local bi groups and organisations globally, endlessly remixed, reworked, borrowed from and adapted. Wherever we see the lavender tricolore we understand the reference.

 

I am grateful to Wendy Curry, ex-President of BiNetUSA, for her help in preparing this piece.

 

Image 1 “Bi Flag at Houston Bi Conference 1999“  Unknown, from the biflag.com collection. Used in good faith. Please get in touch if you own this photo.

Image 2 ““bi pride flag” by Michael Page. Shared under Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 3 “bi triangles” by Shared under Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 4 “photo of Tallahassee Democrat 22 March 1999″.  Unknown, from the iflag.com collection. Used in good faith. Please get in touch if you own this photo.

Image 5 “bicafe banner at World Pride, Rome, 2000. Unkonwn, from the iflag.com collection. Used in good faith. Please get in touch if you own this photo.

Image 6 “bi pride flag at Birmingham Pride 2014” by Jules Dowling. Used with permission.

 

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Libby Baxter-Williams

Libby is a 30-something Londoner, who spends more time reading picture books than is seemly. She became a bi activist entirely by accident, but now she can't imagine living any other way. In the event of an emergency, she'll have a large gin and tonic, thanks.
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9 Responses to Hoisting our colours: A brief history of the bisexual pride flag

  • wendy curry says:

    Nicely written. I feel I should point out that this is how I remember things. Again, we’re talking 20 years ago… and no one was documenting anything. I could be wrong about Marcus. I am certain that he had a huge impact on me at the time. I met him at IBC5 ( the 5th international conference on bisexuality. or maybe 6.. ). he was planning for the IBC in the UK at the time. I’m afraid i was conscending, listebing in to him talk about the BiCon (the UK convention)… “Oh you have a little event over in England?”… Totally Amercentric. He (rightly) looked at me like i was a complete prat. He opened my eyes to what was happening else where. I started paying attention. And that’s when I starting seeing all these individuals standing up. One.. maybe two in some countries (UK was more than that, of course). My biggest take away from that time – the power of a single person. Activists are that time were pebbles being thrown into a calm ocean. The ripple effects were endless. Sometimes we argue about who started what ripple.. I suspect some are dong thing after reading my quotes. 🙂 But the take away SHOULD be – the lot of us.. this diverse group of maybe 200 people, often alone, were able to start something that means so much to some many people.

  • wendy curry says:

    I shared with Wayne.. his clarifications:
    “I brought the Bi Pride flags to Australia rather than took. You can also see me in the World Pride Rome photo behind Michael holding the Australian Bi Network banner. Later I took the Bi Pride Flag to Manchester for the International Bi Conference/UK Bi Conference and in the Pride march there. It also went with me to the ILGA World Conference in Manila, Philippines in 2003 and in the march there.”

  • Marcus Morgan says:

    Hi Wendy! Fwiw I remember you as nothing but polite and helpful and welcoming. I’m hoping to make it to the U.S. for BECAUSE next year as I think that having a bisexual event that has an in-part focus on training activists is a fantastic idea. See you (hopefully) there!

  • Leslie Ellen says:

    I designed my own version of the bi pride flag which is far less riddled in gender/sex binaries than this archaic symbol.

  • Adam says:

    A fantastic article, Libby. Well structured and a joy to read. It’s also nice that you included the sources, as I’m a fan of that sort of professionalism. This article will help me with my PowerPoint Presentation I’m doing for my local LGBT group. Many thanks! 🙂

  • Zander Keig says:

    Is Michael Page a military veteran? I ask, because the Rainbow Flag and Trans Pride flag were both designed by military veterans.

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