Most of the year, five big flags of the United States of America hang on the Dartmouth Street face of the 1895 McKim Building of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, fluttering above the inscribed names of great artists, poets, philosophers, musicians, mathematicians, and scientists. It was not always thus: the original design seems to have intended a single flagpole mounted above the center of the three main doors. At some later point, two more were mounted over each side door, and later still, another two on the third window sill in from each corner.
But throughout this past June, the month named for Juno, Roman goddess of young adults, wedlock, and safe, legitimate childbirth, four six-striped Aurora-hued banners flanked a single national one there, even on Flag Day.
June, as you may know, is designated — unofficially — Pride Month, when individuals and institutions both public and private signal their approval of and support for those who prefer sexual activity not of the natural and normal kind. The month seems to have been chosen, not because of its myth-etymology, however, but because of a thuggish police vice raid on 28 June 1969 upon the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village tavern owned by a crime syndicate and patronized by persons having the aforementioned inclinations, persons whom the syndicate were blackmailing and extorting, in some collusion with the aforementioned police. This raid sparked days of riots led by and for such persons, riots which, in that incendiary time, ignited similar combustions all over America.
The spontaneous soon hardened into the institutional: the first Gay Pride demonstration marches were held in major U. S. cities on the 28th of June, 1970; as colorful carnal parades, they have usually been held in that month ever since. But they are not restricted to the sixth month: you can find a helpful calendar right here. The term “gay” was at that time generic, applied to all manner of sexual experiment, but having become specific to male homosexuality, its earlier meaning is now represented by the vowel-deficient acronym LGBTQ+, the plus sign indicating an infinitely-expanding array of particular sexual personae (see “Pride Flags: A Guide,” below). The term “Pride” is here understood as the triumphant antonym to “Shame,” that is, the shameful feelings that some same-sex attracted people once might have or have had about their preferences, and the shameful treatment to which they have been subjected because of them.
Enters now one Gilbert Baker (1951-2017), a vexillologist by virtue of being an artisan in fabrics. Also an honorably-discharged serviceman and San Francisco drag queen. In 1978 Baker produced what has become truly iconic: the rainbow flag, instantly the ensign of the then-called “gay rights” movement. His insight was that the different colors represented the diversity and range of human experience as a beautiful spectrum, and his first flags thus had eight stripes, from hot pink to deep violet, each with its own meaning. In time, the stripes were reduced to six, omitting the pink and Isaac Newton’s trouble-some indigo. Actually, he made two flags: one with stripes alone, the other with a canton of blue and circles of white stars. The modified first one is now the icon, with the stripe order reversed, the red on top, violet at bottom.
After these first creations, Baker then styled himself “Busty Ross,” a cross-dressing homophile version of Betsy Ross, the upholsterer reputed to have made the first United States flag. For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Baker and helpers stitched together a mile-long rainbow banner that was carried down Park Avenue in New York City, and in 2003, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first flag, he made an even longer one that stretched 1.25 miles from Key West to to the Atlantic Ocean.
Baker had strong feelings about his flag and its importance as the emblem of a broad sexual-social movement. When his flag was accepted into the Museum of Modern Art, he said in an interview there on 17 June 2015, “It all goes back to the first moment of the first flag back in 1978 for me. Raising it up and seeing it there blowing in the wind for everyone to see. It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightening [sic]– that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us. It was the most thrilling moment of my life. Because I knew right then that this was the most important thing I would ever do – that my whole life was going to be about the Rainbow Flag.” Again, “The flag is an action – it’s more than just the cloth and the stripes. When a person puts the Rainbow Flag on his car or his house, they’re not just flying a flag. They’re taking action.”
To adapt a current phrase, Flags Matter. Baker understood. Flags are meaningful because they project personal identity into public view, an act necessary to forming and joining associations. Flags say, “This is what we stand for; we are together in this; this is us.” The flags we raise declare our belonging with others in worthy associations, and we thereby assert our own worth in those memberships. We can add other indices: clothing, bumper stickers, badges and pins, face paint and accessories. But Flags Matter.
And national flags, being the signal of our highest-level civic loyalty, are very meaningful, especially in the United States. As the late Samuel P. Huntington wrote in his 2004 book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, “Since the Civil War, Americans have been a flag-oriented people. The Stars and Stripes has the status of a religious icon and is a more central symbol of national identity for Americans than their flags are for peoples of other nations.”
We do marvelous things for Old Glory, even die for it. In Maine recently, the ninety-seven year old widow of a Pearl Harbor veteran called the fire department to help hoist her American flag on Flag Day in order to honor her late husband and the country he loved and served. An Iraq War veteran is right now pleading for the return of a U. S. flag that was stolen from him. It had been given to him by an Iraqi child. He later had to use it to bind a comrade’s wounds: it still had his long-dried bloodstains on it. Flags drape the coffins of our warriors killed in battle, and after the funerals they are folded and given to the loved ones of the honored dead. A woman shopping in a used goods store came upon one such flag, folded into a neat triangle and placed in a protective pouch with the fallen soldier’s name printed on the front. She found the man’s nephew in Indiana and delivered the flag to him, with great emotion; here’s her story. An eighty-five year old woman has now quilted an American flag that she will send to President Trump, and an elderly Vietnam veteran has just publicly rebuked a selectman of Haddam, Connecticut, for kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. Such reports appear daily.
But every declaration of our belonging must have its corollary: there are Others, who do not belong with us. Every inclusion must have its exclusion. But the Others have their flags, too, in which they are or were exceedingly proud, for which they, too, might sacrifice and die. Why, look, here are several examples (Wikimedia Commons):
While all flags have certain meaning for the people who rally beneath them, they mean something quite different for those who do not. Americans who seek the removal and elimination of the Confederate flag are saying, “That is a symbol of a time and place when human beings were enslaved in our country: we cannot allow it to be honored because it is not a part of our national identity.” Few would dare to display a Nazi flag in public now, just as few would burn an ISIS one in open view, perhaps from concern that some very religious and very brave young men with face masks and fake names might decapitate them or bomb them to smithereens. Enemies burn the American flag to express their wish for America’s destruction, and some flag-burning citizens do so as well, demonstrating, “I no longer belong to this nation: its values are no longer my values.”
Huntington went on to warn of the dangerous recent rise and growth of both subnational and transnational identities in America. The former are tribal loyalties to local racial, cultural, linguistic, and gender groups which matter far more to their members than the national one, so much that they become inimical to the nation itself, especially if their members feel that the national identity does not include, represent, or protect their own subnational ones. The latter he attributed to the active efforts of academic and global corporate elites, tenured radicals (Roger Kimball’s phrase) and Davos Men (his own coinage), to disparage a strong national American identity and thus to discourage allegiance to America. But this message did not reach or affect everyone: “This was not true of the American public, and a gap consequently emerged between the primacy of national identity for most Americans and the growth of transnational identities among the controllers of power, wealth, and knowledge in American society,” and he added the growth of subnational identities as equally perilous phenomena. Fourteen years afterWho Are We? was published, we can confidently say that this chasm has not closed.
To use Edmund Burke’s over-used phrase, we all belong to our “little platoons,” sub-national associations, some private, others public: our families, houses of worship, clubs and societies, cities and states, and some of these have their flags. Here in Massachusetts you will often see either the black-and-white POW-MIA flag or the Commonwealth flag flying beneath the U. S. one on the same flagpole; the latter also often flies, at a lower height, from an adjacent pole. There’s a city of Boston flag, too. Yes, we have many loyalties which necessarily overlap, and larger loyalties must contain lesser ones. But, as loyalties often make conflicting demands, we must ask: what is their proper hierarchy?
Flags being manifestations of our loyalties, the etiquette of flag display is meant to answer such questions. Here is the U. S. Flag Code 7 (e), pertinent to the BPL display: “The flag of the United States of America should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of States or localities or pennants of societies are grouped and displayed from staffs.” On the McKim Building facade throughout June, the U. S. flag is indeed central but is not “at the highest point of the group,” and it seems reasonable to ask if LGBTQ+ fans constitute a society.
Niggling details, perhaps. But it seems, to your Idiot at least, that to displace national flags with rainbow flags is to elevate, deliberately, a very personal and very subnational interest over the national, “taking action,” as Gilbert Baker said. Mr Michael Colford, Director of Library Services, kindly informed me that the practice of hanging rainbow flags from the Library began in June of 2014, “and for civic reasons, since the starting point of the parade takes place right here in Copley Square.” Civic? Or personal?
Mr David Leonard, tapped as interim president of the Boston Public Library in June of 2015 and named official president the following June, seems to be a nice guy and a good library boss. A scroll through his Twitter feed shows him to be a thoroughly progressive gentleman. In an interview with WGBH, he indicated that his memory of difficulties he faced growing up gay in Dublin’s fair city, and the much more welcoming experience he had at Boston College, have added to his determination to make the BPL a safe and inclusive environment, “safe” and “inclusive” being keywords in our present sex-political mania. In his view, a library is not to be a merely passive repository of human knowledge in the search for truth but an active agent of “social change” in the leftward direction, the truth having already been learned, it would seem. During this year’s Pride Month, retweeting from the BPL, which he runs, Mr Leonard promoted books on LGBTQ+ issues, even for small children. At the end of May in 2017, he retweeted from the BPL, which he runs, a demonstration for #teens on “the art of the drag,” and for #kids “Drag Queen Story Time.” Under the banner of social justice, he regards these issues as “civic” matters, a perspective that would justify using a very public edifice and position to advance personal socio-political interests, interests which, while shared with many, do not claim the devotion of the public at large. Many, in fact, might regard this as a usurpation of a public resource to enact sex-ideological agenda.
But who can blame the Boston Library for using its public building in furtherance of this cause after our lecturing former Radical Professor in Chief lit the White House up in prismatic colors upon the Obergefell decree, making of the people’s house a virtual rainbow flag? The very personal had indeed become the most highly political. Yes, an American flag was there, center and highest, but that, all too obviously, was not what “America should be very proud” of.
But if love won, who lost, and what did they lose? One answer seems to be supplied by a frequent cartoon meme of the time. Here’s one published by Pensacola News Journal editorial cartoonist Andy Marlette on the 4th of July, 2015. Careful reader, you will note that a flag of the Rebellion is replaced, not with the American flag, its only historically fitting replacement, especially on Independence Day, but with the LGBTQ+ rainbow. This sends two messages: Love (that is, Justice Kennedy’s sermon-cum-diktat defining marriage down to meaninglessness) has triumphed over Hate (that is, the presumed ignorance, intolerance, racism and bigotry of inbred, slack-jawed yokels, not only of our Southern states but throughout our land. It’s a very progressive message: we are getting better and better as a result of social activism during the Obama Dispensation. The other message is that, for persons of this view, the rainbow flag is now a truer sign of What America Is than Old Glory; for them, the subnational has succeeded to the national: we are more this than that, at least in June. For now.
Symbols are manipulable: instead of physically replacing a flag, you can deface it. A “defaced” flag, by the way, is one which incorporates a given national or state emblem into that of, say, a colonial one, such as the flags of New Zealand or the British Virgin Islands, each with a Union Jack in its canton to indicate their origins as British colonies. Defacement can be of a more private character, sending a more private expression of identity. Here is a Confederate battle flag design with a rainbow background, as if to say that one can be both a proud Southerner and an LGBTQ+ Pride supporter.
And here is a commercially-available variant of Baker’s original second product, a United States flag defaced with roygbv stripes instead of the thirteen red and white ones. Loyalty to the little LGBTQ+ platoon is stitched to the field of fifty stars, indicating, I suppose, “I am an American and I am (or I support) LGBTQ+ in equal measure.” It could also mean “America is an LGBTQ+ country.” But flag defacement’s legitimate purpose is to show the relationship between two nations with a common origin, not to invert or to combine subnational and national identities.
Under the “La révolution dévore ses enfants” heading we may note a Protestant splintering of the LGBTQ+ movement into atomized factions, each with its own flag; non-binary trans-feminist and comic artist Xan offers a handy guide.
Please note her “Rainbow (Philadelphia 2017)” flag in the third row. It seems that persons in Philly of African or Hispanic descent within the LGBTQIA [sic] arc felt that they needed their own special stripes, one black, the other brown, to represent their particular ethnic identities. This proposal has not found wholehearted approval within LGBTQ+ ranks in the city of Brotherly Love. Or elsewhere.
You can see where all this is going, can’t you? Littler and littler platoons. Xan tells us that these are only “some of the more common flags you might see” at the Utah Pride Festival. But what’s curious to your Idiot is that both the original Baker flag and its stripped-down, now-iconic six-stripe version are each, in this scheme of things, just one flag out of many, neither one a superordinate standard under which each LGBTQ+ legion, cohort, and contubernium might muster. They all seem multa et varia disiecta, the opposite of any e pluribus unum.
Which brings us back to Samuel P. Huntington, who asked, provocatively, “Do we have any meaningful identity as a nation that transcends our subnational ethnic, religious, racial identities?” To which identities we may now add “sexual,” though I myself do not see why we need to do so. His answer is Yes, we have an identity of social and political beliefs: governance by consent of the governed; equality before the law; freedom to worship (or not) according to one’s conscience; freedom to speak, to write, and to associate; freedom to risk, to achieve and to fail; freedom to defend oneself, one’s family and home. As sign of these beliefs, of this common identity including all lesser identities, we have a flag. Long may it wave.