The Lesbian Pride Flag Has A Long And Nuanced History That Is Still Relevant Today (2022)

By now, you're likely familiar with the 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 t-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, PhD, co-chair of the American Historical Association's 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.

Meet the experts:
Chelsea Del Rio
, PhD, is an associate professor of history in the Social Science Department and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Option at CUNY – LaGuardia Community College. Del Rio is also the co-chair of the American Historical Association's Committee on LGBT History, the creator and coordinator of Lavender LaGuardia, the college's LGBTQIA+ faculty and staff group, and the co-coordinator of Clinic Escorts for NYC.
Caroline Radesky, PhD, is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa, teaching courses in American history, queer history, transnational sexualities, women's and gender history, and feminist history. Radesky is also the review editor for the American Historical Association's Committee on LGBT History.

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?

A quick online search of "lesbian flag" will likely bring up images of what's known as the "lipstick lesbian flag" ("lipstick" referring to lesbians who present as traditionally feminine). Like the rainbow 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 Lesbian Pride Flag Has A Long And Nuanced History That Is Still Relevant Today (1)

The "lipstick lesbian" flag without lips.

"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.

"The term 'lipstick lesbian' itself carried a lot of baggage," says Caroline Radesky, PhD, review editor of the American Historical Association's Committee on LBGT History and visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa. "Many trace the term back to the 1980s porn industry that used that term to sell pornography of women having sex with other women to heterosexual men. At the same time, some lesbians reclaimed that term, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s, as a way to push back on the assumption that all lesbians are traditionally more masculine."

The lipstick lesbian 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."

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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.

This content is imported from twitter. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

As of today it's been 2 years since I first designed the orange and pink lesbian flag. Thank you so much for all the love I've been shown since then. The lesbian communities I'm a part of mean so much to me. pic.twitter.com/nn8oNW3uDc

— Emily 'Soup Lesbian' Gwen (@theemilygwen) June 3, 2020

What is the blue version of the lesbian pride flag?

In 2016, yet another lesbian pride flag was created—the "butch lesbian pride flag." Instead of pink and purple hues, the butch lesbian pride flag uses purples (representing lesbians or women loving women), blues (representing masculinity), and white (representing people across the gender and sexuality spectrums).

"The blue flag was designed by a Tumblr user named dorian--rutherford," says Radesky. Both the original post and dorian--rutherford’s blog appear to have been deleted, however, the butch lesbian pride flag continues to be used by many butch and non-femme lesbians as a symbol of representation. "I think a lot of people understood it as a reaction to the lipstick lesbian flag because some butch folks didn’t feel represented in that flag," explains Radesky.

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#Butch Lesbian (dorian–rutherford)
Created by dorian–rutherford sometime prior to 2016-08-24. Unveiled on Tumblr, blog since deleted.
Butch lesbian flag. Additional meaning unknown. pic.twitter.com/GMd4mHqm9n

(Video) History of the Pride Rainbow Flag | T-Mobile

— Majestic Mess Design (@MajesticMesses) June 13, 2019

A year later, in 2017, a second butch lesbian pride flag came about, created by a moderator, Jim, of the Tumblr page butchspace. This flag moves away from the blues and purples displayed in the original butch pride flag, instead using reds, oranges, and browns to represent butch, non-femme, and androgynous lesbians. Each of the colors has an assigned meaning—red symbolizes "passion and sexuality," red-orange represents "courage," light orange honors "joy," white symbolizes "renewal," beige means "chivalry," orange represents "warmth," and brown stands for "honesty," according to a Tumblr post by the creator.

Unlike the lipstick lesbian flag, Radesky says there hasn’t been much controversy around the butch lesbian flag, neither the blue or orange versions. "I don’t see a lot of people discussing the flag being problematic," she notes. "While, historically, the butch identity has been critiqued in some circles, often by TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists], there’s nothing in regards to the flag that I could find."

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.

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 upside down black triangle, which serves as a backdrop for the labrys, represents the Holocaust and the triangles Nazis used to mark lesbians in concentration camps.

And then there’s the color purple "representing Sappho [an ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos whose name inspired the terms 'sapphic' and 'lesbian'] and women loving women," explains Radesky.

The Lesbian Pride Flag Has A Long And Nuanced History That Is Still Relevant Today (2)

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 rainbow 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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#PrideMonth starts today. The flag below is the Progress Pride Flag, designed by Daniel Quasar in 2018 that explicitly includes Black, Brown & Trans colours. Without those groups, we wouldn’t have Pride today https://t.co/cxL2LO3n7p pic.twitter.com/7fAqlJPDP5

— LGBTQ+ STEM (@LGBTSTEM) June 1, 2020
(Video) Some Surfside residents pushing back against town’s reason for not flying pride flag

"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.

Out of all the known lesbian flags, Radesky says that the 2018 design by Emily Gwen might be the most commonly used and recognized, but again, "there isn’t a single flag for the lesbian community; it gets back to this idea of diversity and diversity within the community."

Nevertheless, Del Rio does point out a common thread between the most recognizable lesbian flags: the color purple. "[Purple] plays a significant role across time and across communities," Del Rio explains. "Lavender or purple has a long history as a color that represents queer folks. There are 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.

(Video) The Artist behind the Intersex-Inclusive Pride Flag

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Radesky affirms that while flags are a great visible symbol of representation and community, they "are just one site where queer communities can reckon with their past as well as their present, and also claim space." In fact, the importance of these flags is rooted less in the final product and more in the creation process. "I believe that it’s through these meanings, our discussions, debates, and controversies that we’re reckoning with this history and imagining a better future," says Radesky.

What are the other LGBTQ+ pride flags?

There are dozens of flags currently in existence used to represent a plethora of sexual and gender identities. Plus, new flags (and variations of flags) pop up every few years to make sure all members of the queer community feel represented and seen. Below are just a few pride flags that showcase the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community:

The Lesbian Pride Flag Has A Long And Nuanced History That Is Still Relevant Today (4)

Aryelle Siclait

Editor

Aryelle Siclait is the editor at Women's Health where she writes and edits articles about relationships, sexual health, pop culture, and fashion for verticals across WomensHealthMag.com and the print magazine. She's a Boston College graduate and lives in New York.

Naydeline MejiaAssistant Editor

(Video) State Of Pride

Naydeline Mejia is an assistant editor at Women’s Health, where she covers sex, relationships, and lifestyle for WomensHealthMag.com and the print magazine. She is a proud graduate of Baruch College and has more than two years of experience writing and editing lifestyle content. When she’s not writing, you can find her thrift-shopping, binge-watching whatever reality dating show is trending at the moment, and spending countless hours scrolling through Pinterest.

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