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Do You Know How The Rainbow Became A Part Of The LGBTQ Movement?

“My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; so is it now I am a man.” – William Wordsworth

Till 1978, the Pink Triangle was the most prominent symbol for the Queer rights movement. The triangle was a symbol used to identify homosexual men in concentration camps in Nazi Germany, so they could be subjected to additional torture. Originally intended as a badge of shame, the queer community reclaimed the Pink Triangle as an emblem of pride and strength.

Photo by Daniel Nicoletta.

The call for a new symbol came from Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor. Milk’s approach to fighting for queer rights was quite unique – he’s didn’t want to portray the community as victims of oppression but as normal everyday-people.He aspired to “break down the myths…destroy the lies and distortions” surrounding the queer community. The Pink triangle represented the atrocities the community had endured in the past, it had a melancholic connotation of repression and torture and wasn’t really a symbol of liberation.

So Milk approached Gilbert Baker, ex-army man turned drag performer with a knack for sewing, for creating flags for San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978. “We needed something that expressed us. The rainbow really fits that, in terms of: we’re all the colors, and all the genders and all the races,” Baker says. “It’s a natural flag; the rainbow is in the sky and it’s beautiful. It’s a magical part of nature.

Baker’s passion for sewing was such that even his drag persona was called “Busty Ross,” after Betsy Ross, designer of the American Flag. He was inspired by Judy Garland, an American actress-singer and one of the first prominent gay icons, and her anthem ‘Over the Rainbow.’ The idea of stripes came from the Flag of Races, demonstrated in a few college campuses in 1960s, which consisted of 5 horizontal stripes of different colors associated with different races and served as symbol for world peace.

Gilbert Baker

Contrary to popular belief, the original flag – dyed, stitched and ironed by Baker along with 30 other volunteers – did not actually depict a rainbow, it consisted of an additional colour, hot pink, on top of the pallet of VIBGYOR. The 8-striped flag represented the diversity and vibrancy of the queer community perfectly. Each color represented a different element – pink was for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the soul. The flag has evolved over time:  hot pink was removed as it was neither economically viable nor easily available;  the Pride Parade Committee of 1979, which was set up after the assassination of Harvey Milk, eliminated indigo so that the colors could be evenly divided along the parade route.  The version with 6 coloured stripes that was left is what is recognized internationally today.

Historically, varied colours have always been significant in the community. Green denoted homosexuality in Victorian England and was used to signal non-normative sexual orientation by many including Oscar Wilde, who always wore a green carnation on his lapel. Purple became associated with queerness in the late 1960s after the Stonewall incident. References to rainbows were also made in myths and stories related to sexuality in Greek and Native America among other cultures.

The original eight-color rainbow flag still flies over the Castro bar in San Francisco and from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in New York City. And on its 35th anniversary, Gilbert Baker during the parade, urged everyone to reclaim the original 8-striped flag as what binds the queer community together is non-normative sexuality (hot pink).

Evidently, the international queer movement has picked up pace in the past few years. When the USA legalised same-sex marriages, Facebook came out with a translucent rainbow filter for display picture. Around the same time, Oreo released an advertisement of a cookie with rainbow coloured filling and Doritos released rainbow coloured chips to show their support as well. Now, it’s possible that such brands aren’t in it for the cause but for sheer capitalism, but nevertheless, exposing people to the movement increases dialogue helps in attaining genuine and lasting social acceptance.

Even so, lesser known LGBTQ identities still don’t have half as much public validation or even acknowledgement as the relatively popular ‘L’, ‘G’ and ‘T’. As a result, lesser known queer identities took a cue from Milk’s idea of using a flag as a symbol and created flags of their own- many have retained horizontal stripes from the parent Rainbow flag to make their belonging to the Queer community clear.

Every element of these flags has a purpose. For instance, the Pansexual flag- to show that pansexual people can be attracted to anyone irrespective of their identity- has a gold-yellow colour in the middle which covers those who identify with a gender apart from the conventional blue (male) and pink (female). As there’s only one but significant difference between Pansexuality and Polysexuality, their flags are the same except the ‘yellow’ is replaced by green in the Polysexual flag. Trans people have a flag with 5 horizontal stripes – arranged in a symmetric manner so that no matter which way you fly it, it is correct. A variation of the Intersex flag is a play on the Transgender flag and signifies correctness as well. To encompass the different identities that don’t experience sexual attraction, the Asexual flag even has a ‘grey’ area between sexuality and asexuality.

Even when all these other flags exist, the rainbow is still the most popular symbol of the movement. The beauty of the rainbow flag comes from how it encapsulates everyone under the non-normative spectrum. One can endorse LGBTQ rights without saying much but simply by wearing a little badge with an embossing of multi-colored stripes. It has successfully fulfilled its purpose – it’s natural, beautiful and magical, and more than anything else, it is now everywhere.

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Here at The Cake’s office, we celebrate the Pride colours in this beautiful mural – ‘Liberation’ by artist Rita John
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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