Colors of Progress is a series of design-oriented text-based flags that together culminate in a site specific art installation. These flags are designed based around a deconstructed version of the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag symbol, with each color recognizing a different marginalized group. Each flag is emblazoned with a quote from a member of that community that describes their hopes, fears, and dreams. Alone, they are each a beacon for our future and a reminder of our past. Together, they are a chorus, echoing the myriad of voices that comprise our world, calling out their struggles and rejoicing in their love and truth. The flag is one of the most powerful and universal symbols, and Colors of Progress seeks to use the intrinsic energy within them to harness it and highlight the struggles and accomplishments of these communities, as well as the lives that have been lost. Placing them in public space, it is a disruption to a complacent landscape, a reconstitution of a material that has historically served to uphold regressive notions of power changed so that it may be a site for visual discourse and dissent.
The flags take inspiration from protest signs, drawing heavily from the signs used in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 and the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights ten years later in 1979. Countless protest materials from the ONE Archives at USC and the Larry Kramer Archives at Yale University were gathered and examined, and their radical use of text and design is reflected in these flags. These signs relayed the most important message in a visually compelling and provocative way: LGBT rights are human rights. This message, simple but revolutionary, was transformed to a small placard, produced and reproduced and carried in the streets with the goal of freedom and equality. The flag metaphor, one that is used to powerful effect in nations and cultures across the world, becomes the optimal way to communicate this message. Usually used to denote ownership and divisiveness, it becomes recontextualized as a site of both active and passive resistance and as an art object with a voice. It is telling a new story that transcends borders and time, and elevates a community that is bigger than any boundary. The flag takes the voices of the marginalized individuals within the LGBTQ+ community and uplifts them high in the sky.
Like Jasper John’s or David Hammons’ work with American flags, Colors of Progress takes this powerful visual representation and calls into question its semiotic function. And while visual signifiers and the aesthetic of dissent has largely moved to the digital sphere, this work seeks to take up the physical space formerly held by these flags, and give that space to new voices by deriving profound meaning from its ubiquitous symbols. As Barbara Kruger does with her work Untitled (Questions), transnational power is identified and rejected. Appropriating the flag in this way seems to almost neutralize it, stripping it and using its own tactical agency against itself. Colors of Progress works to investigate the ways that this neutralization can manifest a symbol in new and more complex realities, in which a semiotic power can be replaced by a discursive visual language that is multifaceted and diverse. These are the Colors of Progress.
Fifty years ago, in the early morning of June 28th 1969, a riot broke out at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. The riots were in response to yet another police raid, a frequent occurrence at LGBTQ+ spaces of the time. That evening, however, the patrons resisted arrest. Over the following six days, thousands gathered at the Inn to show their solidarity and take a stand against police and government violence against queer bodies and spaces. This moment of resistance in the face of systematic oppression led to the Gay Liberation movement, a movement that sparked grassroots organization, legal change, and heightened visibility surrounding queer folks. Ten years later, on October 14th 1979, one hundred thousand people gathered for the first organized march on Washington for Gay Rights. Bolstered by the activism of the previous decade, LGBTQ+ individuals and their supporters showed the government and society that we are everywhere and that we are powerful.
Throughout the centuries, LGBTQ+ people often have had to obscure their identities in order to live in relative safety. Though some managed to live as their true selves, the historical record is lacking for too many others. And those whose writings and stories we do have are most often from white, affluent people whose place in society afforded them a modicum of safety in comparison to their more vulnerable community members. While we can cherish the records we do have of bold and beautiful queer existence in earlier times, it hurts to think of all the lost and profoundly important life stories that have not made it to the canon of queer history.
As we move forward, let us reflect on those who came before. Though their individual narratives might not be known, their existence, and the truth of their existence, has created a better world for us. Queer people of past generations redefined what it meant to live as a person outside of the acceptable norm. They did this through their manners of dress, their sexuality, their desires, their love, and when possible, their community. The few voices we have record of from this time serve to highlight the radical act of existing in a world that viewed LGBTQ+ people as sinful, immoral, clinically ill and unlawful. Our LGBTQ+ predecessors paved the way for us, and now we have the great honor of deciding the future for our community. Let us honor those who are most marginalized, most criminalized, most misunderstood. It is their history that has been erased and their future that must be protected. On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and the 40th anniversary of the first organized march on Washington for Gay Rights, now more than ever we must assess where we have been and where we want to go. Our history teaches us a valuable lesson- we are most powerful when we come together and work as a community.
The Colors of Progress honors our history and community by uplifting the many voices that make us who we are. Through combining both historical and contemporary individuals the project seeks to provide a comprehensive representation of our community. This project celebrates our community through the honoring of our history. The voices uplifted here represent the nuanced sectors of our community in hopes of creating a more balanced, diversified movement. However, for every voice here, there are thousands lost to history. We must remember those who lived without a platform or a following- those whose bold existence alone progressed our community. These individuals challenged the world through their manners of dress, desires, sexuality, gender identity, gender presentation, and love, but their thoughts and words are lost to time. Their lives created a space for us to live more freely. These flags represent the histories previously untold. And they represent the future of our movement. Read these words and know that queer people, in their varied identities, desires and expressions, have always been here.