We need to walk away from the “Progress” Profit Flag

A Progress Pride Flag on display in Washington, DC.
Ted Eytan/Wikimedia Commons

Over the last two years, there has been a push to adopt the Progress Pride Flag as “the” flag for the LGBTQIA+ community, supplanting the iconic rainbow flag. (This flag put a wedge of the Trans Flag colors of light blue, pink, and white and black on brown stripes in the rainbow flag.) The impulse to do that is understandable: we are going through a long-overdue period of reckoning over racism in our nation and our community, and there is an obvious need to elevate our support for trans people as they are under attack as never before.

Sadly, what I have learned about the shady and unknown backstory of the “Progress” Pride Flag requires all of us to stop using or promoting it until its creator makes amends for its flagrant pride profiteering. And, even if the goddess prevails and that happens, I do not believe this flag should be imposed on us as the new symbol for all of us.

It’s Profiteering, Period.

Most people do not know about this flag’s origins. Its creator appropriated Gilbert Baker’s 1978 rainbow flag and the light blue, pink, and white stripes from the 1999 trans pride flag created by Monica Helms (without even a call to her), and the black and brown stripes from the 2017 More Colors More Pride Flag designed in partnership with Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs and then proceeded to LICENSE THE DESIGN FOR PROFIT.

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, none of the creators of the now more than 90+(!) Pride Flags are imposing a fee to reproduce their designs. This proud tradition goes back to 1979, when now-legendary LGBTQ rights lawyer Matt Coles helped Gilbert Baker prevent the San Francisco pride organization from copyrighting the rainbow flag.

But NOT the Profiteer-“Progress” Flag. 

The “Progress” Pride Flag license is not a free-use, public domain license. It requires that anyone reproducing the flag or its design commercially (meaning virtually any manufacturer) to get permission and pay a fee to its creator. Those fees are passed on to anyone who purchases a “Progress” Pride Flag online or at a retail outlet. Every time anyone buys a “Progress” Pride Flag or pin, or sticker, etc., money is going into the pocket of its creator.

The “Progress” Pride Flag creator is quite open about this, saying on their website, “We want you to be able to use the design in your work, but we also want to make sure that it is used properly, that it still supports the message of the flag, and supports the creator of the work.” The designer even charges a tiered fee based on the size the entity requesting permission to duplicate it.

Appropriating the creative work of others without consent and for profit is wrong.

The profit in this adventure is significant.

Other 2’X3’ hand-sewn nylon pride flags at Cliff’s Hardware in San Francisco, for example, run from $28 (the Rainbow and Bi Pride Flags) to $40 (Leather and Bear Flags, which have more complicated designs). Anyone wanting a licensed, sewn “Progress” Pride Flag must fork over $125! Even a cheaply printed-on-fabric “Progress” Pride Flag costs $55 at the creator’s online store. (If you’ve been able to get it less expensively, you got a “bootleg” version, most likely from abroad.) The San Francisco International Airport recently paid $179.95 for a single 5’X8’ “Progress” flag — 150% more than the Rainbow Flag. Come on!

Here’s the truth:

If this were about elevating and supporting queer people of color and trans people then 100% of the profits would be donated to people of color and trans organizations! The creator is no longer reporting on how much is being donated back to the community, but the last time they did it was around $8,000. Pathetic.

All of this spits in the face of the artists/activists who have created Pride Flags over the years and given their designs freely for all to use. Almost all of these creators live on the financial edge, including Gilbert Baker, who struggled with being poor his entire life.

To me, this means we all need to reject the “Progress” Pride Flag until its creator (a) drops the license; (b) apologizes to the artists from whom they appropriated their work; (c) opens their books to provide a full accounting of the licensing fee profits to date; and (d) donates 100% of those profits to organizations serving trans and queer people of color.

When the “Progress” Pride Flag creator does this, and if this flag speaks to your heart, then, by all means, fly it proudly! There is plenty of room in the sky for all our community’s non-profiteering flags.

In reality, as a symbol of inclusion the “Progress” flag is a cop out.

Even if these conditions are met, however, I do not think we can allow the “Progress” flag to be imposed on us as “the” flag for the entire LGBTQIA+ community. Why?

Beyond its simplicity and the millennial-old reverence for the rainbow, the reason the rainbow flag has been embraced by queer people around the world is because it does not purport to represent specific races, sexual orientations, gender identities, or nationalities. Rather, Gilbert Baker and their co-creators made it for “all genders, all races, all ages, the rainbow of humanity.” The colors for the flag represent “universal elements in all of us” not identities.

It is precisely because it embraces all of us, the rainbow flag has been adopted worldwide. Queer people from Uganda to Poland to Indonesia to Ukraine to Cuba to Saudi Arabia have and are using it to unite and fight, often knowing that under its banner they risk being beaten, imprisoned, or even executed.

On the other hand, I believe the “Progress” Pride flag’s inclusion of trans and brown/black queer people — undeniably, marginalized and suffering communities — but not others is inherently divisive and exclusionary.

Bisexual people make up more than half of all LGBTQIA+ people and are disproportionately impacted by discrimination, violence, and health disparities. Where are the colors of their flag? What about Indigenous Two-Spirit people, who by any measure suffer greater rates of suicide, poverty, and discrimination than other queer people in the US? Where are the two feathers from their Pride Flag? What about Asian Pacific Islanders in our community, who are now suffering an explosion in hate violence? Where are the represented in the “Progress” Pride Flag? Any thinking queer person can see the success of recent efforts to erase lesbian history and make our sisters invisible. Yet, four of the five colors on the most recognized Lesbian Pride Flag are missing from the “Progress” Pride Flag. Why?

For me, the “Progress” flag as a symbol of inclusion is an ultimate cop out. It allows people, queer organizations, and businesses a way to pretend they are “inclusive” of trans and Brown/Black people without putting any capital on the line. If they actually wanted to show their support for trans people, they should fly Monica’s Trans Pride Flag, period. (What, worried about being seen as trans?)  If they want to take a stand for queer Black people, they should have the guts to fly the Black Pride or the Black Lives Matter Flag. (What, too in your face?) You get my point.

Please, let’s all take a stand against the particularly egregious example of pride profiteering embodied by the “Progress” Pride Flag until it makes amends, support all the queer people that have freely given our community its vibrant diversity of pride flags, and rejoice in the reality that the rainbow embraces each one of us, no matter our race, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, or any other identity you hold in your heart!

Matt Foreman has been actively involved in the LGBTQ movement for more 40 years. He is a co-founder of Heritage of Pride (the organizers of New York City pride events) and a former commissioner of the New York Commission on Human Rights. He has served as executive director of the NYC Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (1990-1996), the Empire State Pride Agenda (1996-2003), and the National LGBTQ Task Force (2003-2008). He is most proud of winning the title of First-Runner Up Miss Kanawha Valley (WV) in 1976.