Motion Detector No. 17: Show Your Colours

03.05.2021
Museum Europäischer Kulturen

In the Bewegungsmelder (Motion Detector) presentation, the Museum Europäischer Kulturen (MEK, Museum of European Cultures) shows collection objects and loans relevant to current topics. The 17th Bewegungsmelder installment deals with the rainbow flag as a symbol of the LGBT* movement. It sheds light on its origins and asks about its current use in emancipatory and commercial contexts. The Bewegungsmelder can be viewed in the lobby of the MEK until the end of July 2021.

The rainbow flag is often associated with the queer party scene. Yet it was by no means born out of a party vibe. During the National Socialist era, people who differed from the heterosexual norm and two-gender system were deported to concentration camps. The prisoner clothing worn by homosexual men was marked with a pink triangle.

Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag in 1978

That symbol was also used by the emerging LGBT* movement for self-empowerment (LGBT is the initialism for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” and has become the norm used to represent non-heteronormative identities. The asterisk often included behind it serves as a placeholder for all other identities.) at the beginning of the 1970s. American artist and activist Gilbert Baker, however, considered it a reinforcement of the stigma. It was time to establish an independent symbol ‒ and so he designed the rainbow flag in 1978.

Since then, it has been the representational symbol for LGBT*. The rainbow flag is also increasingly being used by institutions and companies to both acknowledge sexual diversity and show solidarity. Though mostly applauded, this practice has also been criticised in connection with companies using queer symbols primarily for their own profit, a practice called “pinkwashing”. The term alludes to the concept of “whitewashing”, by substituting the historically charged colour pink.

Thin Lines between Support, Marketing and Global Exploitation

The objects on display accompanied the activist Saad Malik at the Geneva Pride event in 2019, on the parade demonstrating for LGBT* causes. They illustrate the thin lines between support, marketing and global exploitation. Malik ordered his rainbow suit especially for the parade. In hindsight, his guilty conscience made him aware that the mass production of such a suit ignores sustainability and fair trade interests and provides no proof of supporting LGBT* causes.

Nonetheless, there are also global corporations that have demonstrated their commitment to LGBT* issues for decades through networking, training, campaigns and financial support. This constitutes important public support, especially in countries where LGBT* face oppression.