The first time Google creative Tea Uglow submitted a proposal for a transgender pride flag emoji to the Unicode Consortium in 2016, the mysterious organization that oversees the approval and creation of the new emojis that show up in your phone with each update, it was denied. Then on June 29, 2017—Pride weekend—activist Bianca Rey, trans flag creator Monica Helms, programmer Chadwick Cipiti, and Dr. Ted Eytan submitted a seven-page request that noted a rainbow flag had been added the previous year.
But while the rainbow flag is a universal symbol of queerness, not all trans people identify with same-sex attraction. Besides, a trans flag emoji would help increase visibility and inclusion.
For four years in a row, the transgender community—and the team submitting annual requests for a trans flag emoji—watched as sandwiches, “sad poop,” zombies and pirate flags took precedence over the simple flag design that features pink, blue and white stripes. The team (Uglow and the others joined forces) was able to gain additional sign-ons from employees at Google and Microsoft in 2019, and submitted its final 17-page proposal last year.
On Jan. 29, Unicode announced that the trans flag would finally be added to the next update of the Unicode Standard, coming this September or October.
Emojis may seem frivolous to some. But if counted as a language, emojis would easily be the most-used language in the world, “spoken” by 92% of the global online population. For those in the trans community, the addition of their own flag doesn’t just mean being affirmed on a personal level. It also means being seen by the world.
“This is a great day for trans and non-binary representation,” said Charlotte Clymer, rapid response press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign. “Emojis are indisputably one of the most common forms of nonverbal communication and expression in our tech-centered world. Creating visibility in this space for trans and nonbinary people and offering affirmation for our experiences, however small, moves us closer to full equality for all people, regardless of gender identity.
“There are a lot of obstacles facing our community; it’s good to know that the persistence of trans and non-binary activists has resulted in one less barrier to visibility and representation. We are grateful for their advocacy.”
Sophia Lee, a software designer at Microsoft and board chair of Seattle’s Gender Justice League, pointed out that emojis aren’t just for texting your friends, but are also increasingly used by brands and businesses. “Even the most serious of productivity tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams have the emoji functionality built in,” Lee said. “When people say that emojis are the future, they don’t realize that emojis are already fully incorporated into the present.”
Over the years, looming frustration over the lack of a trans flag emoji was intensified by repeated introductions of emojis that seemed to matter to, well, almost no one. In 2018, British activist Charlie Craggs launched a creative campaign to point out the absurdity of adding emojis to represent lobsters, bricks and a towel-clad “person in steamy room” when trans people were still fighting for representation—and sometimes, their lives.
Craggs’ #ClawsOutForTrans campaign encouraged trans people to adopt the lobster emoji for the sole purpose of mocking Unicode’s foot-dragging, adding that lobsters are sometimes bilaterally gynandromorphic (female on one side of the body while male on the other). Who better to represent transgender people, said Craggs, while they wait for Unicode to approve the flag?
When asked if she thought the struggle to get a trans flag emoji was indicative of a lack of trans representation in tech, Lee said she thinks the problem is more likely a lack of trans representation in the larger LGBTQ movement. “Until recently, everything was about cisgender, [gay] white male rights,” Lee said, and trans issues only began to take more precedence after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.
“In almost every area of our society, cisgender men are treated as the default setting,” Gillian Branstetter, media manager at the National Women’s Law Center, told Adweek. “The representation of a diverse range of experiences—including breastfeeding, gender-neutral characters and the transgender pride flag—is a worthwhile reminder of the ways every system should be designed for the diverse world we and our children live in.”
In the U.S. alone, an estimated 1.4 million adults identify as transgender, according to a 2016 Williams Institute report. That doesn’t include trans children and teens, nor the growing number of adults who identify as nonbinary. At least 11 U.S. states now provide residents with gender-neutral driver’s licenses and ID cards in response to a wave of Americans who do not identify as male or female. While not all nonbinary people identify as transgender and vice versa, the trans flag is viewed as a symbol of gender variance and gender diversity.
Lee said she would love to see the nonbinary flag added to the Unicode standard next, along with “the lesbian flag, the asexual flag and all the other flags of the pride spectrum.” As Helms, creator of the transgender flag, told the Daily Beast in 2017, “The rainbow flag is like the American flag: Everybody’s underneath that. But each group, like each state, has its own individual flag.”
Until then, having both the rainbow and trans flags in the Unicode Standard gives the global LGBTQ population a way to communicate pride across all digital platforms.
“As transgender people are a part of the diverse world in which we live, the introduction of the new transgender flag emoji across platforms provides a symbol that signifies the existence and pride of a community, and encourages a valuable standard for inclusion in digital spaces,” said Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD.