The Ace Flag: A History and Celebration

photo of a person joyously waving an ace flag

Image credit: Vice.

The ace flag, along with its purple/white/gray/black color scheme, has been the most successful ace symbol in all of history. This is worth celebrating! Unfortunately there are no longer many people around who remember how we got the flag in the first place. As someone who was there when the flag was chosen in 2010, I’d like to pass down the story.

Pre-flag symbols

In those days, AVEN was by far the most popular asexuality website. And the most widely known symbol of asexuality was the AVEN triangle. The triangle was inspired by an old model of asexuality, where the white part represented the heterosexual-to-homosexual spectrum, and the black part represented asexuality. By the time AVEN gained popularity, the model itself was long defunct, but people still had an understanding of what the colors originally meant.

The AVEN triangle is an equilateral triangle pointing downwards, with a white to black gradient.

The AVEN triangle was not the only symbol. People would share all sorts of graphic design and art projects on the AVEN forums, which featured a few common motifs. There was the ace playing card (especially the spade). The capital A. The black ring. There was also a preponderance of purple, because of AVEN’s purple site design.

David Jay, the founder of AVEN, used purple because of an obscure legend about how amethyst could prevent a person from being drunk. But not many people knew that, so to most people, purple was just loosely associated with AVEN.

Early attempts

An asexual flag was first suggested in May 2009, as far as I know. This led to a poll in December 2009. Most of the early designs are lost to expired image hosting services, but a few of the candidates are still visible.

Two early flag proposals. The first has gray colored bars on the sides, and a circle in the middle containing an upside-down spade with a white-to-black gradient. The second is the same, but with purple instead of gray.

Although this is just one example, it illustrates the design philosophy of the earliest flag designs.  The designs are much more complicated than the eventual flag, and incorporate older asexual motifs such as the triangle gradient and spade. Also note that the color scheme had not yet solidified.

None of the proposals were very popular, and the poll didn’t go anywhere.

The final push for a flag

In July of 2010, AVEN users standup and Bristrek spearheaded an effort to decide on a flag once and for all. The discussion was spread across multiple threads, and involved three stages of polls. After this long process, in August 2010, people finally announced the asexual flag we know today.

The final asexual flag design has four horizontal stripes with the colors black, gray, white, and purple.

We’re all critical historians here, so let’s try to understand the motivations behind this process. The obstacle to creating a flag was that the most vocal AVEN members tend to disagree about everything. Some people thought the flag was pointless. There was also the concern that people outside of AVEN deserved a say on the matter as well. The solution was a poll that was promoted to every major ace community that they could think of, including non-English communities (although only in the final voting round). Only then could the flag have the legitimacy to satisfy critics–although some would be dissatisfied anyway.

One interesting wrinkle, is that the flag color scheme had already been solidified some time after the 2009 vote, and before the 2010 discussion even began, and we don’t know why. In my personal recollection, there was an AVEN thread where we discussed the best colors for bracelets, and agreed upon the purple/white/gray/black color scheme. But I’ve never been able to find this thread, and it may have been lost in the AVEN server crash of early 2010. For a second opinion, I asked my friend Sciatrix, and she doesn’t recall any specific thread, but recalls people just coalescing very quickly around the one color scheme.

In any case, when standup and Bristrek created polls for the flag, all the candidates used the same color scheme, although some had more shades of gray. The winning design was the “A1” design, one of the simplest ones proposed. Many of the other designs also used stripes in various configurations, and some incorporated more complicated patterns or older asexual motifs. Unfortunately the other designs are all lost, and I’m describing from memory.

Although the flag was created in 2010, it first existed as a digital design, and it would be a little while before we saw real flags. But we had one at the 2011 San Francisco Pride parade.  The photo at the top is from 2012.  And, as of 2017, I own my own little flag, thanks to Redbeard.

The ace colors

I think history shows that the colors are the most important part of the flag. The horizontal stripes echo the design of other LGBTQ flags, but more importantly, the stripes are just about the simplest conveyance for a color scheme. Early on, many people preferred more complex or “interesting” designs, but it turns out that a simple design empowers us to create infinite mutations. For example, if you like ace and dragon motifs, you can draw ace-shaped dragons using the flag color scheme.

Dragons shaped like the four card suits, all colored with the ace flag color scheme

Image credit: kaenith

The historical record is clear about what the colors originally meant. Purple was taken from the AVEN site design, and symbolized “community”. White, gray, and black were taken from the AVEN triangle, and they symbolized allosexual, gray-A, and asexual people. Some years later, I would see some backlash against the white stripe representing allosexuals, because the flag isn’t for allosexuals. All I will say about this, is that it wasn’t a major concern in 2010, and it speaks to a cultural shift in ace communities.

As an enthusiast of aesthetic color theory, I love the ace colors. The interesting thing about gray-scale colors, is that many people think of them as “colorless”, but this isn’t entirely justified. Gray-scale colors are a balance of yellow and blue. How much yellow and how much blue is an socially constructed standard, set to the blackbody spectrum of an object at 6500 degrees Kelvin. So what we have are some colors which are popularly perceived as lacking color, even though when you dig deeper you realize they are something more. And if people don’t see what the fuss is with gray-scale, the color purple (“community”) comes to the rescue, bringing the whole scheme into focus.

This is just my interpretation, not at all originally intended. But it illustrates how the simple design of the flag gives us the freedom to relate to it in our own ways, not entirely bound to history.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in activism, Articles, Community. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Ace Flag: A History and Celebration

  1. flergalwit says:

    Bristrek (Neth Dugan) spoke about the flag at WorldPride in 2012.

    (FWIW I disagree that the model mentioned is defunct – even now. It’s only a model, with the limitations that come with that – the most obvious being the use of the gender binary – but as a first approximation I think it still holds up quite well.)

    • Siggy says:

      The neat thing is, one of the slides shows the flag designs voted on in 2010, the ones that I could only describe by memory.

      • Oh Valen, it is weird watching this. I was talking so fast! I remember the discussion on the colours too, but I think it was something everyone agreed upon. We all knew the colour gradient from the triangle. And purple was already a commonly accepted colour for asexuality so it was just known. The main choice seemed to be how many bands of grey someone wanted on the flag.

  2. I also disagree with the AVEN triangle being defunct as an asexuality model. I don’t especially like it because of the binary thing and because it can lead to reductionism (see http://chrysocollatown.tumblr.com/post/160082256044/), but i do know a lot of people that, when explaining asexuality to friends and family, search for the AVEN triangle on their phones or pick a pen and draw it in the first piece of paper they find around.

  3. This was actually really cool to learn about. I don’t really know the stories behind any of the flags, so this was awesome to read. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    Oh, I was at that talk …
    The weirdest critic as of yet was one who said, “this looks like the flag of the German Reich.” (Dating back to the three even stripes of black,white and red used 1871-1919 and 1933-45.) And I was like … Oo Yeah, right. Because the ace flag has only three stripes, obviously, and the lowest one is bright red.
    I mean, historical awareness is a good thing, but aargh … I’d prefer not to be idly compared to new or old right-wingers on a basis that flimsy.

  5. One of my favourite things about our flag is that it’s basically a graph. And as a nerd I appreciate this massively. Also, yeah, at the time I don’t remember anyone being ‘no, can’t have sexuals on the flag!’ or anything. The term allosexual wouldn’t pop up for a while yet. It was more ‘well, this gradient is already a symbol for us, and it works as a theme and some of us are married to them and they kinda have to put up with us but also did you see that gradient triangle we’ve been using for ages?’ as it were.

    I dunno. It was mostly just assumed that it would be there as part of the flag. Not that it would make the flag for allosexuals at all, but that the full gradient is part of our story.

    • Sorry, no edit button and before I forget this is something I should put out there.

      Another cultural shift I’m seeing is people now saying it was just AVEN voters, just AVEN people. We did all the voting, all the creating. And then we imposed it on every other person. Which isn’t the case. For one, back then the asexual community was far more centralised than it is now. And smaller. But even so as my powerpoint shows, we got the word out to other communities and to other languages. We got submissions from them also. And even after the election nobody forced anybody to do anything – how could we have done that? People just used it. They were using the winner even before the winner was announced actually. Did we get everyone? No. But we tried to get to as many as we could. We were very conscious that this couldn’t just be an AVEN thing, even back then.

      I think that gets lost in the mists of time. Especially for those who weren’t in the community then.

      • Siggy says:

        Although I don’t have access to the polling data, I suspect that most of the voters were from AVEN. But not in a bad way. The community was just so centralized at the time, such that any representative sample of the community would *have* to be dominated by AVEN.

        Also for what it’s worth, when I browsed the threads, I saw someone saying that some people were already adopting the A1 design on Tumblr, before the vote had even finished.

        • Oh, most of them probably were from AVEN. I sadly didn’t put the ‘which community do you come from?’ question on the poll. And we only got about 300 votes back in any case.

          And yeah, I remember seeing the final flag on tumblr before the election result came out and smiling. I can’t remember off hand if it was whilst the final vote was up or not it was pretty clear to me which one would win.

    • Siggy says:

      By the way, I had a question for you. Were you working with standup from the beginning of the flag discussion, or did you start working together at some point in the middle?

      • It wasn’t that organised but I was there from the start. Of that round of ‘should we have a flag?’ anyway. There had been others that died out before getting anywhere before, and this one just got momentum. Standup started it off and I remember being vocal (or feeling like I was being vocal) from very early on and the first forum thread. There wasn’t a ‘you are in charge and you are vice chair’ point just people who kept going on about it. I can’t remember why I ended up being the one to do the final vote.

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