Amber Hikes (she/they) is an American civil rights activist and community organizer, who currently serves as the Chief Equity & Inclusion Officer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Prior to her work for the ACLU, Hikes was most well-known for her tenure as Executive Director of the City of Philadelphia's Office of LGBT Affairs, where she led the More Pride More Color campaign, which developed a version of the Rainbow Flag with black and brown stripes to represent people of color. While not fighting for systemic change, Amber is a bit of a fashion guru and a self-admitted wannabe stylist who can often be seeing wearing bold color suits paired with playful shirts and accessories. We chatted with this unapologetic black queer woman about the upcoming election, the BLM movement, the flag and the important role clothing plays in representing a person's gender identity and expression.
I know it’s a cliche and I know we’re hearing it everywhere but this is the most important election of our lives and I think that’s true no matter how old you are. I hope everyone that is able to vote, votes. But voting is not a silver bullet, it’s harm reduction. It should be one of the things we do to engage and protect our communities but certainly not the only thing. There’s a lot of talk right now about making a plan to vote--do that, make that plan! And after you make that plan, make a plan to engage in at least two other ways. When we look at voting holistically, part of a bigger commitment we have to building a more equitable and inclusive future, we’re able to start creating a world that can exist outside of the profoundly oppressive and harmful structure that is American politics.
And you asked how this vote will impact LGBTQ community. This election will have a monumental effect on our queer and trans communities--in either direction. But it’s more complicated than that because the effect reaches so much further than ‘will marriage get overturned’ or ‘what will happen to transgender service members’. And I don’t want to diminish either of those concerns, they are very real.
But where I want us to focus our energy is in spaces of intersection and impact and when I think about Black trans women or queer Latinx immigrants or gender non-conforming folks, or poor and working class queers--that’s where our work needs to be focused.
We need to center, amplify, and uplift the most impacted communities so when we talk about how this will affect the LGBTQ community- I want to urge us to be more specific than that and really get to the heart of where our advocacy, our money, our time ought to be spent.
In order to understand the impetus for the flag, it’s important to understand the context that birthed the flag. The flag was launched in Philadelphia in 2017 following years, no--decades of calls to address racism within the LGBTQ community. This included discrimination in bars and places of public accommodation, a lack of BIPOC representation in leadership of LGBTQ nonprofits and so much more. Activists and advocates called for these issues to be addressed for years. There was even a 1986 report that was submitted to the mayor at the time, outlining these very issues. Nothing was done. Fast forward to 2016, a video was released of an owner of a prominent gay bar in Philly who was caught on video saying the n-word over and over again. I want to be clear, this was a man who made his living off of LGBTQ community and specifically BIPOC LGBTQ community. He was not a random troll on FB. He had a bar. And this was the last in a slew of racist incidents in our community and enough was enough. There were boycotts, protests, calls for resignations, town halls, and hearings.
Now my charge when I was brought in was to guide the city through this impossible time and do so thoughtfully, intentionally and strategically. There were hosts of initiatives that we used to tackle this including legislation and community conversations and town halls but in June 2017, I introduced the More Color More Pride flag to the city of Philadelphia and unwittingly to the world. I picked a flag because I don’t know what to tell you honey, queers loveeeeee flags. Lesbians, bisexual folks, trans folks, pansexual, asexual, leather community, even bears. Everyone has a flag! Flags are really important to us.
It was a simple symbol, a rainbow flag with two new stripes – one black, one brown. We raised it at City Hall on Thursday and by Friday, it had been picked up by nearly every major news outlet and had gone viral.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. What we heard all over was “thank you, thank you, thank you - we needed this. It’s long overdue. We stand with you and with our LGBTQ siblings of color”. It was beautiful but it wasn’t all positive. When I think back to that time, I think about how we raised it on Thursday with glitter and drag queens and by Friday, I had death threats.
I had death threats from people supposedly within my own community – How do I know? Because they started their emails, phone calls, with - “As a gay white man, I’m outraged”. “How dare you talk about race? This isn’t the time”. They were calling me a Black Lives Matter N-word. They were saying I had hijacked THEIR community. They were saying there was no racism in the LGBTQ community. They were saying I’m not racist BUT…”
The following months weren’t easy but they were transformative. They were revolutionary. The flag, had just like that, started an international conversation from South Africa to New Zealand, Netherlands to Australia – people were talking about the reality of oppression within marginalized communities. They were talking about intersectionality.
The conversation had changed seemingly overnight and now we see OUR flag everywhere from Piccadilly Square in London during Pride to the red carpet at the Met Gala to an entire line of Converse uplifting the voices of LGBTQ young people of color. The impact of that conversation and of the movement that formed around it-- it’s immeasurable and I am just so very proud of my communities for leading it.
The Uprising for Black Lives has been such a powerful and intersectional movement. It’s been incredible to see the progress the young people and organizers leading this movement have been able to make -- progress big well-funded organizations <cough, Democrats, cough cough> haven’t been able to make for decades. Reimagined police funding, racist statues of white supremacists coming down all over the country, the beginning of cash bail being eradicated, interdependent community work… the list goes on and on. And I think if there’s one thing our society ought to harness from this moment it’s to listen to young Black leaders, to hire and vote for and resource Black women, non-binary, and trans folks, to believe that if we’re going to get serious about eradicating white supremacy then that work must, under no uncertain terms, be led by Black and brown communities.
I know so many white folks and non-Black people of color are eager to get into this fight for racial justice and take action that feels tangible and significant. It’s so important that we are centering and uplifting Black leadership-- Black women, especially Black trans women and non-binary leaders, Black queer folks-- that these experiences and voices are at the front of everything we’re doing. The job of allies right now-- white allies, straight allies, cis allies-- is to amplify and fund. Amplify Black queer and trans voices and fund that work. Over and over. Amplify, fund. Amplify, fund. And while you’re doing that, bring your people with you. Get your community and your family and your company on board-- Amplify. Fund. The work is already happening and being led by the right people-- we need to raise those voices, resource those leaders, and believe in that vision. That’s what allyship looks like right now.
I like to think about clothing like bark on a tree. The bark is there to protect the tree, help it grow, and be a visual stimulant for the ecosystem that surrounds it. The bark serves the tree so well but at some point, the tree sheds old bark and grows a new layer. And there was nothing wrong with the bark that was shed. It served such an important and meaningful purpose- it’s just not helping the tree grow anymore and room is made for something new. And clothing and fashion feels like that to me-- I’ve been able to use it to express my gender or style and then when it doesn’t serve me, when it’s not properly doing that anymore, I get to shed that style and find something that fits my growth.
One of my favorite things about style and fashion is that it gets to evolve. I moved recently and it was wild going through my closets to pack and seeing how much my clothes have changed over the years. As I looked at each piece and tried to sort through am I keeping this or donating it-- I’d ask myself ‘when was the last time I wore this?’ For so many pieces, I realized I had outgrown them-- either because my gender has shifted and evolved, my body has changed, or sadly the style has gone out of fashion. But what was beautiful was realizing how much I had been able to use clothes and how well clothes have served me in my own evolution.
Fashion is so much more than trends or cute clothes. Our style is one of the first ways we have to help the world understand us and see us and only some people having clothes that can match up is a true injustice.