Emoji have come a long way since the early days of smiley faces and fax machine icons. Along with the range of skin tones that have been part of the standard set of emoji for years now, Unicode’s most recent emoji drop also included icons for hearing aids, canes used by the blind and visually impaired, motorized and manual wheelchairs, prosthetic legs and arms, service and guide dogs, and even menstrual blood.
All of these emoji are in service of “filling in the gaps in the original encoding set,” says Mark Davis, president and cofounder of Unicode and the chair of the standards organization’s emoji subcommittee in an interview. That original encoding set came from Japan and evolved to contain a lot of gender-based stereotypes as well as skin-tone uniformity, and Davis says these glaring gaps “were clearly not presenting a uniform view of human beings.”
Despite Unicode’s recent progress, one notable group still hasn’t been granted an emoji to call their own: trans and nonbinary people.
Starting in 2017, a group of trans advocates have filed annual proposals to include the trans pride flag. The trans flag was designed in 1999 by Monica Helms, a Navy veteran and trans activist; similar in ethos to the rainbow pride flag that represents the LGBTQ+ community, it has five stripes—light blue and pink, meant to represent traditional genders, and one white in the middle, for those who are nonbinary, intersex, or feel they have no gender at all.
The flag has been an important symbol for the trans community since its inception, but in the past few years, it has fully entered public consciousness. In 2017, when President Trump decided to ban all transgender people from the military, many showed their support for the community by sharing images of the flag online (the ban is still in effect). Bianca Rey, the chair of the Washington, D.C., organization Capital TransPride, says that the flag is a hugely important symbol in part because it helps make the trans community visible. “I personally am a huge believer in visibility as a way to engage people,” she says.
That’s partially why Rey and fellow trans activist Ted Eytan started the campaign to turn the trans pride flag into an emoji in 2017. But it’s also because emoji have become one of the world’s most important languages—one that crosses cultural barriers and is a near-universal way to communicate. If people don’t have the language to articulate who they are, they will continue to be sidelined. Language is the ultimate legitimator.
For Rey, a trans flag emoji is crucial to every member of the trans community feeling legitimized and seen. She says she feels lucky to have access to resources because she lives in a big city, but others elsewhere in the country don’t have that—and she believes an emoji is a great way to help those people feel like they’re part of the community as well.
“A simple flag means so much to myself and my community… to make [people] feel that there’s a community outside of wherever they are that are there for them,” she says. “It’s a nice way to send a message that you’re visible. I’m visible. Not only that we’re visible in this space, but we’re visible everywhere.”
Yet, Unicode did not deem the trans pride flag worthy of inclusion in either its 2018 or 2019 emoji releases. Rey says it was particularly dispiriting to not even receive a response from Unicode, let alone any insight into what their application was missing. Davis says this is common and adds that since Unicode opened up proposals to the public, the onus is on the people submitting to follow the committee’s exacting instructions, which include how much an emoji is projected to be used and how distinct it is. He says that the trans pride flag emoji’s proposals in 2017 and 2018 didn’t include enough evidence that the emoji would be used.
The trans community is speaking up about Unicode’s silence. In summer 2018, a group of trans activists from an organization called Nail It started a change.org petition calling on Unicode to accept the emoji, with more than 5,000 signatures. “Unicode granted the Lobster emoji proposal, which argued that people suffered ‘frustration and confusion’ at having to use a shrimp or crab emoji instead of a lobster. Imagine if that was your gender,” wrote activist Charlie Craggs in the petition. “Surely we deserve the same rights you have afforded crustaceans? Especially as a community so often faced with violence and discrimination.”
Craggs also started a campaign for trans people to use the recently approved lobster, which happens to be an animal with both male and female characteristics, until Unicode decided to include the flag.
So why did Unicode not include the trans pride flag in its most recent round? “We can’t have an emoji to represent every single possible group of people in the world,” Davis says. “We have to make some choices. We try to look at whether or not the emoji would be used as one of the main factors in determining whether or not we advance the proposal.”
According to Davis, the previous trans pride flag emoji proposals didn’t provide the evidence that it would be used broadly enough. But it turns out that other emoji are included for other reasons beyond projected usage. Take the lobster, for instance. Davis says it was the beneficiary of a few other criteria: distinctiveness and the fact that it’s an animal. “For something that belongs to a larger set like animals or plants, we tend to gather those up and prioritize them as we go, so we’re picking ones that would be used often or to fill a gap in the coverage of the emoji,” Davis says.
To the trans community and its supporters, the trans pride flag does fill an important gap. There’s also clear precedent here: the rainbow flag was added in 2016, and there are a host of relationship emojis that show same-sex couples. “While the current selection of emoji provides a wide array of generalized representations, very few speak to the life experiences of those users who are transgender,” reads the team’s latest proposal. “We see the transgender flag as integral to diversifying the options available: filling a significant gap and providing a more inclusive experience for all.”
There may be good news on the horizon. Davis says support for the emoji has grown within the 12-person emoji subcommittee, all drawn from members of Unicode, which include mostly big companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Netflix, and Adobe.
Plus, the latest submission, which Rey, Eytan, and their team submitted in March, has a preponderance of evidence to prove that the emoji would be used. The proposal cites a 2018 survey that found that one in three people in 27 countries know someone who is transgender or nonbinary, or are themselves. Part of showing usage also means proving that their emoji will be just as popular as one of the median emojis, like the construction worker emoji. The application points out that frequency of Google searches for words related to transgender people is between 1.7 and seven times higher than for construction workers, which serves as a reference emoji in the application. For the first time, the proposal has made it past the first step in Unicode’s process, in which the application is considered complete enough to upload to Unicode’s website. It will be considered for the next release, which will occur in the first quarter of next year. Davis says “the odds are quite good” that it will be approved.
There are already 268 emoji flags, representing most countries as well as other flags, like a pirate flag and a checkered flag. There are flags from every country or territory that is internationally recognized—mostly because flags represent national identity, an important part of how many people think of themselves. But as the trans pride flag shows, flags can represent far more than just national allegiance.
“How important the American flag is to you and what it means to you personally, that’s how I feel about the trans pride flag,” she says. “It may be small, but it means a lot.”