Two-spirit Indigenous advocate Jaylene Tyme certainly knew how to strike a pose while wearing the famed Amsterdam Rainbow Dress. Tyme, a Vancouver Métis tribute artist, draped an orange blanket over her right arm as she stood on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. This accessory commemorated children who were abused and/or died in Canada’s Indian residential school system.
“I’m grateful to be part of this but I also love to see other people achieve different levels of personal freedom,” Tyme said at an August 4 news conference before the photo shoot.
The sprawling Amsterdam Rainbow Dress was created in 2016 with flags of countries that have criminalized LGBTQ+ rights. It arrived in the city in advance of the Vancouver Pride Parade on Sunday (August 6).
Tyme has Treaty 4 Plains Cree and Saulteaux heritage. Inside the Vancouver Art Gallery, she recalled what it was like in the 1980s and ’90s for drag artists in Canada. According to her, they had to be in specific spaces, such as private clubs, where people had to sign in to gain entry. That’s because it wasn’t safe for them in the streets.
“As an Indigenous, two-spirit transgender human being, I feel my role today is to really show up,” Tyme declared. “And to really contribute towards making sure we recognize that we all play a part in creating and protecting safe spaces for people to find out who they are.”
She emphasized that when people then share these parts of themselves, it must be welcomed. Moreover, Tyme called on allies to “take that a little bit further” by becoming an “accomplice”.
“Because when you add an action to your allyship, you’re walking alongside of us so we’re in it together.”
Dress evolves as laws change
At the news conference, Amsterdam Rainbow Dress co-creator Arnout van Krimpen shared details about its history. He noted that on opening day of Euro Pride 2016, all the flags of countries that had criminalized LGBTQ+ people were carried through the streets of Amsterdam.
Afterward, parade organizers asked van Krimpen if he could do something with these flags. So he met three other artists—Jochem Kaan, Oeri van Woezik, and Mattijs van Bergen—and they decided to sew them together in a dress. They then took the giant garment to the Rijksmuseum and photographed it in front of a famous 1642 Rembrandt painting called The Night Watch.
“These pictures were beautiful, I have to say myself,” van Krimpen said. “That made the whole project go viral within 24 hours. The pictures were everywhere.”
That elicited the interest of Amsterdam municipal officials and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The following year, the dress became part of the Amsterdam Museum collection. Since then, the Amsterdam Museum has been allowing the Amsterdam Rainbow Dress Foundation to take it on tour.
“Last year, for example, within nine months we had been in every inhabited continent in the world,” van Krimpen said. “This year, again, we will go all around the world.”
Everywhere they visit, people wear the dress and share their stories. When a country decriminalizes homosexuality—as India did in 2023—its flag is replaced with a rainbow banner.
Repression continues in many places
According to van Krimpen, there are still 67 countries represented on the Amsterdam Rainbow Dress.
“It’s a third of the countries in the world,” van Krimpen declared.
He mentioned that the Amsterdam Rainbow Dress has been on display in many museums, city halls, parliaments, and even the United Nations. One of its purposes is to elicit the curiosity of those not very interested in LGBTQ+ legal rights.
“We found out that it lowers the threshold for people to engage with this story,” van Krimpen said. “They see the dress. It looks beautiful. They really want to know the story behind it.”
He urged everyone at the news conference to spread this story, whether it’s through sharing photographs or talking about it.
Others who’ve worn the Amsterdam Rainbow Dress in B.C. include Joseph Huang of Vancouver and Kendall Gender, runner-up on Season 2 of Canada’s Drag Race.
Insufficient attention on homophobia
“Diversity and inclusiveness have always been of the greatest importance,” the Amsterdam Rainbow Dress Foundation website states, “but with recent developments (such as ‘concentration camps’ for gay men in Chechnya, public torture in Indonesia, illegal anti-gay propaganda legislation in Russia, LGBT free zones in Poland, the reinstatement of homosexuality as a punishable offence in Chad and so on, as reported by the international press), a negative development is visible on the geopolitical and social levels.
“There is, by far, not enough attention for homophobia, lesbophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and for those who suffer as a direct result.”
Another speaker at the news conference was Sebastiaan Messerschmidt, the Vancouver consul-general for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He expressed great appreciation to the Vancouver Art Gallery for opening up its building for the event, as well as to Tyme for participating.
The final speaker was the VAG’s director of public engagement and learning, Sirish Rao. He cited two reasons why this event was important to the gallery.
“One is that artists have always been there to stretch the borders of our imagination when it comes to societal issues,” Rao said. “And the other is that this is a former courthouse.”
As a result, laws were enforced in the building, stripping rights of Indigenous peoples, as well as around gender and sexuality.
“In so many ways, it’s appropriate that we do this work of healing,” he remarked.
Dress linked to activism
Furthermore, Rao said that queerness has always been a part of art dating back to pottery in Ancient Greece and stone sculptures in India. Then he rattled off examples in North America in the 20th century, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Nan Goldin, and Keith Haring. Rao also alluded to South African artist Zanele Muholi and U.K.-based Canadian artist Sunil Gupta.
In addition, Rao discussed the lasting impact of colonialism on queer communities, citing India as one example. He pointed out that it had “a much more free and fluid sense of gender identity” before becoming part of the British Empire.
Section 377 of the British colonial penal code criminalized oral and anal sex. It remained on the books of former colonies after they had become independent.
Rao noted that there were many people in India who opposed decriminalization. So, it was a real fight for LGBTQ+ advocates.
“There’s a lot of complexity there,” he stated.
Rao also emphasized that the Amsterdam Red Dress is important because it is a work of art.
“But it also causes us to think about politics and be active in politics,” he added.