I was driving back from a family affair recently with two other gay men friends and a straight woman friend. “There’s something I have always wanted to ask,” she said, “And this looks like the right time. Why is it gay people have taken the rainbow flag as their own symbol?”
A perfectly good question, don’t you think? And one which we, none of us, had to consult with the others in order to answer. “It’s a bright, optimistic symbol,” one of us said. “It goes with joy and happiness and with the word ‘gay.’ An uplifting symbol to counter the bitter history of condescension and shaming, the history of being treated first as freakish, then as sinful, and then as sick.” “It’s a declaration that the world isn’t monotone or grey,” somebody said. “A laying claim to a world in which diversity isn’t a bad word but a very good one,”
“But it’s a symbol of universalism,” she said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate that any one group should take it for their own, when it’s clearly intended to represent the whole world.”
Oh dear, I thought. We’ve gone and pissed off the world again. Us against them. We’re always doing something wrong.
Still without looking at each other, the three of us knew what the others were thinking. Something between exasperation and disbelief. How could something so patently obvious not be patently obvious?
The answer, of course, is that it wasn’t obvious at all. It was another one of those times in which a discussion risks going off the rails because one side takes the other side’s failure to comprehend as a sign of ill will. “You can’t be stupid,” goes the reasoning, “you must be malicious.” Or the other way around, depending on the players.
This was an old friend, so I knew she was neither stupid nor mean, and I could plainly see the reasoning. Children, as she pointed out, seem to draw rainbows spontaneously when they want to draw a happy sky. Why, she wondered, should we have to explain to them that they were making a pitch for gay liberation!
By this point, I was beginning to feel a little heat under my collar. “Why should I have to defend anything,” I heard the voice in my head say. “Gays use the symbol. It’s widely understood and accepted. Get friggin used to it.” In the end, the context provides the meaning. There is a “Rainbow Room” day care center in Berkeley, and nobody resents the kids for the choice. Nobody I know in Germany is miffed that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” is used for American, and not international, political purposes.
But no amount of resistance on our part would deter her from her desire to free the rainbow from its captivity by gay activist reductionists. The field of semiotics informs us that things mean what people working in groups take them to mean. A symbol becomes a symbol only if and when it is broadly accepted as one. And once that happens, no amount of reason will shake it from the role it comes to play.
Yellow ribbons and large American flags on Humvees signal Republican supporters of Bush’s war. I may want the color yellow back, or wish the ribbon still represented the captives in the American Embassy in Teheran, and I certainly wish I could have my flag back, but that’s the way things go. Meanings come and go, but they aren’t legislated or prayed or threatened in and out of existence; they evolve. I don’t like the phrase, “You know what I’m saying?” that so many black folk toss into their commentary with great frequency. It sounds aggressive, as if all normal discourse was a clash of wills, and arrogant because it sounds like the speaker thinks he is speaking above the hearer’s comprehension level. But I’m not going to get people to stop using the phrase, any more than we were able to shake 60s folk lose from their “wow”s and their “groovy”s.
I’ve heard Jews complain that gays have jumped on the Holocaust Bandwagon (now consider that notion, will you) with their use of the pink triangle. As if the 300,000 gay folk who died in concentration camps ought to be intimidated by the 6 million Jews into shutting up. I remember Gore Vidal being asked that question once at a talk in San Francisco. “How can you gays talk about your numbers when the number of Jews killed was so high!” this guy asked. “Numbers? Numbers?” said Gore Vidal. “Are you in real estate?”
Another complaint along the same lines was the one made by some black men about how they were portrayed by Alice Walker in “The Color Purple.” “How could you hold black men up to such criticism before the world,” went the argument. “We should stick together and present a solid front against white oppression.”
“You tell your story, and I’ll tell mine,” Alice Walker responded.
I think that’s the only sensible approach. We’ve all got our shtick. Some woman in front of a supermarket gave me the nastiest look the other day when I didn’t agree with her instantly that saving the trees of California was the most important thing in the world. What an irony, I thought, as I walked away. I actually do think trees are right up there with Mozart and macadamia nuts as things life wouldn’t be worth living without. She just didn’t give me enough space for my own issues.
When the Karl Rove machine decided to go for gay throats and whip up fear among insecure Americans about the state of American public morality, and started plotting a constitutional amendment to prevent gays from marrying, a friend of mine, with a solid sensible pragmatism and a very good heart indeed asked me, “Would you be willing to give in on the gay marriage issue so that we can pull the Democratic Party together?”
No, I said. No, I won’t. I shouldn’t have to. Let me tell you why.
You can spot progress in American democracy when you find us moving closer to the ideal where one citizen’s freedom ends where another’s freedom begins, and where no citizen, regardless of perspective or arbitrary choice of socially constructed identity, gets to sit in first class seats and dictate the behavior of those in second class seats. When the death of Emmett Till and the resolve of Rosa Parks galvanized the Civil Rights movement, there was progress in America. Before that, there was the struggle for women’s right to vote, and the struggle to free children from sweat shops. Getting rid of segregation was progress, allowing blacks into the military was progress, allowing people to marry across racial lines was progress. And at each juncture there were those putting forth the argument, “Wait! If you push too hard now, you’ll slow down the progress. Be practical. These things take time.”
And there were also voices reminding us that justice delayed is justice denied.
No. I won’t participate in denying justice to myself and others like me. If my justice came at your expense, you’d have a case. But your marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Frightened American, is not at risk. We have to laugh at you straights and some of the dumb stuff you come up with. You know the joke… “What is homosexuality?” Answer: “That’s where the birds do it with the birds and the bees do it with the bees.” If you don’t want to marry somebody of your own sex, you won’t see me assuming I can make you do so. What is this infernal assumption you can and should call the shots for me and mine?
We’ve got to all tell our own stories. Live our own lives. You can, like Jim Wallis, the leftie evangelical Christian author of God’s Politics, insist marriage should be between a man and a woman only, and work to strengthen gay domestic partnerships instead. That’s his thing, and yours too, if you want it. But don’t ask me to applaud just yet. I appreciate that you are a lot more Christian looking than some of your self-righteous co-religionists, but I’ll still insist you – nice as you are – need to keep your religion off my civil right to live as a total citizen, and not a back-of-the-bus citizen.
Ever since 9/11 and the takeover by the Karl Rove manipulators, I’ve been, like so many others, in a state of near-despair. The antidote, I’ve found, is to read folks writing from the middle, since only they can provide any hope at all we might lift ourselves up out of this state. Michael Lind is seeking a revival of the values we had when Roosevelt made efforts, with Social Security, to use government to help out those in the twilight of life, and when Johnson and Kennedy used troops to assure black kids had full access to education. Jim Wallis wants Christians on the right to recognize that it isn’t Christian to take from the poor and give to the rich, and the Christian right needs to snap out of this belief that they are Americans first and Christians second. That’s his story, and I’ll be listening to the follow-up discussion with great interest.
There’s so much to talk about. So many perspectives. So many demands to have issues made top priority. The goal has to be listening and making room on the bench for your neighbor who wants to sit down. It can’t be about constitutional amendments to limit freedom. Or don’t ask/don’t tell policies. Or arguing that your choice of flag or slogan or dinner fork isn’t really yours to make.
You can tell the good Christians from the bad Christians easily enough. The bad ones tell you they are speaking with God’s voice. The good ones are still listening for it. And you can tell good citizens from bad ones by whether they are defending your rights or trying to take them away.
I didn’t steal the rainbow. Look closely after the rain and you’ll see there are plenty of rainbows to go around.
March 30, 2005