Rainbow Pride and the Power of Symbols

Rainbows were popular when I was a kid and, like every wanna be cool kid in the late ’70s, I had my very own pair of rainbow suspenders. Pushing back the curtains of memory, I’m pretty sure I had mine before Mork’s was famous. But truth be told, the memories get mushed. Clear is the memory of the rainbow again a few years later, when I was a young adult in Wisconsin campaigning for Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. Rainbows meant happy inclusion, promise of new life, good stuff.

Hard as I push through the memories, I can’t find a single one from that era that links rainbows and gay pride. In retrospect, I can make the connections and tell the stories. But in the late 1970s when I was a teen (and even into the early 80s as I was coming of age), gay and pride were never heard in the same sentence. Rainbows were still more about unicorns and Care Bears than calls to action for justice.

Unbeknownst to the youth in southern Michigan, Gilbert Baker was about to change all the rainbow symbolism for the coming generations. An impromptu sewing project for a San Francisco rally produced the now iconic rainbow flag, the symbol for LGBTQ pride. Baker died yesterday, just 65 years old. But his legacy, if not his name, is emblazoned in our cultural imagination. And his legacy lives.

I find myself wondering about the power of accessible symbols, how my own journey into and back out of the closet may have been shaped by the absence. I notice that, having watched Kaepernick first kneel and then remain kneeling even under immense pressure, many of my students made visible choices to opt out of the once-requisite Pledge of Allegiance. Role models, symbols, touch stones are life giving as we find the path that is ours in this world. Even more so the presence of symbols are invaluable when our path diverges from what is considered normative.

Admittedly the rainbow is kitsch. Proudly I remember the “Rainbow Fish Tree” that we designed at church in the aftermath of Matthew Sheppard’s murder.  The tree was simply an emptied Christmas tree, topped with a Rainbow Fish, and weekly filled with ribbons expressing the gathered community’s commitment to seeking justice. It was the same tree on which we later placed sponges when James Dobson went to President Bush’s second inauguration and attempt to gay-shame Sponge Bob. (This landed our two minutes of fame on (then) Olberman’s Count-Down show, another fun memory.) Every year we conversed about the Epiphany tradition with a mixture of humor and pride, ’cause it was definitely ugly-cute. As I think today about Gilbert Baker and the enduring legacy of the rainbow flag, I wonder how the presence of the Rainbow Fish Tree informed the hearts and minds of the children in our community. I have to believe that the quirky symbol was empowering as it stretched imaginations and engendered conversations.

The challenge with symbols, of course, is that we can’t control how the message lands in every heart. Nowhere is this truer than with the now familiar #BlackLivesMatter yard signs. When we lived in almost-all-white-Dogtown, we  proudly kept one in our yard. But I’ve had several Black friends and colleagues express displeasure with the sign. True is that every one of us encounters the symbol uniquely as we bring our biases and experiences. Also true is that the bearer of the #BLM sign has displayed a conscious intention to make public a commitment to justice. And that symbolic statement is substantive.

Growing up in southern Michigan in the 70s meant that there were few, if any, visible symbols to claim the not-mainstream path that is mine. But as I remember Gilbert Baker today and push back the curtains of memories, I remember raised fists. Remembering Black power fists and feminist fists, I realize the significance of the Ferguson fist print now hanging on our wall. Symbols matter.

Today I see rainbows and I feel empowered to live the life that is mine, married with a woman and together fighting for justice. Today I light a candle for Gilbert Baker and the saints who made this day possible.