rainbow, plus

As I write this, there is is a 70-ish straight white woman sewing black and brown stripes onto our congregation’s pride flag.

Let me say I’m not necessarily an “early adopter.” And when the story of the Philadelphia flag adaptation became news, I wasn’t sure what I thought. In part I thought it was a bad idea – not because I think the LGBT movement is inclusive enough (it isn’t) or because I think black and brown people want too much (they don’t, and even framing the issue that way makes me grimace).

First, honestly, as I posted on facebook, at a glance, I thought it was a shout-out to bears. Not unworthy of a shout-out, but not the intention.

But more than that, I was remembering my years in Washington DC in the mid-80s, when all the men I knew were dying or losing friends by the dozens or hundreds. The rainbow flag was a sign of life, of hope, of not being completely alone during an administration that wouldn’t even say the word AIDS out loud. I had 4 particular friends during that time, all now dead, three black and one white, and the rainbow flag was, for us, a way of being visible. An indication of a safe place.

I wasn’t against changing the flag because I didn’t like the Philadelphia design, but because I know it is sacred to so many people who remember those days, the lack of visibility, respectability, safety. It is a sacred symbol, and sacred symbols change slowly, a lesson I’ve learned from 30 years as a pastor. I knew that, now, with more stripes, no matter what, the symbol would be divisive when it was meant to be inclusive. That was borne out by the blogs and posts I have read from either perspective.

Here’s what I have realized: It was divisive all along. And it made some people – a lot of people – invisible, though it was supposed to do the opposite.

As a lesbian, maybe I should have caught on to this more quickly. The pink triangle, claimed as a gay symbol for decades now, was a redeemed holdover from the Nazi era, a time when gay men were tattooed with it. But lesbians were not. We were mostly marked with black triangles, signs of threats to society: lesbians and other “unproductive” women, but also vagrants, felons and other social misfits. Even the word “gay,” which, by the time of Stonewall, came to be used almost exclusively about men. “LGBT” came later, and additions of Q and I have now broadened our community’s self-understanding even more. Cumbersome? Maybe. Righteous? Definitely.

I learned of all the very many ways the flag has been adapted over the decades for various communities, purposes and events – apparently all with the blessing of whoever owns the design. Or maybe no one does, as a nod to the society we wish we were. (Gilbert Baker, the designer, died earlier this year; folks who claim to have known him are confidently speculating that he would and would not approve the new design.)

Anyway, the very many adaptations made me remember another fight the gay community had to endure. Ages ago, when the Gay Games were new, they were called the Gay Olympics. Nope, said the USOC. That’s a trademarked name, and you can’t use it. Nevermind there were Special Olympics, Junior Olympics and a plethora of other events using the name (frogs, police, rats and beer among them). The USOC took the Gay Olympics organizers to court, and eventually SCOTUS upheld the ownership right of the USOC. It was the early 80s, and discrimination was the order of the day. There was no way to spin the USOC argument except to call it discrimination.

Likewise, with so many iterations of the pride flag serving so many distinct parts of our community, there is no defensible way to object to the additions of black and brown stripes. To argue otherwise, even eloquently, boils down to racism, an embrace of symbol red-lining. “You, yes.” “You, yes.” “You, no.”

Which underscores the reason to add the stripes in the first place. Our community is not whole. We are not who we want to be. We are not truly who we are.

So here’s how it boils down for me: When congregations walk through a process of becoming open to the LGBTQ community, almost invariably someone will say “We already welcome everyone. Why do we have to name gay people specifically?” And the answer is that LGBTQ folks perceive an invisible asterisk in that welcome, because they, we, have experienced so many times when the welcome wasn’t for us, or it was for us if only we would act straight, or whatever. If people don’t feel welcomed, it is incumbent on us to make sure to welcome them. Specifically. Individually, if needed.

The LGBTQ POC community tells us they aren’t feeling it. With good reason and with a mountain of evidence. We have work to do.

And that is why my congregation’s very own Betsy Ross is adding stripes today. This weekend, you’ll see Woodside’s pride, including black and brown stripes – a symbol of the wholeness to which we aspire.


About Deb Conrad
I’m Deb Conrad, pastor, teacher, photographer, writer, antique-lover, cat-mom, wine-drinker and old-house-seeker. I have a bike by Burley and knees by Stryker. I play guitar marginally, bowl when I can. I live in Flint, Michigan, with previous lives in SC, NJ, PA, MD, Washington DC, TX, CA and KY. I founded and still help run UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville (link below), where I meet interesting people and try to do what I can to change the world. I'm pastor of Woodside Church in Flint, a groovy place if ever there was one.

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