June marks the start of a month-long series of LGBT Pride celebrations in cities around the United States and the world, as well as the 30th anniversary of the rainbow flag — the de facto symbol of the LGBT community. While the visual and media focus of the celebrations have been the parades, the most enduring element is perhaps the rainbow.
Images of such parades used to be titillating stock footage on television news reports; now, they serve as the highlights reel for hate-mongering televangelists, apparently easy evidence of hedonistic behavior presented to induce gay panic in their followers. Appearing to the public as if extras from the movie Cruising, these cavorting leather-clad men atop a parade float seem all but a distant memory. Today, the Pride parade is a family-friendly affair: a place where heterosexuals, families, and gays with their own children line the parade route for equal parts moral support and entertainment value.
Today's celebrations are also an arena where corporate shows of support — whether staging their own float or simply operating a kiosk or even a concession — signal an organization's commitment to diversity just as much as its commitment to niche marketing. Sure, there are still a few public displays of (dis)affection in some parades, but they represent a throwback, not an insurgent present: "We're here. We're queer. Get on with it!" they seem to shout. If nothing else, the resulting cavalcade is representative of more aspects of contemporary queer life: a mélange of its social, cultural, economic and sexual identities. A movement that began on the premise of self-identification and cultural difference — standing out and standing apart — finds itself increasingly blurring those distinctions, verging toward the equanimity of social sameness. All of this complexity and contradiction is embodied in, or projected onto, the now ubiquitous rainbow flag.
The rainbow's colorful panoply has always been something of a problem for me, not so much its symbolism but for its cheerful aversion to aesthetic conviction. While I am an ardent believer in the adage that there is no such thing as a bad color, just poor proportions and combinations, the spectral glory of the rainbow has always been a kind of third-rail of chromatics. I know, it's supposed to represent inclusion — no visible wavelength left behind — but aesthetics is supposed to be about choosing one thing over another: the right colors, not all colors. Setting aside my personal aesthetic ambivalence, the idea of designing a contemporary symbol of community is undoubtedly rare and daunting.
The rainbow flag made its debut in 1978 at San Francisco's Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade, having been created in response to a request for a symbol to represent the LGBT community. That job fell to vexillographer Gilbert Baker who, acting in the role of Betsy Ross, designed the first rainbow flag, and with a group of volunteers stitched it from hand-dyed fabric. The original flag had eight colors, two more than its customary version, each representing an aspect of gay life: red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, blue for harmony, and violet for spirit. Eliminated for logistical reasons, the two colors no longer present are hot pink and turquoise, perhaps early proof of gaydar in forecasting 1980's color trends for such things as Miami Vice and high school proms. Ironically, or perhaps prophetically, these colors represent sexuality and magic respectively — two vital elements increasingly missing from many of today's Pride parades.
Throughout history the rainbow flag has been used by various groups, particularly those supporting liberty and equality — from the Inca Empire to the International Co-operative Alliance to the peace movements of the 1960s. In 2006, a straight family in Kansas had to defend flying a rainbow flag at their bed and breakfast from some angry townspeople and the ever-vigilant, homophobic family of Reverend Phelps, who saw it as a symbol of gay liberation (or perhaps they mistook it as a sign for a gay recruiting station). Understanding the wider symbolism, the owners nevertheless chose to fly the flag because their young son said it reminded him of the movie The Wizard of Oz, evoking the movie's signature song, Over the Rainbow. Of course, this is all strangely circular: Judy Garland, destined to become a gay icon herself, signing about escaping the barnyard drudgery of Kansas, a place that is home to not only the Phelps clan but also the birthplace of Gilbert Baker.
Born at the close of the 1970s sexual revolution, in the years just before AIDS would begin its destructive course, and only months before the assassination of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk — the first publicly-elected, openly gay official — who had requested a new logo for that year's parade from Baker, the rainbow flag held a hopeful but incomplete promise. This June, as I celebrate the recent decisions by California and New York to grant same-sex couples access to marriage and its rights and responsibilities (and as I await the political ugliness that will undoubtedly follow), I can't help but think of how Baker viewed his own creation: "In my view the rainbow flag is unfinished, as the movement it represents, an arc that begins well before me, its breadth far broader than all of our experiences put together, reaching the farthest corners of the world with a message of solidarity and a beacon of hope for those who follow in our footsteps."