Flowers That Lack Power

(By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

When hundreds of gay parents made plans to attend the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on Monday, they nixed the idea of wearing T-shirts to identify themselves, instead choosing to wear rainbow-colored leis. From their point of view, T-shirts suggested protest. A necklace of multi-colored flowers connoted solidarity. A T-shirt certainly held more pleasing aesthetic possibilities than the leis, which made all the participating parents look like bleary-eyed tourists just off the charter from the mainland. But their assessment of the symbolism was correct.

A T-shirt is fashion's equivalent of a billboard. They are not subtle or nuanced, boiling a complicated issue down to a few words, a symbol or a slogan. (Silence = Death. A peace sign. Choose Life.) T-shirts are not a tool for dialogue or diplomacy. They are not a gentle form of persuasion.

Accessories such as necklaces, rubber bracelets or satin ribbons, on the other hand, whisper one's affiliation, mumble something about ideology, politely request support through all the proper channels. Thank you very much. And please, sir, will you hear me out?

The gay and lesbian parents who endured the drizzly weather so their children could roll colored eggs across the South Lawn earlier this week were in the difficult position of wanting to underscore the averageness of their families, while simultaneously and quietly identifying themselves as a group that is different. What does one wear to announce: I am different, but I'm also the same?

In matters of racial equality -- particularly during the civil rights movement -- people of color strived to make a similar point. But they had only to show up at lunch counters, in department stores and at schoolhouse doors dressed exactly like everyone else and their point was made. Their skin color delivered the other part of their message.

The typical method for proclaiming group identity in today's multicultural society is to wear a T-shirt. It's cheap and it's easy. And that's why they are ubiquitous at family reunions, fun runs, summer camps and on college campuses. When everyone in the group is wearing the same T-shirt, the message is one of "Kumbaya" camaraderie, cohesiveness and we-can-do-it enthusiasm.

But throngs of people all wearing identical T-shirts surrounded by a crowd that is not on the same fashion wavelength immediately convey an adversarial tone. It's us vs. them. The home team vs. the visitors. Our side vs. yours.

During the State of the Union address in January, the Capitol police ejected two women from the House gallery -- not for actually uttering any words, but for simply wearing statement T-shirts in a room full of politically mute suits. Well-known war opponent Cindy Sheehan wore a T-shirt that asked "2,245 Dead. How Many More?" Beverly Young, wife of Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), wore a T-shirt that implored, " Support the Troops." As protests go, these were not particularly zealous. One was a question and the other a declaration. If the same words had been quietly exchanged between two people in the House gallery as they waited for the president's speech to begin, they surely would not have been removed from the room.

But the words appeared on T-shirts -- those all-cotton billboards -- and the Capitol police acted instinctively and swiftly. They arrested Sheehan and ejected Young.

The police later apologized, admitting that their actions were inappropriate and acknowledging that simply wearing a T-shirt is not the same as protesting. But that's an assessment that revealed itself only after the police were essentially taken to the political and legal woodshed.

Sometimes protest can be confused with rudeness. An old girlfriend who wears a low-cut red dress to her ex-boyfriend's wedding is being rude. But she's not necessarily protesting anything -- it's not like she wants the guy back, after all.

Still, there is an element of rudeness in any protest. The protester, after all, is upsetting the calm. Instinctively, people know that walking onto the South Lawn -- or into the House gallery -- wearing a T-shirt that expresses a personal sentiment with which others may disagree or find inappropriate is a bit ill-mannered. But sometimes a worthwhile point offsets any incivility.

The symbolism of a T-shirt is loud. It's braying. It's in people's faces. Those leis were polite, but they also mumbled the message.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company