I remember one of the first times I thought I might be gay. I was about 10, walking with my mom through Chelsea – New York City’s preeminent gayborhood – and saw a rainbow flag hanging from a pharmacy storefront. The sight of the flag made me deeply uncomfortable. Even then, I knew it somehow represented me and marked me as different. I was only a kid, but I understood that if I identified with that flag, I’d be in for a hard life.
This past weekend, I saw more rainbow flags than I had previously seen in the 26 years of my life combined. Everything – the White House, corporate logos, and especially my Facebook feed – suddenly was covered in the colors of gay pride. Since Friday, an astonishing 26 million people have overlain their profile pictures with semitransparent rainbow stripes, a feature Facebook created to celebrate gay pride after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.
But the more flags I saw last weekend, the more uncomfortable I felt.
Gay pride was something I struggled to gain. As a gay man, I worked through years of bullying in school and overcame self-consciousness, loneliness and depression. The rainbow flag became a symbol of acceptance and confidence as I found my place in the LGBT community.
I’ve earned the right to claim pride through years of internal strife over my sexuality. Others have died in the name of gay pride. More still have been jailed, have been disowned by their families, and have sued their state governments for it. Gay pride is not something you can claim by waving a flag. The rainbow symbol is easy to co-opt, but the experience it represents is not.
That’s why it wasn’t comforting to see hundreds of my Facebook friends’ profile pictures draped in rainbows. It didn’t feel like they were understanding my struggle; it felt like they were cheapening it, celebrating a victory they had no part in winning.
Some of the rainbow-colored faces were people I would never talk to about being gay – a relative with conservative politics, high school buddies I didn’t come out to because I feared losing their friendships. They weren’t necessarily homophobic, but they weren’t great allies either. They didn’t march during pride celebrations; they didn’t participate in the “day of silence”; they didn’t even bother to inquire about my life. If they were true allies to me or the LGBT community, where were they before Friday?
Politicians were guilty, too. President Obama’s Facebook and Twitter pages displayed “Love Wins” messages on the day of the Supreme Court ruling, even though the president was against same-sex marriage until a few years ago (at least publicly). And Hillary Clinton’s Facebook page was awash in rainbow-themed regalia on Friday, her 2016 presidential campaign “H” logo overlain with the pride rainbow. Left unsaid on her Facebook page was the fact that she actively advocated against same-sex marriage until two years ago.
It’s now easy, popular and politically expedient to raise the rainbow flag for marriage equality, since 60 percent of Americans support it. But being an LGBT person is still difficult. In some states, it’s still legal to be fired or evicted for being gay. And the gay marriage ruling won’t end the crises of homelessness, harassment and suicide suffered by LGBT people. A record number of LGBT people, especially trans women of color, are being killed and HIV rates are still astronomically high among gay and bisexual men.
Covering your profile picture in rainbow colors doesn’t change any of those truths. Some have argued that this kind of “slacktivism” promotes awareness, motivates people to take action and could subtly persuade opponents of same-sex marriage to change their views. But a 2014 study suggested that people who make these token displays of support often do it simply to boost their own public images without making any real sacrifice to benefit the cause. Besides, opponents of gay marriage are already outnumbered, and – given our polarized social media world – their Facebook friends probably aren’t displaying rainbow-flag profile pictures. And if they do, they’re unfriending them.
The co-opting of symbols and movements is not unique to Facebook’s rainbow-flag campaign. Throughout history, the powerful have taken credit for social progress they did not participate in, or, in some cases, actively fought against. Even the origin story of the gay rights movement was co-opted: The 1969 Stonewall Inn riots are widely portrayed as a fight for the right of white, cisgender gay men to party in bars. Often left out of the story is the fact trans women and other people fighting for the right to not conform to gender were at the forefront of that fight, particularly Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman of Puerto Rican descent. She and black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson were two of the main organizers of the first pride march in the city.
As a group of protesters who disrupted Chicago’s pride festivities under the banner #BlackOutPride noted: “The birth of the gay and lesbian movement began with the banishing of those members of the queer community still unable to assimilate.”
Facebook did not invent co-opting, but it allowed it to happen en masse this week. It gave an unprecedented number of people the power to claim understanding of a struggle they do not actually know. When millions of people cloak themselves in a symbol without understanding what it means, they dilute that symbol’s power.
I doubt that most of those 26 million digitally draped rainbow crusaders are active in LGBT rights. They don’t know that, for many of us, gay marriage is a minor win compared to many life-and-death issues facing gay, trans and queer people. How many of them will stand up not only for the victory that’s already been won, but for the much harder battles we still must fight, against homelessness, harassment and HIV, as well as for legal protections against discrimination?
Allies are important to the LGBT community. They’re necessary for progress. But holding up a victory flag without acquiring the battle scars is an empty gesture at best.
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