Why All the Rainbows?

Image Description: A background of rainbow colored glitter.

June is Pride month. To celebrate this important month for the LGBTQIA+ community, Voqal’s Annie Stoneburner shares the importance of the pride flag (and other related symbols) in making sure the community is supported.

I have a problem. A shopping problem that is. More specifically, I have a problem with shopping for anything covered in rainbows. It cannot be helped. I’m queer and very proud of it, and love showing that pride through rainbows.

In 1978, Gilbert Baker, created the rainbow flag in response to encouragement from Harvey Milk to create a symbol of pride and hope for the community. Over the years the flag has been redesigned, becoming more inclusive of the more marginalized groups within the LGBTQIA+ community to highlight the experiences of QTPOC (queer/trans people of color). Now rainbows are not just limited to flags – if you can dream it, you can put a rainbow on it. There are also more flags for different segments of the queer community: asexual flags, transgender flags, bisexual flags, non-binary flags, and many, many more.

I can still remember my first rainbow items. As a senior in high school, I purchased myself two rainbow buttons: one that said, “I kiss boys” and one that said, “I kiss girls”. This was my coming out at the school I attended. And it was scary. The year before I started at this school, a group of people had broken into one of the buildings and destroyed the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) display that members of the club erected. I knew that being out and queer at my high school was a risk, but I did it anyway. And while I paid the price in jeers and insults, I also got to be my authentic self. And moreover, found the people at school who would say “I like your buttons” and knew I was with someone safe.

While casually scrolling through TikTok the other day, I came across a video from a younger member of the LGBTQIA+ community, questioning the need for hanging rainbow flags at U.S. embassies. In the video, the user insisted that the LGBTQIA+ community is not oppressed, and thus it is inappropriate to hang pride flags in government buildings.

Oppression can feel like a loaded word, and it feels dramatic to say, “but I am oppressed.” However, it is important to look at the history of LGBTQIA+ rights in this country, the current issues being debated in political arenas, and public attitudes regarding queer and trans folks to see that the word oppression still perfectly applies.

The Four I’s of Oppression is a framework for the types of oppression that people of marginalized identities encounter. It includes ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized oppression. All of these can be seen in the United States today and combined they can feel like a heavy weight on LGBTQIA+ folks, myself included.

Ideological oppression is the core idea that one group of people is better than another. This oppression of the queer community runs through the fabric of this country. It is so ingrained in us that many do not see it or recognize it for what it is. You can see this oppression in the simple fact that we use the terms such as gay marriage, gay sex, and gay couples. Two men getting married does not need to be called gay marriage, it can just be called marriage. But as a society we feel we need to add the word gay to it, to ensure that we call it out as different from the norm. Being gay is other. Being gay is weird. Being gay is (to some people) a moral failing.

Right now, we can see institutional oppression rearing its ugly head. So far this year, over 250 anti-LGBTQIA+ laws have been introduced in legislatures around the country. These bills range from prohibiting young trans athletes from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity, to allowing medical professionals to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ patients, to restricting the ability for transgender people to use the restroom. Together, these bills create a web of injustice that tells the American public one thing very loudly: LGBTQIA+ Americans are not on the same level as cisgender, heterosexual individuals.

It is so hard to not feel grief each time additional bills are introduced, and even more grief when these bills are passed. Often, they are a pathway to further interpersonal oppression. By giving space for individuals to say that they do not approve of members of the LGBTQIA+ community, we continue to open the floodgates for queer folks to be discriminated against. In a national survey taken as recently as May 2020, 24% of Americans believe that gay or lesbian relationships should not be legal.

This statistic blows my mind. A quarter of Americans believe that two people should not be legally allowed to love each other, just because they are not what that person deems as a “normal” or “right” couple. These individuals are found in every profession and every institution in this country. There is no safe space where an LGBTQIA+ person knows they are free from harassment and discrimination. My greatest fear is a day when “No Gays Allowed” signs are hung outside of businesses. This may seem like a leap, but sadly it is not a large one, as more and more businesses and professionals deem clients and customers to be unworthy of their services.

Sadly, when combined, all this oppression morphs into internalized oppression: when we as gay people start to believe that we are “less than” or “other.” In the past, my internalized oppression has made me repeatedly close myself off from others out of fear that they would not “approve” of me and has made me wish I was “normal” over and over again.

Thankfully, by having a strong community surrounding me, I can push away these thoughts and fears. And yes, the rainbows help. Gilbert Baker said, “Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth, as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, ‘This is who I am!’”

So, yes, the pride flag should be flown at U.S. embassies. As a country, we need to stand up and protect the LGBTQIA+ community, and the easiest way to show that support is by throwing up a rainbow flag. It signals that we, as queer people, are safe. A rainbow flag flown over the door of a shop lets me know my business is welcome there. A rainbow flag in a doctor’s office means that I can be my authentic self. And a rainbow flag flying over a U.S. government building means that, though there may be people who do not approve of me and who I am, my government will protect me and fight back against the continual stream of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation and lawsuits.

When I wear my rainbows, I feel powerful. When I wear my pride sneakers, I feel connected to my community. When I wear my “Queer All Year” sweatshirt, I hold my head a little higher. Because it grounds me. It reminds me of who I am, what my community has fought for, and why I should feel proud. So, I’ll keep buying the rainbow shirts and the rainbow shoelaces, I’ll proudly display the buttons and water bottles, and I’ll wear my pride on my sleeves. Literally.

Looking for your own rainbow gear? Be sure to shop LGBTQIA+ owned businesses like Rose Gold Co. or Stewie’s Got Pride.