Is it time to ditch the Rainbow Flag?

by Steven Wardlaw | Emerald Life
Friday, 28 September 2018 00:01 GMT

People wave rainbow flags during the 2018 New York City Pride Parade in Manhattan, New York, U.S., June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rainbow flag has become an increasingly defunct symbol of LGBT+ equality

With the rise of populism and nationalism across the west, there is an ominous sense of history repeating itself. Was this how people felt in the 1930s, as rules fell away, standards became irrelevant and the braying of simple answers to complex questions became the norm?

In populism’s current incarnation, we see US President Donald Trump saying immigrants “infest” his country. In Britain, a former foreign secretary refers to Muslim women who wear the burka as letter boxes, while the political left vacillates over accusations of anti-Semitism.

Up to and after the Brexit referendum, studies from the end of 2017 showed incidences of racism, anti-Semitism and, yes, homophobia up by approximately a third. This has made many in the LGBT+ community feel increasing uncomfortable, even taking into account leaps forward such as in India earlier this month decriminalisating same-sex relationships. For the longest time, we had assumed that our struggle for equality would win eventually.

But what if it doesn’t? Are we at risk of moving backwards? And how do we answer these growing threats? Nationalism and populism are forces that, rather than celebrating difference, isolate and attempt to erase it.

This is why the rainbow flag has become an increasingly defunct symbol of LGBT+ equality. Not only is it used around Pride season by organisations that have no real interest in gay equality, the flag also represents an underlying assumption that we have moved to “celebrating diversity” rather than “fighting our corner”. Diversity is meaningless if our fundamental human rights are under threat.

This has led me to think more about the symbol we used to wear before the rainbow flag, the pink triangle. It was seen a symbol of defiance against a society that refused to accept LGBT+ people. Worn by gay man and lesbians alike in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was appropriated from the badge given to gay men in concentration camps, in the same way that the black triangle was worn by “asocial women” – as lesbians were often categorised. Wearing the pink triangle demonstrated that, no matter what society thought, we would not be marginalised.

The rainbow flag represents complacency. And it represents an underlying assumption that the territory gained will never be lost again. Rather than a steady march to victory, we may be in danger of finding ourselves in trench warfare. For those who think this unduly pessimistic, bear this in mind: while we celebrate LGBT+ progress over the past 15 years, during that time only 25 percent of the estimated global gay population of 450m people have seen an increase in equality and legal protection. For 70 percent, things are actually worse than they were in 2003.

So what can we do about it? Frankly, be more aware than we have been over the past decade and a half. Challenge any form of discrimination. You might not be experiencing it yet personally, but we are in a period in which intolerance is being normalised, in our media and even in our parliament. In Britain, it is unlikely that we will lose our legal protections, but social opinions are a lot more fluid – consider the poor treatment of transgender people even in the mainstream media. The naked transphobia in certain parts of the media can easily spread into personal attacks on those who defend our community. By not challenging these opinions, we can sometimes legitimise them.

The time has come once more to stand up and be counted. I bought a pink triangle badge because of a recent news item not even related to LGBT+ rights. It was a story that the Italian government was considering requiring Roma people to register – the historical parallels are both obvious and horrifying.

As we move – regretfully – from advocacy back to action, I will be wearing my pink triangle with pride. My hope is that next year’s Pride marches change focus from how far we’ve come, to look at how to protect our gains – and counter the rise of intolerance.

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