Why A Rainbow?

Curiosity is a gift. Pausing long enough to observe a common symbol, trope or even pattern and asking, “Why?” or “How?” marks a keen mind, one willing to learn. One might notice that birds riot at sun up, and that squirrels disappear in the evening, and ask why? Or consider the month of June’s burst of color and ask, why so many rainbow flags this month? Also, why a rainbow flag? In some communities, the rainbow represents a promise. For kids, it’s a riot of joy when they discover coloring.

The rainbow flag doesn’t necessarily symbolize promise or play, though neither of those are terrible associations. It has its history.

The flag came about after the Stonewall riots in June 1969 – hence June’s designation as PRIDE month. For those who don’t know, the 1969 police raid on Stonewall Inn in Greenwich, N.Y. sparked six days of riots and served as a catalyst for the national gay rights movement. It’s hard not to think of the sixties as a decade of disquiet where the confluence of movements disrupted the nation.

Having seen the struggle of low-income workers of any race, Dr. King and the Black Panther party among others extended their activism beyond black civil rights. As Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Interestingly, Dr. King had one Indian school principal introduce him as “a fellow untouchable from America”— comparing him to a Dalit, the lowest caste group in India. Dr. King’s initial disequilibrium inspired him to note that the injustices based on caste, ethnicity, race and poverty worldwide impacted one another.

It’s no coincidence that dozens of rights movements cascaded from the fight to end Jim Crow and passing the Civil Rights Amendment. Chalk up the notable movements: the Poor People’s Campaign, the American Indian Movement and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment – notably the League of Women Voters still asks you to support the ratification of the ERA by calling your representatives. Furthermore, there were feminist demonstrations, the Stonewall riots and the activism of Harvey Milk and Marsha P. Johnson among other LGBTQ activists.

Harvey Milk commissioned the PRIDE flag, asking Gilbert Baker to create one because a flag draws people together. It is a signal of identity and unity. CNN reports that the first rainbow flag flew on June 25, 1978, and contained the eight colors in the rainbow spectrum. Baker assigned a meaning to each of the colors: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for harmony and violet for spirit. Baker sewed the 30 by 60-foot flag himself.

When it was quickly adopted, Baker saw that everyone in his community had a kind of ownership of the flag; however to mass produce it, he dropped the hot pink and turquoise. In a 2015 CNN interview, he revealed the rationale of his design saying “We needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that,” he said. “We picked something from nature. We picked something beautiful.” What the community needed was hope and a promise. Underneath the surface, LGBTQ people faced horrific violence that had occurred for centuries and tragically endured afterward. The beating, torture and murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1998 made headline news of the kinds of violence, antagonism and harassment that LGBTQ people have long endured. It hadn’t been alleviated in the decades after Stonewall or Shepard’s murder or the Pulse Nightclub mass murder and even now it’s boiling in various forms close to home and abroad.

For some religious members of the LGTBQ community, the moniker of pride is complicated. Pride has an upside and a downside. It’s one of those qualities that harms relationships when it’s unchecked. Yet it’s also a quality that acknowledges that people matter, they belong, they have dignity, and, for LGBTQ people, they can rise above their mistreatment and marginalization. For one gay Christian, the PRIDE movement mattered to him because he realized it wasn’t for just gay people but an extension of a thirst for justice and civil liberties that brought many of our grandparents and great-grandparents to America. When he first heard men and women marching, saying “Two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight,” he heard people claiming their human dignity because others denied it.

So PRIDE month and the rainbow flag represent the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for yet more Americans yearning to breathe free. Our nation’s identity is based on the philosophical principle that democracy will allow us all to hammer out differences and preserve liberty and justice for all. As Paul D. Miller writes in The Religion of American Greatness: “So long as we live in a democracy, it is good to love our neighbors politically by pursuing justice together in the public square.” It is good to celebrate, or at least honor, the civil rights and human dignity of our fellow Americans.

-The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page