In the two weeks since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, the world has witnessed a surge of rainbows. From our Facebook friends’ profile pictures to corporate advertising, the symbol of LGBTQ pride is everywhere.
Some have been anxiously awaiting the removal of the rainbows. Peter Moskowitz recently wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post about how the sea of rainbows on Facebook creates a façade of dedicated activists. While many users of the profile picture app may truly support marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, their understanding of the work that still needs to be done—past the Supreme Court decision—is nonexistent. And as “armchair allies,” there is little motivation to learn or do more beyond “liking” other people’s rainbow photos. “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,” Moskowitz wrote.
A Facebook profile picture, as Moskowitz notes, is not actively educating anyone about the importance of LGBTQ rights. Therefore, even if the people with rainbow profile pictures are informed supporters, there is no active motion towards change. However, while this trendsetting isn’t effective activism, it does cause Facebook scrollers, particularly those who have been homophobic, to consider the mass movement for a moment, and perhaps think about why they are fighting so hard against it.
The thought of LGBTQ rights as a trend, with rainbow being the in-color of the season, is disturbing. It reinforces power structures under a haze so that all of the intersecting systems of oppression are hidden, or pinkwashed.
The rainbow veils are not limited to our immediate social networks. Corporations have latched onto rainbow logos, social media posts, and even giveaways at Pride festivals. Rainbows have seeped past the parade floats and onto the t-shirts of every spectator, mixed among all of the free goodies Pride attendees receive throughout the day.
At this year’s New York City PrideFest, most people I saw were wearing a rainbow lanyard from TD Bank. When I think of New York’s Greenwich Village and its counterculture, I don’t think of big bank corporations like TD Bank. As I walked through the Village at this year’s Pride, I felt like I was looking at a distinct intersection in time, a clear shift in the story. I could see my children’s history textbook (in a queer studies class? Or will the stories of the LGBTQ community finally make their way into all history classes?), with one chapter talking about the riots at Stonewall Inn, and then the next chapter starting once we achieved marriage equality in 2015 and suddenly same-gender couples were in all of our advertisements. I wondered how many lanyard-wearing spectators knew about Stonewall. I wondered if TD Bank wants to set up another branch in the Village.
I can remember a time when the rainbow was much more fraught. Even growing up in a relatively liberal community, I was witness to strong homophobic messages. I remember avoiding anything with a rainbow on it in elementary school, fearing the assumptions that would be made if I wore the symbol of gay pride. Somehow in the past decade and in the burst of social media, rainbows and allyship have become cool. Suddenly, if I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture to a rainbow filter this week, I was left out.
Let me be clear: childish popularity games should not be the driving force of activism. However, seeing the rainbow gain status might show a little more progress than we think, especially if we reflect on the days when all rainbows came with shame. While you don’t have to be a LGBTQ activist to wear a rainbow t-shirt, you can’t be vigilantly against LGBTQ rights either.
There are still so many people who are actively working against the LGBTQ community with messages of hate. A county clerk is refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses despite the SCOTUS decision, and LGBTQ homicides are at record heights. The Facebook users with rainbow profile pictures have become bystanders to these horrors. Their rainbow attire doesn’t mean that they’ve quite been converted to messages of active acceptance, equality, and liberation. Doing nothing is not a free-pass out of the problem.
In a recent Washington Post article, Christina Cauterucci points out the danger of disillusionment in this status of “innocent bystander,” (as no bystander is innocent). When we partake in “pinkwashing” controlled by corporations with shiny, new rainbow faces—either through social media sharing or by being consumers of these companies—many of us think this is the same as fighting for queer liberation and sexual freedom. “We’re congratulating the wrong people — instead of applauding corporations for piling on to profit from an important step forward for gay rights, we should be spending our time and our retweets amplifying the stories of those people and activist groups who made it happen in the first place,” Cauterucci writes.
Additionally, Cauterucci cites companies that have participated in the rainbow parade but have business practices that do not support LGBTQ equality. The Human Rights Campaign has published a Corporate Equality Index (CEI) each year since 2002 that gives ratings to corporations based on their LGBTQ policies, with 100 being a top score. The score includes rankings of the companies’ equal employment policies, partner benefits, and LGBT competency. Cauterucci mentions that despite a rainbow Snickers wrapper on their Twitter account, Mars only scored a 60 on the CEI.
The disparity isn’t true of all rainbow corporations. TD Bank, from my own Pride experience, received a score of 100. But the CEI isn’t the all-determinant of how LGBTQ friendly a company is. Target also scored 100 the same year it endorsed an anti-gay gubernatorial candidate. On the other end of the scoring spectrum, the Washington Post scored a 20 on this year’s CEI—the same publication that published posts about the importance of LGBTQ activism from Cauterucci and Moskowitz.
The rainbow has become convoluted, and the power it holds as a symbol is becoming unclear in all the confusion. “When millions of people cloak themselves in a symbol without understanding what it means, they dilute that symbol’s power,” Moskowitz writes. But perhaps diluting is part of the process. We are in the trenches of an on-going process to live in a world where people are treated with respect and dignity no matter who they are or who they fuck (the overlap of which Carmen Vazquez has spoken at length about and will expand upon at this year’s Summit!) Maybe the rainbow will dilute and then rebuild into a stronger, more unified symbol—not of the fight for, but in the actualization of achieved liberation. I don’t want to choose between my symbols and my values. I want to put up a rainbow to celebrate this victory and work towards many more with the confidence that our goals are within reach.