Flying the Rainbow Flag? It’s Not So Black and White

By Jay Menard

I’m sure there are those who will read this and brand me a homophobe. There are others who will point to my societal privilege, my cishet status, or my general whitey-ness and tell me I don’t have a right to make a comment on issues of gay rights.

I know that to be the case because I’ve read the comments — on both sides. The venom and knuckle-dragging vitriol of the homophobe is being countered by the righteous indignation and instant branding of the pro-gay warrior.

But in the end, the idea of flying a rainbow flag to protest the Sochi Olympics is not so black and white to me.

Again, I understand this will cause some to brand me a homophobe. A brand that will be applied despite a history of treating everyone as equals; despite having gay friends and family members that I have always and will always love, cherish, and support; despite attending Pride parades every year for almost two decades; despite raising my children in an environment where being gay is no different than being tall, short, left-handed, or curly-haired. And despite supporting gay rights here, here, here, here… you get the idea.

I’m prepared to have all the work I’ve built up over 40 years of believing in equality for all, regardless of race, religion, or sexuality, denigrated and cast aside because I don’t like the politicking of the rainbow flag.

Following the lead of several other communities across Canada, London councillor Joni Baechler has requested that the City of London fly the rainbow flag in Reg Cooper Square to show our city’s disgust towards Russia’s homophobic activities leading up to the Sochi Olympics.

That, in itself, is not a bad request. And while I think it’s largely ineffective in nature, I honestly wouldn’t take offense with the flag flying.

What I do take offense with is the rhetoric that is being spewed on-line towards anyone who dares suggest that they may not be in favour of flying the rainbow flag. Questioning or opposing this idea doesn’t mean you’re a homophobe. But you wouldn’t know it by the tenor of conversations on-line.

For me, I have a few concerns, starting with the fact that we are politicking the Olympics and forcing our athletes, for whom this has been the pinnacle of their athletic lives, to subjugate their accomplishments to a narrative in which they may want no part. To the athletes that compete, the Olympics is about athletic excellence. If an athlete chooses to emulate Tommie Smith or John Carlos, that is their choice. It should not be forced upon them by us.

And while we are legitimately outraged at the Russian’s treatment of gay people, I question where are the cries to fly Chechen or Georgian flags in support of the atrocities and violence propagated against those nationalities by Russia? Where is the call to support the itinerant workers who have been abused in the name of ensuring these Games went off on time? Where is the empathy for the native Sochi residents who are now displaced and homeless?

And where is the call to get our own house in order? I know a few people who are afraid to come out because of the way they’ll be treated by friends, family, and places of work. Not in Sochi, but in London.

I get it. It’s an easy cause to support and it’s easy political and personal capital. After all, to me — and many like me — it’s clear that supporting equality of marriage and fighting against discrimination are good things. You’re not going to find too many arguments about that.

And when the Olympic torch is extinguished, do we take down the flag? On February 23rd, will tolerance and love be reinstated in Russia? Is our protest tied only to the Olympics or do we continue to protest until understanding and compassion are the norm? Is this opportunism and show or is it a deep-rooted, ongoing battle?

Maybe I just don’t believe in symbols any more. Or maybe I’ve seen too much symbolism turning into slacktivism. It’s easy to stick a ribbon on our lapel, attach an image to our Twitter avatar, or fly a flag and feel like we’re doing something. And if flying a rainbow flag in City Hall’s backyard is going to make some people feel they’ve made a difference, then more power to them. As I said, I’m not going to be offended by it.

How am I going to protest Sochi? By continuing to do what I do. I don’t teach my daughter to respect gay rights because that’s just something that has always been — and always will be — the norm in my house. It’s not something that needs to be taught; respect for others isn’t something special — it just is.

We haven’t gone to gay weddings — we’ve gone to weddings. And we don’t refer to someone as our gay friend — they’re just our friend. I don’t even use the term tolerance because, to me, there’s nothing to tolerate. We are the way we are; and we are no better or worse for our differences. Tolerance implies there’s something we find unsavoury, and I don’t see why I should feel that way about where someone else finds love.

There are certain topics that we just can’t seem to have a public discussion about — and this is one of them. On the one side, you have the rampant homophobes — a minority, hopefully; and on the other extreme, you have those who see any discussion that doesn’t include a wholehearted acceptance of the idea evidence of your homophobia. But most of us tend to be in the middle — willing to try to understand and appreciate our differences and be respectful. 

So if me not wholeheartedly endorsing the flying of a rainbow flag makes me a homophobe in someone’s eyes, I’m OK with that.

Why? Because I can live without the symbolic approval because I prefer to live a concrete example of love, compassion, and respect in reality. Every day.

5 thoughts on “Flying the Rainbow Flag? It’s Not So Black and White

  1. Pingback: Flying the Rainbow Flag? A Response | Cageratlr

  2. Chris McInnis (@chrismcinnis)

    I guess, Jay, it’s because I so often agree with so much of what you have to say that when I don’t agree, I have a hard time knowing how to respond.

    I get the point that symbols may, in some sense, “let people off the hook.” But even if they do, that not the *only* thing they do. Symbols emphasize and amplify a message that is still far from universal here in our own backyard. While flying the flag may not be earth-shattering, I do think it is worth doing.

    Homophobia is still way more prevalent than most of us want to think. That’s why symbols matter. That’s why opposing (or criticizing or just dismissing) the flag seems to me to be overly cynical.

    There are people who take comfort, courage, and pride in this particular symbol. There are others who still feel threatened or even disgusted at the sight of a rainbow flag. I think both of those are suitable reasons to fly it.

    Of course criticizing the raising of the rainbow flag for the Olympics does not make you a homophobe. However, by choosing to make a point of opposing it you are also choosing to put yourself on the same side of this debate as those who are.

    1. Jay Menard Post author

      Like is said here, “That, in itself, is not a bad request. And while I think it’s largely ineffective in nature, I honestly wouldn’t take offense with the flag flying.” While I don’t think it’s an effective symbol, I respect that some people feel it’s a valid protest — that’s their right.

      I would hope, in a discussion about rainbows, we realize that there are no black and whites. It’s a bit of a jump to say because you agree on some points, you can wholeheartedly share an ideology. But unfortunately, that’s where we’ve gotten to in debate — it’s polarized to the point where we can’t discuss or disagree. You’re either with someone 100 per cent, or you’re the enemy.

      That’s what bothered me in the comments I read. People would suggest we already are flying a flag of inclusion — the Maple Leaf — or that the focus should be on athletics or politics. And they were being branded as homophobic. Is that right? Can we not share in the ideals and goals, while disagreeing on the execution?

      1. Chris McInnis (@chrismcinnis)

        Absolutely we can share ideals and goals, while disagreeing on their execution.

        Your complaint, then, could be about any issue. (To my mind.) Online comments are the worst form of debate. Yes, they are polarized. Too many people do not read or consider one’s reasons for supporting or opposing an issue – they will reduce everyone to “fer it” or “agin it.”

        I’m not saying that’s a good thing, just that you shouldn’t be surprised by it. In fact, you’ve written well about it on this blog if I’m not mistaken…

      2. Jay Menard Post author

        That was the point I was trying to make in the post — although maybe I failed to do so well enough. Essentially, not supporting the flag does not mean you’re homophobic, but that’s what’s being portrayed.

        And I do have issues with symbols. Symbols haven’t helped my friends come out — and symbols are often misused. I know one fairly prominent business woman who, privately with me, has wrapped herself in the rainbow flag. But when it comes to making a stand or taking steps publicly, she refuses to do so. As such, there are those afraid to come out because of how the business treats/perceives gay people.

        If a symbol strives you to act, then great. We can all use rallying points. If you’re using a symbol as a substitute for action, then it’s useless. I believe in the placebo effect, but no placebo is going to cure cancer. Homophobia, racism, sexism — those are cancers on our society.

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