Rainbows in an Era of Gray
Photographing rainbow flags that I encounter around Norfolk during the month of June has become a tradition for me in recent years. I began doing so because seeing them always brought me a sense of joy and of solidarity, and sharing that is something I consider worthwhile.
Words escape me these days more than I have typically found to be so in life.
There is so much of much import transpiring all around us in 2020 that those of us who are attuned to the news are wearing much weight, though much less so than those directly impacted day in and day out by the headlines.
The thoughtful souls who are truly paying attention understand that almost any issue of importance deserves to be discussed with nuance, though we live in an age that values simplicity and brevity, and consequently favors communication by memes, tweets, and emoticons, which are not instruments well-designed for subtlety and the conveyance of substance.
And of course, anything one does say is subjected to great scrutiny, with many defaulting to a position of assuming the worst in the motivations of others, and a vast array of people – across the political spectrum – demanding that anything less than 100% compliance with each and every one of their thoughts, ideas, and positions is so patently unacceptable that an all-out war should be waged against those who hold positions that vary from their own in even the slightest degree, even if held by those on the same team or who occupy the same camp. As compromise fades, friends become former friends, political parties seldom accomplish anything beneficial, and decent, viable candidates are doomed to unelectable status by those who busily pursue the fiction of a perfect candidate cast in their own image and have little regard for the wishes of those who actually showed up to vote in primaries to shape the outcome.
But I digress (slightly), and in this age of rancor, I have continued on with a project that in recent years has become a tradition for me, and that is photographing rainbow flags that I encounter around Norfolk during the month of June.
I began doing so because seeing them always brought me a sense of joy and of solidarity, and sharing that is something I consider worthwhile. Further, knowing that their display tends to be fleeting, having them live on in something closer to perpetuity by committing them to a photographic image made me feel better, somewhat akin to the impossible notion of capturing lightning in a bottle, or the seemingly slightly more attainable notion of pausing the passage of time.
This year, though, marked a first for this project: I had a rainbow flag of my own. Though I had and have worn rainbow-inspired accessories, I had never before had a flag, and I probably still wouldn't have had one had Outwire 757 not undertaken a drive to sell them in the community as a means of marking Pride during a time when the pandemic has vanquished pretty much all large events, regardless of type. Frankly, I bought it not entirely certain I would put it up.
For years, I have displayed an HRC flag, year-round. It seemed to be in keeping with my tendencies toward subtlety in some facets of life, and yet, with the number of HRC stickers on vehicles in my neighborhood, it's a symbol whose significance I knew that many would recognize. And that was always the point: Provide a signal of welcome and acceptance to those who could identify it.
Truly, I never imagined that any passersby would ask me what the HRC flag symbolized, but once, a middle-aged woman did so. (I believe she was on her way to or from church, since my building is surrounded by one.) And on another occasion, I caught the tail-end of a conversation between two older men, who were probably also associated with the church. One must have, during idle chit-chat, speculated to the other that he thought the flag was about gay rights, which then must've prompted the other to voice the part that I heard, which was essentially, "But I thought that was a rainbow flag."
And now that I have a rainbow flag of my own on display, I've realized that it does still seem to hold more power to inspire than perhaps I'd known, even though it has always inspired such a response in me. Since it's been up, I've gotten some smiles, hellos, nods – and once even something along the lines of a "Woo-hoo! Love the flag" (I honestly was lost in thought when she began speaking, so I didn't fully hear and process it) – that I'm confident would not otherwise have occurred. Likewise, I think the rainbow watch I've been wearing this month has inspired a few similar, generally subtle reactions (except for the attractive guy who was surprisingly extrovertedly friendly in saying hello in passing while I was out walking; thank you, universe, for small joys that keep me going).
Of course, as mentioned, and as we all know, this year is different in so many ways.
Long before the world had heard of George Floyd, there were quite a few homes in my neighborhood displaying signs declaring several messages in one, including that they believe Black lives matter, and showing support for women's rights, immigrants, LGBT people, and science. Basically, the signs are intended as a means to uplift and show support for many of the populations and ideas that the current White House consistently seeks to undermine.
However, this is the first year that I can recollect seeing Black Lives Matter flags or messages alongside Pride flags. You can see two examples of that here, and there's one more that I'm aware of that I did not photograph. And it seems fitting, on multiple levels, to see those messages together, not only because of the events of the present, but also because of some of the events of the past. Indeed, some of the pioneers in the very early days of organizing for LGBT civil rights (back when they referred to themselves as homosexuals, or simply "gay") looked to the Black civil rights movement as a source of inspiration, knowledge, and learning about what tactics, techniques, and approaches might be most effective in advancing the cause.
And truly, I have long turned to my experiences as a gay man – and, in fact, as someone who would be regarded as identifiably gay and who has lived in times and places where that was not always as accepted as is often so today – to have some point of identification amongst my body of lived experiences that helps me to better understand and connect with the lived experiences of people who belong to other minority groups and have lived experiences the specifics of which will always be different from my own. Indeed, were I not a gay man – and a gay man perceived to be so, at that – I suspect that I would find it considerably more difficult to even attempt to imagine myself in others' shoes, however short my imagination may still land in that regard.
But with that, I should wrap this up.
As you peruse these photos, please consider this not only a wish that you experience a Pride month as splendid as possible – though it arrives at a strange and difficult time in history – but also a hope for vivid, meaningful equality for all of us.
Addendum, added June 30, 2020: As we close out Pride month, I wanted to add a few more photos from the neighborhood – flags that went up or that I saw after I'd thought I was already finished photographing them for the season.
Note: Obviously, I can't photograph something if I'm not aware of it, and given the pandemic, I have generally been less on the move than would normally be the case. Additionally, I generally don't photograph the same Pride flag displays a second time, year-to-year, unless those displays are notably changed, which is to say there may be other homes displaying rainbow flags this year who have also displayed them in past years that I have not photographed again and shown here. In other words, this is not necessarily a comprehensive catalog of nearby Pride flags, and I'm confident there are plenty of rainbow flags still undiscovered by me.