When I was in high school I liked the rainbow. Having a sticker or two made me feel like I was included. I was a proud “ally” to the 2 gay people I knew. I felt it made me look open minded and supportive. I wasn’t a sheep like everyone else. I was cool. I liked gays and gays liked me.
When I came out, I thought of buying myself something rainbow. Everyone else seemed to have a rainbow of their own, I wanted one too. In fact, I thought it was an unwritten rule that every queer must own at least one rainbow item bought specifically because it was ‘prideful.’ That rainbow stuff you had before you were queer doesn’t count.
Shopping online, I found thousands of ‘gay’ products, all dripping with rainbows. Still, I couldn’t find the one that fit me. Even specific genderqueer/trans merchandise seemed trite and inane to me. And though I searched relentlessly for the perfect rainbow I knew that if I found it, it wouldn’t matter. I was too broke to afford my own rainbow. In hopes of future funding, I put the ‘pride-wear plan’ on an obsessive back burner. I tired to convince myself that I didn’t need to buy anything. It was clearly a capitalist plot to take my queer money, and my queer money had better uses for me. Rainbowless, I coveted the rainbows of my friends, trying on their rainbow arm-bands, rainbow studded belts, and rainbow flag-shaped belt-buckles. I spent hours online picking out clever trans shirts with hints of queered masculinity, whispering promises of purchase once I got the money. I admired the rainbow stickers on cars in bar parking lots, dreaming of someday having my own rainbow adorned car… or just a car…
And though I never got my rainbow, I somehow managed to remain queer. Because of this lack of influence I started to forget about getting a rainbow until the idea became insignificant. My first pride brought up old feelings, making the rainbow especially tempting. Luckily all the free condoms, beads, and mini-rainbow flags satisfied me so that I didn’t feel the need to buy pride wear – which I still could not afford.
But I couldn’t hold out forever. Under the indirect influence of my prideful friend I finally bought myself a rainbow. It was a rainbow ‘splat’ static-cling sticker for my car window (or more so, my parents’ car that I sometimes borrowed if they weren’t using it). Though I had become a little bored with the rainbow craze, I was excited about buying it. It felt like I was passing a queer mile-stone that I had missed. I took my sticker and asked my parents if I could put it on their car. My dad told me “That would be fine, but I better not get beaten up.” We laughed at the joke, ignoring the reality behind it. When the time came to put the sticker on the car reality hit me, adding a new element to my car-rainbowing that I hadn’t accounted for. Fear. Was I outing myself? I decided to swallow my nerves and put it on anyway. After all, what was pride without bravery, right? My car was coming out of the closet and I was proud of my little gay car. I felt included, like I had joined a club for gay people with cars. I felt like a rebel, just like every other person who puts a sticker on their car that represents a sub-culture made up of millions of people. It was a good feeling.
When I obtained my rainbow, I was well aware of how I didn’t need it. Anyone who looked at me would know I was queer, or at least think it was highly likely. It was as if I was getting the rainbow to prepare for the future. I was sure that as time passed, and as I passed, the rainbow would become more important to me… Other people seemed to feel that way so I probably would too, right?
The “LGBT” coordinator at my university created a brochure to advertise the 4 gay things on campus. She asked me to take a look at the design, but when I opened the file I almost vomited. I had never seen a more rainbow coated PDF file in my life. Nothing on this paper represented me or the space I was striving to build. I even wondered if there was something wrong with me, some shortcoming of mine that kept that page of rainbow swirls and gay-themed clip-art from relating to my reality. I then realized that if that was my reality I’d be on some trip and everyone would be asking for a hit – gay or not.
My second Pride came around. It’s hard to not enjoy that one day you feel quasi-normal walking down the street. But as the sidewalk flooded with rainbows and same sex couples there was a cloud over me. The year had been hard on the scene. The Ohio smoking ban had emptied the bars and the social opportunities had plummeted from was meager to measly. Suddenly because it was Pride weekend all the gays were out and the bars were full. As far as the eye could see there were lesbians and bears, dykes and gays, drag queens and drag kings, leather daddies and mamas, classy fags, butchy femmes, even some transfolk, all dripping with rainbow pride. Why did they all wait until this one weekend in June to show their faces, to show their ‘pride?’ Where had all the rainbows had been the rest of the year?
After that I became pretty adverse to the rainbow. I couldn’t help passing snobbish judgments on those who enjoyed it in any way other than comic relief. I felt offended by rainbow wearers. Did they think they were gayer than me with more pride? Was I a bad queer because I didn’t have a rainbow heart tattoo on the back of my neck? I didn’t feel guilty. I knew that no matter what I was read as – male or female, gay or straight, I was queer and likely to be seen as such. I said “Fuck the rainbow! And fuck the capitalist culture that tells me I should have one!” However, I am not the only queer in the world, and therefore do not have the authority to call the rainbow defunct as my cultural representation. I try to keep in mind how society rejects some people as queer, femme women or masculine men for instance, and that the rainbow may give them a means of expression. I try to consider the unity and visibility the rainbow offers. I force myself to smile at the buckets of rainbows spilling out of prideful kids just coming out. I have good intentions, but there is no stopping it. The rainbow and I have grown apart.
Out in the real world, any sign of queer life is a rarity, especially in Ohio. It’s not unusual to feel isolated and drained, or need to watch your back. Being on my city-sized campus is the worst. It’s a parallel dimension where I am forced to interact and pretend and pass. I hated school. No one ever talked to me – only stared or acted uncomfortable. I was sitting in Spanish, barely holding my head up out of boredom, when some girl walked in, bouncy as a super-ball. I woke from my semi-comatose state, eyeing her pink, white, and grey camo-pattern t-shirt. Just another preppy looking girl, probably a freshman, who will never interact with me . As she sat down something hit me. Like a string pulling me upright I slowly rose in shock at the sight of a rainbow belt around her waist. It was like I’d never seen a rainbow before. Sure, maybe it’s as the air-fresheners say: She’s not gay, she just likes rainbows. Or she’s queer, pridefully queer. Either way I was down with her vibe, it was a colorful one and I’ve always been a fan of color. It was like a light had been shined in on me, just for an instant. Like a beacon calling out to me, that rainbow reached out with a message. It told me I’m not alone.
The power of the rainbow never ceases to amaze me. There is no doubt in its power to communicate. Are the rainbow and I on the cusp of a truce? I’m not so sure, but do I keep an eye out for rainbows – in store windows , on backpacks, on cars. The sight of it gives me some sign of welcome, that I’m not the only person in this world who is different. Yes, my love for the gay rainbow will never be the same, but I’ll never escape its reach or stop needing to use it. The rainbow and I, we have a tumultuous history, but we’ll never really be rid of each other. As a queer person, it will never stop being associated with me, and I will never stop using it to identify those in my community. And how else would I know which drivers in which cars are gay? Or at least, really like rainbows.