Do you “deserve” to display a rainbow on Facebook?

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Everybody wins when a political community moves towards justice, even if they don’t deserve to win. That’s one of the awesome things about justice.

It seems like I am chatting more about symbols here lately than cities, but I am sure I will return to my regular programming soon.

Rainbow icons on Facebook have been controversial. The first shot aimed at celebrating people was the “Har har, you dumb people who used the Fboo rainbow icon maker, you just gave your data to Fboo, you’re so dumb” entry. This one was so amusing because it so clearly reeked of “I want to poop on the victory party so bad I can’t stand it, but I don’t want to look like a homophobe, so I need to try to find a way to make you feel dumb and me feel smart on this particular thing.”

To anybody worried about this: if you don’t want Fboo and other online services to know about you, don’t use Fboo, period. Ever. Advertisers and business pages can find audiences based on data they collect. I do it all the time with advertising my nonprofit. Your data *everywhere* are monitored and sold if you use a Starbuck’s card, when you use a charge card, when your credit rating changes, when you step on a train platform, when you use your Ralph’s card. Fboo was fairly open about the natural experiment it was conducting, so to act like it’s some sort of new, sinister thing is a bit rich.

I did not happen to participate, not because I wasn’t happy to see all my friend’s celebrating a watershed moment in civil rights and social inclusion, but because I was too lazy to fiddle with my icon.

Peter Moskowitz has an opinion up on WashPo, scolding those displaying the flag because they haven’t given enough to the cause of gay pride to do so.

I don’t know Mr. Moskowitz’s writing in general. It says he’s writing a book on gentrification, which could be very nice, but I’ve not seen his prior writings. I will say that it looks more like Mr. Moskowitz is working through what I can only imagine are complicated feelings after the SCOTUS ruling and the subsequent celebrations, and he’s not done processing those feelings. (I wouldn’t be). The comments in response are unnecessarily harsh, even if I don’t think he’s right.

Here’s the first part where I think he goes a bit wrong:

I’ve earned the right to claim pride through years of internal strife over my sexuality. Others have died in the name of gay pride. More still have been jailed, have been disowned by their families, and have sued their state governments for it. Gay pride is not something you can claim by waving a flag. The rainbow symbol is easy to co-opt, but the experience it represents is not.

That’s why it wasn’t comforting to see hundreds of my Facebook friends’ profile pictures draped in rainbows. 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.

They had no part in winning? Whom are you friends with, Mr. Moskowitz? I guess a few people displaying the flag icon might be clueless enough to believe that they know the struggle, but I’m pretty sure the roughly 30 Fboo friends of mine who actually are openly homosexual, and who played with the icon maker, and are much, much older than Moskowitz (since they are my contemporaries) do know a bit about the struggle. Do they get to tell Moskowitz that he doesn’t know the struggle since he’s not as old and hasn’t been in it as long? (No. It is one thing to be an old soldier; you do have more experience, but it doesn’t mean that young people’s struggles are not real and important, and you may or may not understand more. It’s not the age, honey, it’s the mileage.)

And, while many of your friends and family do not know your struggle because they didn’t experience it personally, weren’t many of your friends there for you during your struggles? If they weren’t, why are they your friends? And isn’t being there for you as friends something that matters, at least a little to you? Gay devotees of Ayn Rand here notwithstanding, we’re not even talking about allyship or active participation. We’re just talking about how people are part of your struggle, personally, not just politically, some good, and some bad.

Not all of them were supportive:

Some of the rainbow-colored faces were people I would never talk to about being gay – a relative with conservative politics, high school buddies I didn’t come out to because I feared losing their friendships. They weren’t necessarily homophobic, but they weren’t great allies either. They didn’t march during pride celebrations; they didn’t participate in the “day of silence”; they didn’t even bother to inquire about my life. If they were true allies to me or the LGBT community, where were they before Friday?

They might have been ignorant twats before Friday. They might just be bandwagon jumpers who still secretly think you are going to burn in hell.

But while they might not be hall of fame members in being supportive, the display of that symbol on their wall strongly suggests that they learned and changed, at least a little, in the vast social learning project that struggles for emancipation are. This is what political success looks like, to some degree; those who were your enemies and oppressors finally get it.

It’s also a little short-sighted to simply discount displaying the symbol as empty. One battle was won, but struggles go on. And on. Did you not read the dissents? Holy cow, there is puh-lenty of hate left.

Chances are very, very good that these conservatives who displayed the rainbow are, themselves, ensconced in social networks with people who are furious at the court’s ruling and who hate that rainbow and what it stands for. I know I have people in my extended network on Fboo for whom that rainbow is an anathema. I’m sure that I am not the only person for whom that is true. It is wrong to think that everybody can now just display the rainbow icon on their walls with no risk or consequence to themselves in an empty gesture. No, it’s not the same as taking tear gas in the face. But it is a social risk; plenty of relationships have been damaged by Fboo politics. IOW, the conservatives who put the rainbow icon up probably took a much, much bigger social risk doing so in their probable networks than those of us who are ensconced in networks dominated by lefties, allies, and openly LGBTQ folks.

So while you may not respect their past actions, this action might be braver and bigger than you think it is. Just like they are likely outliers in your network, you are an outlier in theirs, and the fact that they are willing to annoy/alienate/provoke the people in their network who make Scalia look like Saul Alinsky strikes me as a bigger deal than we allow.

Moskowitz personally has no obligation to forgive these people in his network, but just because it took them awhile to see justice does not make the fact that they see it now irrelevant or meaningless. It means that people can change their ideas, and that is important to the justice project in a democracy even if it sucks that they took as long as they did to figure things out and even if you, personally, can not forgive them for their wrongs. Even if you can’t, having them on board is important to sustaining civil rights and social inclusion.

Politicians were guilty, too. President Obama’s Facebook and Twitter pages displayed “Love Wins” messages on the day of the Supreme Court ruling, even though the president was against same-sex marriage until a few years ago (at least publicly). And Hillary Clinton’s Facebook page was awash in rainbow-themed regalia on Friday, her 2016 presidential campaign “H” logo overlain with the pride rainbow. Left unsaid on her Facebook page was the fact that she actively advocated against same-sex marriage until two years ago.

Yep, it took them a long time to figure it out. However, in fairness to Obama, he revealed his reversal on marriage equality in a highly public way, in the middle of what was, in reality, a tough re-election campaign. I fully expected him to stay quiet about it, as Obama is not somebody who takes big political risks when he doesn’t have to. Instead, he acknowledged that he had been on the wrong side of this issue for years. It was a significant moment of political leadership, not a bandwagon jump, and it could have cost him the election. Instead, the timing was right and it signaled a sea change in the way people think about same-sex marriage. He did what a leader should do: he set the tone. He should have known better sooner, but the fact that he changed his mind, owned up to it, and leant his support mattered.

When your political community’s top gun joins your side, it matters. Even if he should have done so sooner.

Moskowitz has every right to be dubious of politicians who only recently woke up, but the fact that they showed their support now instead of then doesn’t invalidate their support now. What is the point of advocacy if not to induce exactly this sort of change of heart and mind among democratic and social majorities? All the sacrifices that Moskawitz outlines as the struggle: the violence, the job and family losses, the wrongs big and small…people experience these genuine sacrifices and struggles precisely because they want to be both who they are and yet included as fully human and recognized as part of the political whole. The only way the latter occurs if those who were wrong see right and take it to heart.

In an ideal world, majorities and elites would understand the powers they hold and educate their own ignorant selves, and advocacy would center on interests, not inclusion. Unfortunately, in the real world, people have to be shown, and somebody has to do the work of educating. It is not fair. But when it works, when somebody has undertaken that work and succeeds, it is a good thing, notwithstanding.

My interpretation, based on the people in my group who used it, is that the straight people used the icon to say: “Hey! You won this one! I am happy! Congratulations!” and the gays who displayed it were saying “Hey! We won this one! I’m happy!”

The key issue here is “we” and “you.” We as a political community won when SCOTUS ruled the way it did, just as the LGBTQ community won. There are undoubtedly those who wish the conventions and traditions of their religion guided the laws and practices of the United States who think this is a great loss, and I am sorry about that, but those of us who hold the the disestablishment clause to be one of the most significant advances in human civilization don’t really owe them any more than a “sorry you feel that way.”

Of all the gestures that occurred, the one that I think bothered my conservative friends the most was the White House rainbow. It is a little mystifying to those of us who are default pragmatists: it’s not like they went to Sherwin Williams and painted it on. We’re squabbling about light bulbs here. Of all those who complained to me about the White House gesture, I could never really get a strong argument for what the big deal was or why it was so offensive to them. “I just think that was going too far” was the rationale, not more. Too far? With light bulbs? Thus is the nature of symbols. They are hard to explain, but they are felt viscerally.

Rainbows over the past week were show of political unity. Some of us are not ready for that unity. Moskowitz is not because he still feels the pain that injustices have wrought, and for him the rainbow is about identity that has not been shared. Religious dissenters and conservatives are not ready because they are not ready for the toleration that political unity under pluralist practice requires.

There is a lot of work that remains, but that rainbow meme is only an empty gesture if we allow it to be. what that rainbow stands for is way bigger than you and what you may or may not have done in the past. What matters now is whether you sustain and support inclusion and equality, or whether the icon was a one and done deal for you, nothing more.

One thought on “Do you “deserve” to display a rainbow on Facebook?

  1. So, according to Mr. Moscowitz, I can’t put a pink ribbon over my FB icon because I have been fortunate enough not to have had the experience of having breast cancer. And my support for the battles of my friends who have doesn’t count? Hmmm.

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