Gray is just a color. We give it meaning. The meaning can change as we change our perspective.
When someone my age heard of my book title, “On Being Gay and Gray,” he replied, “No, I’m gray and gay.” He wanted the emphasis not on his older age but on his exuberance as a gay man. He brings to the word “gray” a different meaning than I might. The word “gay” may conjure different feelings too.
When I say “gray,” multiple images come to mind, one of which is age, because as we age, most people’s hair turns shades of that color regardless of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But my very handsome, young nephew’s hair turned a beautiful gray color when he was still in his 30s. Some younger people dye their hair gray because they think it looks cool, not old.
The very cool, 40-something, gay male couple next door has both Rainbow Pride and American flags on poles in opposite corners of their property. It’s always comforting to Ray and me to spot those flags blowing together in the wind. The guys’ landscaping, for the month of June, is illuminated in the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Those colors, when pulled together in that sequence, mean LGBT Pride to them, to Ray and me, and to millions of LGBT people and allies around the world. The meaning I’ve always given the colors of the Rainbow Pride flag is the great diversity of sexual attractions, gender identities and expressions, faiths, races, incomes, HIV status, ages, physical and mental abilities, politics, etc. of our community members.
Our neighbors have good hearts and raised consciousness, and they once ordered and tried the altered Pride flag with the added black, brown, powder blue, soft pink, and white triangles to express solidarity with Black Lives Matter, the transgender community, and people living with HIV, but it just didn’t fly. They took down the changed “Progress” flag soon after they raised it on the poles and put back up the more common and, to them, meaningful expression of their lives, the flag with just six colors of the rainbow.
The Rainbow LGBT Pride Flag, originally created in eight colors (hot pink and indigo) by Gilbert Baker in San Francisco in 1978, touches my heart every time I see it, even if its lookalikes are actually waving in Peru in honor of indigenous people, in India in remembrance of Meher Baba, or in Italy for the Peace Movement. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people aren’t the only ones who embrace and give meaning to the colors of the rainbow. Without knowing this, my first response to seeing the flags in Cusco, Peru was, “We ought to move here.” They were everywhere.
If I was a Black or Brown gay person, or a person who identified as transgender, or as having HIV, I might want to imagine the traditional LGBT flag altered to more precisely represent my life, just as I’d want a letter added to the acronym to affirm my different life experiences. I’m glad not to be the one asked to make those decisions regarding our community’s official symbols and names, especially knowing there is no end to it. There will always be an unrepresented minority that finds its voice and wants its name and symbol known and included.
What I’ve learned in my time as a student of life is to love myself enough to know and respect my boundaries, and to always be open to learning new things about the life experiences of others. For instance, it’s perfectly okay for me not to like, or to use, the word “queer” in reference to myself, and it’s also illuminating and freeing for me to listen to and learn from the stories of others who embrace the word “queer” to describe themselves. My preference is for the now traditional six-color Rainbow flag. It’s been part of my life, and my identity for a very long time, but I’m open to change.
Because I’ve listened to a lot of people explain why they prefer the term “queer,” I always include it in the acronym in my writing and speaking. But I haven’t yet heard from others why the inclusion in the Pride flag of the powder blue, pink and white triangles is critically important to them, nor the black and brown stripes. Those stories might help me let go of the comfortable and stretch my boundaries to be more widely inclusive.
Everything changes. That is the nature of life. I grew up calling my beloved younger brother “Tommy.” One day, he said he preferred being called “Tom.” But, in my mind, he wasn’t “Tom,” and I mourned the loss of all of the emotional meaning the name “Tommy” carried in my heart. Yet, how could I not call him the name he preferred. “Tommy” didn’t feel like an adult name to him. Who am I to argue with that?
Some people squirm uncomfortably with the requested use of the pronoun “they” to designate people who identify as non-binary. “But, ‘they’ is a plural pronoun for a singular subject,” the linguists among us say, myself included. And, yet, rules change. As we are reminded, the law was made for humans, not humans for the law. As such, I gladly let go of my strict adherence to the rules of grammar in order to focus on the needs of another. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, but when it’s the right thing to do, you do it.
I remind myself that there were many homosexuals who didn’t much like the word “gay” as the new term of self-identification. Many heterosexuals felt our community was ruining a perfectly good word that once meant lighthearted and carefree. It even took liberal newspapers many years before they substituted the word “gay” for “homosexual” in their news stories and features. Change can take time.
One day, I might grow to love a Pride flag that incorporates colors different from those selected from the rainbow to represent our diverse but collected lives. The red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet colors of the Rainbow Pride flag make me smile. Whenever I see them I feel at home. I want everyone in our community to feel the same sense of belonging when they look at the flag. I can’t create that feeling for them. We each decide what meaning we give to colors, symbols, and words.
I wonder though, just as the U.S. flag represents all Americans without incorporating the colors and symbols for Mississippi, Maine, and Montana, maybe we could agree that the LGBT Rainbow flag, as Baker eventually settled on, with just its six colors, represents all of us in the community, and we could fly separate flags to speak of our unique nature and stories. If not, I’ll eventually come to like, and maybe love, the multi-purpose, multi-colored, multi-symbolled flag, just as I grew to embrace the gray color of my hair. We just couldn’t call it “the Rainbow” flag. Black, brown, powder blue, pink, and white aren’t colors in the rainbow, and neither is gray, I’m afraid.
Now there’s a thought. If we’re going to change the traditional Rainbow flag, why not add a bold stripe of gray to represent not just the extraordinary contributions of Baby Boomers to our movement, but also the significant challenges older lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people face in securing safety and independence?
What are the colors of your LGBT Pride?
Two Guys and A Dog is a semi-regular column from Brian McNaught, who has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. Visit Brian-McNaught.com to access his books and DVDs for free. “No one has done a better job of chronicling what it is like to be gay in America.” – Former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank.