I once heard someone saying that trans people are like the canaries in a coal mine: we might think they are the only one who are suffering and dying, when in fact their plight is a symptom of that which is killing us all
“Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain”. As you might know, although referring to the tragic end of Richard III, the last king to die in a battle made famous by Shakespeare’s homonymous play, this sentence is a mnemonic in which the initial letter of each word is meant to remind us of the seven colours of the rainbow discernible by the human eye, namely red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. This natural phenomenon never fais to captivate our imagination. Its extraordinary beauty and shape, its fleeting character and its rare occurrence induce a rush of optimism and euphoria in those fortunate enough to catch it. Since it signals the end of a thunderstorm it is usually taken as a symbol for peace.
The rainbow’s evocative power did not escape the early associations of gay activists which, in the late seventies, were looking for a rallying symbol. They turned the rainbow into a flag which was flown for the first time at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade on June 25, 1978. Those who took part to that parade and its spectators, however, would not have found the Richard of York mnemonic particularly helpful. Gilbert Baker, the artist commissioned to design the flag, decided to extend the sequence of colours by placing hot pink before the red and substituting the blue with turquoise, according to the following associations: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic, indigo for harmony and violet for spirituality. He hand-dyed and stitched the stripes himself and his idea spread like wildfire - as everyone can testify during this LGBTQ history month in which the flag is ubiquitous.
Very soon, however, Baker realized that his choice of colours was not commercially viable - hot pink and turquoise dyes are expensive and to streamline mass production of the flag, he dropped the hot pink and restored the boring blue instead of the extravagant turquoise – gone were sex and magic from the emblem of gay pride! Indeed, today most people acknowledge that if LGBTQ rights have grown exponentially, the price paid has been a loss of the movement’s critical edge and queerness (one could say of its magic) and the hijacking of LGBTQ symbols by big corporations for advertising. Many, for example, complained about the endless, depressing and bland succession of lavish floats advertising major commercial brands during the last gay parade that took place in London in 2019.
We could argue that this is the unavoidable downside of success. Is not the cross itself, an instrument of torture, become a fashionable harmless piece of jewellery flaunted by models and movie stars? To those who might find this comparison slightly irreverent it might be objected that in biblical terms, both the cross and the rainbow perform similar representational functions.
The rainbow is the sign of the covenant with Noah in the book of Genesis because it bridges the divide between God and humanity and thus reminds us of the restoration of the friendship disrupted by the events of the garden of Eden.
In an analogous way, the Fathers of the Church interpreted the horizontal beam of the cross as Christ embracing the whole of humanity, and its vertical beam as him bridging heaven and earth and literally crossing the divide between us and the Father. The cross fulfils that which was prefigured in Jesus’ baptism: the heavens are torn apart, and the dialogue between God and humanity is resumed: we hear the voice of the Father - and his love, under the form or a dove, can again descend on us, in us, and make us beloved children of God.
Reflecting on the destiny of the rainbow and of the cross in the history of gay emancipation and of Christianity exposes the contrast between God’s way of crossing divides and ours, between God’s way of establishing and sustaining friendship, validation and acceptance, and ours.
Reciprocal recognition always is a challenge. To confine our examples to LGBTQ issues, society might have become more accepting of gay identity but still struggles with transgender and transexual people, who more than ever are routinely harassed, bullied, abused and subjected to such a level of marginalization that often their only means of survival is prostitution. I once heard someone saying that trans people are like the canaries in a coal mine: we might think they are the only one who are suffering and dying, when in fact their plight is a symptom of that which is killing us all: the poisons of toxic masculinity, of the denial of our insecurities, of a perception of sex still permeated by unprocessed guilt – the list of venomous agents in our culture, in our churches and in the hidden corners of our psychology is depressingly long.
Our instinctive strategy to deal with difference is suppression, as most of human history amply demonstrates. Christianity truly has excelled in this approach, outmatching almost any other religion and philosophy in its fierce and uncompromising resolve to disempower, ostracize, despise, and discredit any form of dissent from given definitions of orthodoxy. This is not just history. Sadly, even in our days, this still happens in each of our Christian denominations.
A much more insidious and refined strategy than suppression however has gained cultural prominence in our Post-Modern context, namely indifference, often achieved through proceduralism and standardisation. Those who claim acceptance and validation are insidiously pressed to tone down their singularity (we could say their queerness), and those who do not want to be challenged by anything other than what they can handle turn a blind eye – and everyone is supposed to be happy. Except, again, trans who unfortunately, or, I would say, fortunately for us, cannot tone down or hide their difference, and therefore expose the persistence of our deep-seated intolerance. Exactly the same, of course, applies to ethnic minorities.
Just as suppression, indifference corrodes any attempt to build authentic and heart-felt cohesion in our society, and in our churches. Just as suppression, indifference leaves the consequences of our divides unchallenged, festering under the surface.
We can be thankful therefore for the resilience of both the rainbow in the book of Genesis and of the cross in the Gospel against these relentless attempts to neutralize their disruptive power, their queerness.
The covenant with Noah in the book of Genesis just after the flood is based on God’s moving acknowledgement that he cannot deal with the refusal opposed to his love just by erasing humanity from the face of the earth, that is by its suppression. Human beings became forever part of God’s history the day in which he breathed his own breath in their nostrils, giving them a share in his own life. God accepts that he will have to live with us, whether he (or, rather we) like it or not – we are stuck with each other forever.
Then, as the chosen symbol of the proper way being in a relationship, the rainbow also signals that the solution to conflict cannot be indifference, and does so in two ways. Firstly because it has the shape of a bridge, which means that the opposite (and contrasting) edges of the gulf are not erased but affirmed so as to become the foundations for their connection. Secondly, an even deeper meaning lies in the varied colours of the rainbow. The light that allows our eyes to perform their function so that we can see each other is not uniform, nor simply white. It is made of the seven colours we see and many others we can discover thanks to technical instruments that exceed the spectrum perceivable by our naked eyes. In other words, the rainbow crosses our divides by maximizing our differences, by reminding us of their potential for beauty when they are given the opportunity to reveal themselves and thrive - usually after a thunderstorm, that is as the result of the unavoidable conflicts that are the daily bread of our life in society.
So, hot pink and turquoise, sex and magic, were taken out of the equation with the result that corporations can now easily cash in on the rainbow flag. We have made ourselves colour blind to the very queerness which led LGBTQ activists to choose this symbol in the first place.
God’s recipe to successfully fight indifference and suppression is remembering: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9.16). The rainbow itself – and we could say the same or the cross- is the God-given mnemonic that gently persuades us not be afraid of our conflicts, our differences, but rather turn them into springboards to reach out to others beyond our comfort zone, our fears, and our insecurities, and learn to truly rejoice in these differences, celebrate them - hot pink, turquoise, and all.