I went to St John’s, Newfoundland a couple of years ago. I didn’t know a soul there, except that a colleague of mine from Halifax had alerted her friends, two local lesbians, of my impending visit.
I had their phone number scratched on a piece of paper, jammed in my wallet and was planning on calling them when I’d settled in.
I was on the way to my hotel in the waterfront/tourist area, when I passed by a travel shop, over which hung a rainbow flag. Without hesitation, I figured I should at least pop my head into the establishment and see why a store catering to tourists of a more mainstream variety would be sporting the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered symbol of pride.
If they had the rainbow flag proudly displayed, they must be queer, or at least queer —friendly, I reasoned. If nothing else, I could ask them where the queers hung out, or if there were any community events going on.
Well, I’d barely opened the front door when a woman behind the counter looked up at me and said, “You must be Karen.”
Okay, I realize how unusual it is to be picked out of the crowd so easily. I realize it’s not going to happen every time I walk into a store with a rainbow flag.
I realize this was St John’s, Newfoundland and it’s, well, smaller there.
I am after all an obvious dyke — even a person with no gaydar whatsoever would pick me out of a lineup — and the St John’s lesbians knew I was coming. It wasn’t rocket science.
But the point is, I was 4,000 miles away from Vancouver and within minutes of landing I’d found “my peeps” because when I looked up and saw that flag, I figured I was home.
I figured I would be welcome. To me the rainbow flag says, “safe space for persons of the homosexual variety.”
The rainbow flag was designed in 1978 by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker as a symbol of gay Pride. It debuted in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in June of 1978.
After America’s first openly gay politician, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, was assassinated by a homophobic fellow supervisor four months later, the importance of the rainbow flag to gays and lesbians intensified.
It became a symbol of the fight for equal rights, a mark of Pride — and when the AIDS crisis erupted in the 1980s, an expression of dignity.
Since then, the GLBT community has continued to fight for basic civil rights. Like the right to marry the person we love. Or the right to bury them. Or to have our legal system press charges and seek a hate crime designation when one of us gets gaybashed. Or to simply walk down the street holding our lover’s hand.
And all the while, our community has marched under a rainbow flag.
Because as humans we are storytellers. We are drawn to imagery, we connect with symbols and, especially when the chips are down, we need something to believe in, something to mark our faith and proudly display it in public.
In a prophetic speech, shortly before he was murdered, Harvey Milk said, “You gotta have hope.”
The rainbow flag has flown over the heart of our gay Village on every Davie St lamppost between Burrard and Broughton Sts as the emblem of Gay Pride since November 2000. And though Davie St is not the only Vancouver neighbourhood inhabited by queers, the strip signifies Queer Vancouver, much like The Castro in San Francisco, Greenwich Village in NYC or Church St in Toronto.
When queer guests come to town they can walk through our Village and feel safe and at home, the way I did in a small travel shop in St John’s, Newfoundland.
In May, the West End Business Improvement Association took down our rainbow flags because triathlon athletes were coming to town, an action that left a plethora of community debate in its wake.
Some have said it’s no big deal; it was only short term and meant to welcome the athletes with banners of their own. Really? Since when do we remodel our homes, rearrange the furniture or replace our artwork just because we’re expecting out of town guests?
Sounds suspiciously to me like “straightening up the house” — de —dyking the apartment, pretending our lover is really our roommate and hiding the porn because we’re not out to Aunt Martha or Cousin Joe.
If the gesture was truly to welcome the triathletes, why change a thing? Why not welcome our guests to the Village in all its natural glory?
I say throw up more rainbow flags. Pave the streets with rainbow tiles. Shower the athletes with rainbow confetti. Serve them rainbow beverages with rainbow umbrellas in promiscuously pink, fashionably delicate cocktail glasses, with rainbow ice cream on the side.
Seat them at a rainbow table in a rainbow restaurant, attend to them with waiters in rainbow outfits with shoes to match and play nothing but rainbow music (Somewhere Over the Rainbow for starters). A big fat beautiful Rainbow —a —rama.
The WEBIA is now talking about permanently removing the rainbow banners from our Village, which makes me wonder if it was all just a test. If they can get away with removing the flags for the triathlon, will they rip them down for fireworks night? Labour Day? Groundhog Day?
How about the Pride Parade?
If the rainbow flags came down for a few thousand athletes competing in a triathlon race, what’s going to happen in 2010 when this town is crawling with athletes, tourists, out of towners, my aunt Martha and your cousin Joe?