Sunday, 6 October 2013

Over the Rainbow

The first of this month’s meteorological articles deals with the weather phenomenon that the lgbt community has adopted as its emblem – the rainbow.

Many civilisations have specific gods and deities attributed to the rainbow. The Norse and Greeks thought of the rainbow as an actual mystical structure linking this world with the next as well. Even in those ancient times there was no consensus across cultures on which colours were contained in the rainbow or how many there were. Homer, the Greek poet, believed the rainbow had only one colour – purple. Aristotle, however, contradicts himself. In “De Sensu” he writes of the rainbow as having 7 colours, while in his “Meteorologica” he wrote of only 3 – red, green and purple/blue.

Both 3 and 7 were equally believed in the Middle Ages to be the number of colours. The 3-colour rainbow can be seen as a means of representing the Holy Trinity and was popular in Christian iconography, helped by it’s place in the story of Noah and the Flood. The 7-colour rainbow was favoured by alchemists and mystics, and this may be the reason why Sir Isaac Newton named 7 colours in his spectrum (Newton was interested in alchemy). Other authorities have put other numbers on the colours throughout the medieval period and across the globe.

The rainbow became linked to the lgbt community through 2 separate routes.

The first of these came with the iconic song from “The Wizard of Oz”. There is such a lot of meteorological  symbolism in the film, from the initial hurricane over Kansas to the climactic hot-air balloon ride, that it seems strange to think that the song “Over the Rainbow” was almost NOT in the film. The producers claimed it slowed the story down. But that’s a story for another time.

The song, the film, and its star Judy Garland who played the character of Dorothy, quickly became accepted by the growing lgbt community in the 1960s, and the term “a friend of Dorothy” has now entered the dictionaries to signify a gay man. A different origin has been suggested for the phrase, however. It is also possible that “being a friend of Dorothy” referred to being among the many gay friends and acquaintances of the American humorist Dorothy Parker.

The rainbow, on the other hand, may indeed have become a gay emblem solely through the song “Over the Rainbow”. With it’s cultural identity as a sign of hope it is easy to believe how early gay rights activists could see it as symbolic of hope for the future.

The second route by which the rainbow became a gay emblem is through the Rainbow Pride flag. I wrote an article on this flag on June 1st last year, but I’ll say more about it here.

Gilbert Baker, the creator of the original Rainbow Pride flag, had no intention of designing something that would become a worldwide emblem. The flag was created specifically for one event, San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day parade on 25th June 1978. It is only a series of unforeseen events that took it out of the city.

The murder of Harvey Milk the following November brought thousands of gay men and women onto the streets of San Francisco in protest and anger. Harvey was a key figure at the Freedom Day Parade and memories of that event were still vibrant in the minds of the lgbt community. Associating the rainbow flag with Harvey Milk was the turning point in it’s history and symbolism.

San Franciscans then took the flag across the USA in protests and freedom marches, and very soon it was seen flying in New York, Chicago and other cites across America that had large gay rights movements.

It was Harvey Milk who had suggested to Gilbert Baker that a distinctive emblem would be welcome to celebrate the Freedom Day parade. Harvey didn’t suspect that Gilbert would come up with a flag rather than a logo. It isn’t possible to say for sure if a traditional logo would have had the same impact in the wake of Harvey’s murder as the flag did. Would that logo have become a world-wide emblem? I believe not, but it has inspired so many thousands of lgbt logos for several decades.

I sometimes think that the lgbt community has come such a long way and developed it’s own diversity since the 1970s that a new flag should be created to reflect the progress we have made. But then I think of the persecutions and homophobia that still exists around the world, and I’m reminded of the simple yet powerful concept that combines the 2 rainbow flag roots/routes.

The centuries-old rainbow symbolism and the “Over the Rainbow” lyrics brings the message of hope and a better life. This joins the flag of identity, protest, activism and gay rights to produce an emblem of universal significance and a powerful presence that should be used for as long as there are lgbt rights to fight for.

No comments:

Post a Comment