Sunday 15 April 2012

Birmingham's Rhinestone Rhino

A couple of weeks ago it was announced that Birmingham City Council was putting £10,000 towards a diamante-studded statue of a rhinoceros that is going to mark the entrance to the city’s gay village.

I’ve been aware of the rhino as an lgbt symbol for several years but didn’t really look into it all that much. Birmingham’s rhinestone rhino got me more interested. So here’s what I’ve found out.

The purple rhinoceros first became a symbol of the lgbt community in December 1974. It was the idea of 2 gay rights activists living in Boston, Massachusetts, called Bernie Toale and Tom Morganti. The rhino was chosen, Toale said at the start of the campaign, because it was a very misunderstood animal, not unlike the gay community at the time. He pointed out that when threatened or angered the rhino would fight ferociously. Again, this summed up the gay community.

Even though the rhino is often called purple the original design was actually a slightly lighter lavender in colour, a widely used colour in the community (the reason why will be given in a Flower Power post later in the year). The heart was added as a symbol of love and humanity.

The rhino appeared on posters Toale designed to raise awareness of gay issues around Boston, and it appeared on the walls of the Boston underground system and public advertising spaces. After a while the cost of the campaign got too much and since they couldn’t afford to pay Boston’s public service advertising rates the posters stopped being printed. It seemed for a while that the purple rhino would disappear for good.

Even though the original purple rhino faded into the history books it was often referred to in later publications and, more recently still, websites. This breathed new life into the rhino and brought it out of Boston and into the wider world. It was picked up by a few lgbt groups and organisations, and if you Google “purple rhino” a long list of these will appear. In 2009 it was even suggested as an alternative to the Rainbow Pride flag (pictured below).

The Birmingham rhino came about through a competition. The Birmingham LGBT group and lgbt businesses in the gay village in the city felt that a distinctive sculpture would enhance the revitalisation of the city centre. With various grants and remaining funds from the council’s revitalisation budget, a competition was organised.

The winning idea came from Robbie Coleman. It will be a larger-than-life-size rhino encrusted with diamante to represent the city’s great jewellery heritage. Diamonds were also used by the Mattachine Society, a gay rights movement set up in the USA in the 1970s.

It remains to be seen whether the Birmingham rhino become a tourist attraction in its own right. But it makes me wonder if a gay village in any other city has a sculpture at its entrance.

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