Do rainbows make a difference?

Unless you’ve been tucked away under a rock somewhere, you likely would have seen the recent news that the US Supreme Court has ruled all 50 states in the nation must carry out and recognise marriages between people of the same sex.  This makes the US the 21st country or territory in the world to legally recognise same-sex marriage.

In the wake of this announcement, I noticed something very interesting start to happen on my Facebook newsfeed.  On the one hand, many of my friends used a photo-editing tool launched by Facebook to overlay their profile pictures with a rainbow flag, to demonstrate their support for LGBT rights and the landmark Supreme Court decision.

On the other hand, a number of my friends shared posts and articles pointing out that same-sex marriage does not mean automatic equality for all individuals in the queer and trans communities.  As Chelsea Manning points out in an article for The Guardian, “despite our successes…there are still queer and trans folks who struggle every single day for the right to define themselves, to access gender-appropriate healthcare and to live without harassment by other people, the police or the government….Marriage equality doesn’t help them; and the potential loss of momentum for trans/queer rights after this win could well hurt them.”

So as rainbows started spreading through my newsfeed, I began to wonder: How many of my friends who changed their profile picture have actually given much thought to the issue of marriage equality before the recent announcement?  How many have given money or time to an LGBT cause, fought to raise awareness on LGBT issues, or even simply said “hey, that’s not okay” when a friend made an offensive queer or trans joke?

But then I started to think a little more about my admittedly cynical view.  Editing your profile picture is of course a momentary, risk-less act.  But it is one that shows your social network pretty immediately that you have some affinity or support for the cause.  And marriage equality is of course not simply about changing the law.  It is also about changing social attitudes towards queer and trans people, who are often otherwise marginalised from the legal and social institutions that the rest of us take for granted.

Our social consciousness as a whole is informed by what we believe is “normal” or acceptable in attitudes and behaviour.  Every day we project, and receive, many different and subtle messages on what these agreed upon social norms are.  So perhaps profile pictures, and social media in general, tells a story as to what, as a group, we now deem to be acceptable or desirable.  In this case, that’s supporting the rights of queer and trans people.

Of course, profile pictures alone are unlikely to change the minds of those who are already entrenched in their homophobic or transphobic views.  But for those who perhaps haven’t yet had much opportunity to consider the queer and trans rights movement, a sea of rainbow flags might create an opportunity for them to recognise and think about the issues.  And who knows, perhaps these types of images (if seen many times) could possibly, gradually, shift the dominant social view.

So next time I see a rainbow-fied profile picture, I’ll practice being a little less cynical, and a little more aware as to how rainbows can make a difference.


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