Flags are controversial. Burning a flag is seen by some as one of the greatest insults imaginable, and all it takes is flying the wrong flag in the wrong place to start a riot.
This February marks LGBT+ History Month, and many colleges have agreed to fly the rainbow flag in memory and recognition of the LGBT+ movement. Many are indifferent to this; for others, it means everything.
Some JCRs are struggling to get college approval and many students simply don’t see the significance of the campaign. The argument from the conservative wing is that this would set a precedent. If the LGBT+ community can fly their flag, what stops a multitude of other movements doing the same? Surely, a line must be drawn somewhere? From the liberal wing there are accusations of tokenism. I believe, in spite of this, that colleges flying the rainbow flag this February would symbolise so much more than support for the movement and should be encouraged, if not enforced, by students and JCRs.
Last year, like many LGBT+ people, I was underwhelmed by Facebook’s rainbow profile picture epidemic. Suddenly, girls that I knew had been homophobic at school, and other people who I knew had no interest or knowledge about the movement, were with one click loudly declaring their support for LGBT+ rights and receiving pats on the back from all their Facebook friends in an ultimately meaningless show of solidarity. Such simplification of issues in a low-effort attempt to support LGBT+ people felt hollow and almost offensively half-hearted.
Some may see the flying of the flag this February, as an attempt to easily express how open and accepting we are, while making only a very minimal effort to change anything about societal oppression. I can see why many would feel this way, and admittedly, I don’t expect those reluctant in college to suddenly be banner-wielding activists after waving one flag for one day. However, some of the oldest institutions in the country waving the rainbow flag would scream so much more than reluctant acceptance and lukewarm support. We do not fly the flag in order to reform the people raising it, but as a symbol for the LGBT+ students who see it.
There are LGBT+ people all over the world, including those in the UK and in Cambridge, who spend part, if not all, of their lives in hiding because it would be unsafe for them to come out. It’s easy to forget in the student bubble that being open and honest about one’s sexuality can, for some, be life threatening. Coming out is not a cute side-plot in a sitcom. It is not an exaggeration to argue that for many people it is one of the most fundamental moments of their lives, as well as being potentially one of the most dangerous.
It is important to bear in mind that the colours of the rainbow flag don’t just represent the diversity of the movement, they symbolise pride in the face of adversity, happiness when the world around you seems to be collapsing, and the promise of a community that understands you when your own community treats you like a freak.
Flying the flag this February isn’t just a tokenistic attempt by colleges and JCRs to appear accepting. It is a powerful statement from LGBT+ students that says: "I’m here – I won’t be forced to hide. And above all, despite the odds, I exist."