This piece appears in the “Breaking the Silence: Queer Self, Life, and Love in Northeast Ohio” anthology. “Breaking the Silence” is a part of Literary Cleveland’s Amplify Projects series, designed to empower, uplift, and celebrate our many stories and place power into the hands of people and communities, giving them the platform to tell their own stories on their own terms.
by Steve Buchan
I have a somewhat conflicted history with the Rainbow Pride Flag. I certainly have no problem with rainbows, stripes, or pride, of course, but my relationship with the Pride Flag has changed considerably over the years. As a young, gay man, back in the eighties during the hight of the AIDS crisis, I was as hungry as any other closeted youth for information on anything gay. Sadly, the bulk of that info concentrated on AIDS, violence against the LGBTQ community, and the fight for equal rights and treatment. I gobbled it up anyway. I was told, in no uncertain terms, about the horrible death I was doomed to, the anger and hate I would have to put up with, and the inevitable exile from my family when they finally found out the truth. I wasn’t embarrassed by the Pride Flag, but I was terrified of it.
You see, whenever a story popped up on the evening news, or a prime-time news show, the Pride Flag would be featured prominently. I desperately wanted to hear the story, but if there was anyone else in the room with me, or, if someone walked in while I was watching it, the flag was a dead giveaway screaming “I’m gay…go ahead and hate me!” My reactions were to either change the channel immediately, or, my favorite, pretend I was reading and wasn’t even aware of what was on the television.
“Are you watching this?”
“No, I’m reading, duh!”, as I held up my book to prove my innocence.
This is not to say that my family ever accused me, or called me names, or questioned me about it. No one ever did. I did not grow up hearing slurs of any kind, or hate speech, or anything even remotely negative about anyone. This fear was carefully curated by what I saw in the media, or read in books or magazines, or heard on the radio.
I finally came out in 1988 at the ripe old age of 19. I had a boyfriend (short lived) and moved out into my first apartment with my first roommates. I lived in an incredibly gay area of Cleveland, right next to an incredibly gay area of Lakewood. There were gay bars, gay stores, gay restaurants, gay coffee houses, and, of course, lots and lots of gay men and woman around. There were also lots and lots of Pride Flags around. At this time, however, my view of the flag had changed. I wasn’t afraid of it anymore, but I didn’t like it.
“It’s just stripes of color. That’s it. Just stripes. No pretty water color, no image of people holding hands, or being together, just a bunch of stripes. It’s hideous.”
I also didn’t understand why anyone would want to advertise to the world, “Hey, I’m gay, come kill me.”
In short, the flag annoyed me. This annoyance lasted for a few years, until my new boyfriend (now husband!) and I decided to take a road trip to Chicago. We had never been there before, but we wanted to see all that the Windy City had to offer a couple of cute, out, gay boys who were still drinking amaretto sours and thinking we were cool. We were not cool, just young, which is still a privilege in the gay community, and stupid. Keep in mind, this is in the days before cell phones and GPS, so when we asked out taxi driver to drop us off at what we thought was the gay area of town, we were dead wrong. We were dropped off on a dark street, with boarded up stores, few working streetlights, and no clue as to where we were. We figured we were dead meat.
All we could do was walk (remember, no cell phones to call another cab), so we randomly picked a direction and started on our way to….somewhere? We were walking on the sidewalk, past dark alleys, getting strange looks from passers-by. We decided to walk in the middle of the street instead. There were few cars and we thought it would be safer. We made sure to walk far enough away from each other so we didn’t accidentally touch, after all, it was already pretty obvious we were gay, we didn’t need to drive the point home. We quickened our pace and tried to look as if we were there on purpose. After a while, we saw some lights up ahead. Good, civilization, finally! We were, hopefully, headed in the right direction. And then, we saw it. The Rainbow Pride Flag!
Our quickened pace turned into a gallop, then a run. Smiles burst on our faces and, the second we got under the first flag, we stopped, caught our breath, and found our first Chicago gay bar to get a drink in. The best amaretto sour EVER! We were safe and we knew it. Pride flags flapped in the wind all the way up and down Halsted street. We knew that as long as we saw the flags, we were safe and among family.
All of my experiences with the Pride Flag were simply exercises in egocentricity. I was terrified of what people would think of me if they associated me with the flag. First the fear of being outed, then the fear of living in an unsafe world, then the hubris of insulting the design, and insulting the people who wove the flag proudly and drawing attention to themselves. The joy of growing up and maturing is getting to see the big picture. I never allowed myself to understand not only what the flag represented to our community as a whole, but also its role as a bringer of hope. Since I came out of the closet, I have never stepped back in, and I have made it a point to NOT step back in. I love being gay, always have. I love that it makes me different from the majority. I love that I am married to the most incredible person in the world. And, mostly, I love my community.
I suppose this is an apology to the flag for years of disrespect. I now proudly sip my hot tea out of my Rainbow Mug emblazoned with “Nobody knows I’m gay,” and smile broadly whenever I see a Pride Flag flapping in the breeze outside of a modest bungalow in my West Park neighborhood of Cleveland. At first, the decline of the “gayborhood” with its cluster of flags all in a row was sad and disheartening, but now it’s great to see them spread out all over the city.
I think the only thing I might consider changing about the flag would be its name. As I stated earlier, I have no problem with Gay Pride, but in this day and age, I think it represents something more. As far as we’ve come with rights and acceptance, we cannot forget the horrid violence that is still hitting our community. Gay bashing is still prominent, trans people are facing more and more beatings and murder, bi-erasure is getting worse, discrimination is still out of control, and that’s just in our country. It’s much worse in the rest of the world. So maybe we should consider those colorful stripes the “LGBTQ Hope Flag”, because that’s what it brings me. Hope. Hope that one day we can all feel, and actually be, safe wherever we choose to hang our flag.
Steven Buchan is a Cleveland native who currently resides in West Park with his partner/husband of 30 years, Tommy. In 2019 he started his blog, www.purpledragonprose.com, featuring his essays as well as movie reviews and, in 2020, his first screenplay, Closer, was chosen as a finalist in the LGBTQ Screenwriting Competition. He is currently working on a memoir based on life lessons he learned during his eight years working at an independent bookstore in Westlake, Ohio.