During the government shutdown, my partner, Traci, and I found ourselves in Philadelphia with a handful of useless tickets to the important American history sites there. The irony of not getting into Independence Hall – home of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – due to governmental stupidity was not lost on us. What’s left to do as a tourist when all the big tourist spots are closed? A Segway tour, of course, as well as a visit to the Mütter Museum – a grand collection of antique medical curiosities and amputated body parts preserved in jars of formaldehyde. (Though I was fascinated, I never did figure out what the take-home message was supposed to be, other than to review the fine print on my organ donor card immediately.)
We made do, but I never stopped feeling a bit ripped off by Congress. As we walked through the old part of the city, imagining Ben Franklin, Jefferson and Washington strolling along these same streets, we tried not to feel cynical. I know all too well about the profound failures and blatant inequities in the founding of our nation, but I am still awed by the fact that a small group of opinionated and politically opposed men managed to create a functioning, responsive political system out of a simple set of moral ideals. And that they dared to create a government that placed ultimate power in the hands of the people – well, that that took serious cojones. Do I need to go into a detailed comparison between the founding fathers of 1776 and the headless chickens currently running the country? I didn’t think so.
We finally came to Philly’s splendid city hall, once the tallest inhabitable building in the world. Right outside the entrance was an American flag; next to it, a rainbow flag. Traci and I each stopped and stared for a while to make sure we were seeing what we thought we were seeing. It was kind of folded back on itself and, you know, maybe Pennsylvania’s state flag is unusually flamboyant. Clearly, neither of was used to seeing a rainbow flag getting the full unfurling.
A quick Google search confirmed that the Philly city hall has been putting out the rainbow flag since 2010 during LGBT Pride month. I had two conflicting responses. The first was how the flag made me feel like I’d finally arrived as a lesbian, even if it was only a big piece of fabric. The statement was obvious: all those professed American ideals of fairness, inclusivity, equality and dignity actually applied to people like me. I asked Traci how it made her feel and she repeated my thoughts. We’d gotten too used to feeling like we have always have to jostle for our little square in the American quilt. For this moment, no jostling was required.
And the second response was an instinctive sense of defensiveness, because I know that there’s a large swath of Americans who would view a rainbow flag next to the American flag as the last nail in the coffin in the culture wars – gays just imposing their agenda on real Americans.
I hate that I immediately went there, but I’d be naive if I didn’t. I wish I could have put an interpretive sign up explaining what the scene meant to me. There is no agenda, other than the belief that we rate as Americans, alongside the countless other communities that make up our country. I’d celebrate those flags too.
In fact, it wasn’t the rainbow flag that held so much meaning, but the American flag next to it. More and more, the stars and stripes have become used as a shorthand for declaring who should and who shouldn’t claim the guarantees of equality and freedom. The flag, at times, has meant that Traci and I were not welcome.
But at that moment, as we looked at the two flags together, and even at the same moment as our representatives were probably shooting spit wads at one another through their media surrogates, Traci and I felt a rare sense of patriotism and belonging to a country that tries – often fails, but stills tries – to keep its promises.
Abby is a civil rights attorney-turned-author who has been in the LGBT rights trenches for 25-plus years. She can be reached through her website: queerquestionsstraighttalk.com