Friday, 28 February 2014

On why you can shove that flag up your arse for all I care

It was just over four years ago that I was first applying to Oxford University and believe it or not I didn't believe that it was a deeply homophobic place where I could expect to regularly experience harassment and discrimination by virtue of my sexual orientation. This is despite the fact that just a few years ago barely any Oxford Colleges decided to fly a rainbow flag for a few days in February.

Of course this has now all changed. Colleges all over Oxford have hoisted the rainbow banner up the flagpole, and the ones that have refused are being lobbied by well-meaning students or hit by waves of protest. Brasenose College said they wouldn't fly the flag, so the students bought a total of fifty flags and scattered them across the college in various locations. The same happened at Exeter College last year, where there was a "massive campaign" to get the flag flying. Eventually the students won, although their plans to fly the flag this year were nearly scuppered when nobody could find which cupboard the flag had been put in. Luckily, just in the nick of time, someone was able to lend one.

And what a difference it has made. Now for a few days in February we cannot go about our business without being confronted by the hideous technicolour of 1970s San Franciscan design several times a day. The narrative being spun is that the flag is symbolic of each college's commitment to accepting people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, that it shows Oxford is welcoming, that it "sends a message", and in one particularly garbled interview I watched on the website of a student newspaper, that Oxford colleges flying the flag is particularly important this year because of the Winter Olympics in Russia.

Of course Oxford is not alone in this. Earlier in the month Google unveiled a rainbow-coloured logo on their homepage, which was hailed as their "most political yet", and The Guardian's website had the letter g filled in with a rainbow as well. Various people on the internet put a rainbow in place of their usual photo across various social media platforms.

Why do I find this all such a waste of time?

Activism about how to decorate a flagpole has usurped any other form of organising. Having every single college in Oxford is now a top priority for the university's LGBTQ society, various college reps, and seemingly the wider community. And of course for straight people it is is important to be seen to love the gays nowadays, so they are all strongly in favour.

Actions speak louder than rainbow flags.

Pretty much all the various parts of Oxford University go above and beyond the basic legal framework of rights set out in the 2010 Equality Act, they have various systems in place to ensure that LGBTQ people are not discriminated against and there are student representatives, welfare staff and hotlines you can speak to if you are having any problems or think you are being treated unfairly. Because I can't think of a better methaphor right now, let's think of this as a cake.

Beyond that, the icing on the cake might be how fully integrated you can be in the wider student body, how free you feel you can be to express yourself regardless of your sexuality or gender and to know that this will not make you some sort of weirdo outcast who never gets invited to parties.

Now I can only speak from my own experience, but if I had to make a guess I would say that for most of the students at Oxford the cake is pretty well iced, and maybe even has a layer of jam in the middle. 

The idea that we need a rainbow flag to demonstrate this seems utterly illogical. And were Oxford to be a place that was actually virulently homophobic, it would achieve nothing. Were someone to waltz in to my old secondary school and demand that they hang a rainbow flag up it would be the equivalent of saying 'sod the cake, but here's some food colouring'.

I don't mean to sound like I think LGBTQ-related discrimination at Oxford never happens and that there's no room for progress, because of course there is. But maybe if there are concrete ways in which we could be improving people's lives we should be focusing on those instead of worrying about a rainbow flag,

Students at Oxford (myself included) are among the most privileged people in the country. If not by birth, just by virtue of being at Oxford. And let's not kid ourselves that birth has nothing to do with it when more than half of the annual intake were privately educated and despite Oxford's "commitment to access" and spending millions of pounds every year the percentage of students from state schools has wobbled along in the mid-forties for more than twenty years. And even with the same A-level results, private school kids are 8% more likely to receive an offer.

On the one hand it's great if in this atmosphere of elitism and snobbery that we don't also discriminate by sexual orientation, but what about the ways we do?

There's evidence to suggest the interview process at Oxford is institutionally racist and favours applicants from certain ethnic backgrounds over others. And your options are also pretty limited if you have a disability - many (if not most) Oxford colleges are unable to provide accommodation that's accessible to wheelchair users. I think we can all agree that racism and ableism are both bad, but I'm loath to suggest that the solution to these problems is collective organising about hanging a flag up once a year.

Two years ago in an anonymous online survey an Oxford student compared the rainbow flag to a swastika. Aside from how offensive this obviously is if we think of the rainbow flag in its original political context then there is a parallel:  the swastika on symbolises Nazism, whereas the rainbow flag symbolised liberation and pride marches in the face of oppression.

But an Oxford college's decision to display the flag nowadays packs as much meaning as if they chose to fly a flag which symbolises their commitment to not employing children as chimneysweeps.

The rainbow flag can mean whatever you want it to. It doesn't have a specific meaning. It is meaningless.

It is pointless, it is futile, and most of all, it is really really really ugly. 

It is a brash hideous mess of colours. There is a reason why when you get dressed in the morning you do not wear as many clashing shades as possible. There is a reason why most countries' flags do not contain more than three colours. Maybe if it was just pink or something I wouldn't care as much, but it's such an embarrassment to be associated with.

The thought that straight people might think this aesthetic atrocity is something I identify with is enough to make me almost wish I was straight. It is an abomination. I suppose a hundred years ago homosexuality was illegal and I might have lived my life in fear of going to prison, but at least I wouldn't have to look at that awful fucking flag.


  1. Do rainbows provoke the same response in you?

    1. no actually I really like seeing rainbows. What they look like in real life is quite different to what this flag looks like though. If I didn't like the look of an awful microsoft word clipart drawing of a butterfly it doesn't mean I don't like butterflies.

      Or, to borrow another oldskool microsoft word thing, they used to have under 'fill options' some graduated colours blended into each other with colour scheme names like 'early sunset'. They all looked awful. I still like looking at real life sunsets.

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