In my next novel, If I Seem Quiet…, there’s a scene in which the main character, Aaron, is preparing for his potential boyfriend Ryan’s first visit to his apartment for dinner. It’s Wednesday, and Aaron has a tradition of eating sushi from Food World, his nearby grocery store, because it’s on sale on Wednesdays.
By the way, Jeff and I do the same thing in real life. Two stores near us, WinCo and Fry’s, have sushi on sale on Wednesdays, and we buy it every week.
I couldn’t have envisioned it at the time I wrote this, but this moment in the book (which takes place on June 1, 2016) ties in with a story that’s recently been in the news.
From the book:
Aaron set his phone down and began pacing around his apartment. He felt an odd mixture of elation and apprehension. He walked to his front door and turned around to face his living room. He tried to imagine what first impressions someone would form upon seeing his abode for the first time.
Aaron spent the next five hours decluttering his entire apartment. He had cleaned his apartment thoroughly when his parents came to visit in April, but that was six weeks ago. He vacuumed, dusted, cleaned the entire kitchen, and scrubbed the toilet. He had no idea whether they might end up in the bedroom, but he washed the sheets and pillowcases anyway. Finally, at around 2:30, he realized he hadn’t eaten lunch yet. He cobbled together an assortment of leftovers from the refrigerator. It would be good to have those gone anyway, in case Ryan looked in there for some reason.
After lunch, Aaron visited a nearby department store and bought a few artificial plants, nice chopsticks, and a sake set. Since it was the beginning of Pride Month, they had a display of rainbow-colored merchandise and T-shirts. Aaron was amazed that stores would even sell such things. Wouldn’t they attract protesters and boycotts? Aaron marveled at the array of products that were available in rainbow colors. He bought a rainbow-striped candle, a few rainbow drinking glasses, a set of rainbow-themed potholders and an oven mitt, and a set of six drink coasters, one in each color.
Next, he stopped at Food World, where he bought sushi every Wednesday. He debated whether to buy a more expensive assortment instead of the usual rolls that were on sale for $5. But if he was going to introduce Ryan to his Wednesday sushi tradition, he needed to go with the usual fare. He did spring for a more expensive bottle of sake.
Aaron returned home at 5:00. He had just over an hour until Ryan was due to arrive. He positioned his new plants around the living room, placed the rainbow coasters and candle on the coffee table, and took one more look around. I wish I had bought some artwork for the walls. Oh well, this is as good as it’s going to get for today.
I don’t mention the department store by name, but it could easily be Target or something similar.
Target has been in the news this past week (late May, 2023). They have removed a few items of their Pride Month merchandise from their stores and their website in response to complaints from right-wing extremists, who have damaged some displays and made threats to employees’ safety.
(For more, see Target is being held hostage by an anti-LGBTQ campaign on CNN.com)
Target, which has maintained a positive reputation among its LGBTQ customers and employees for many years, wouldn’t cave to such complaints under normal circumstances. On the other hand, they have an obligation to ensure their employees’ safety. But it’s a sobering example of how rabidly hostile those who hate us have become and how empowered they feel these days.
More from the book:
They finished their sushi, so Aaron got up and cleared the plates from the table. He loaded them into the dishwasher, then said, “So… would you like some more sake or do you want to switch to Dr Pepper?”
“Dr Pepper would be nice. Thanks.”
Aaron retrieved two of his new rainbow-striped glasses from the cupboard, added ice, and filled them with Dr Pepper. He handed one glass to Ryan. Ryan looked at the glass with a hint of disapproval, but he took the glass and said, “Thanks.”
“Wanna go sit in the living room?”
“Sure.” When they sat down on the couch, Ryan noticed the rainbow-colored candle and coasters. “For someone who’s only been out of the closet for two months, you’re really into the rainbow thing, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess. Now that I’m not hiding from myself anymore, it’s like … I dunno … a whole new world has opened up for me. I finally feel like I have somewhere I belong. But anyway, I was out earlier today picking up a few things, and they had this display of all kinds of rainbow stuff. I guess it’s Pride Month. I was actually surprised that a regular store would sell that kind of stuff. Like, wouldn’t other people complain? Anyway, I guess I made a few impulse purchases. Just to support a gay-friendly business, you know?”
“Yeah, I guess. It’s hard to know whether they really support gay people year-round or if they see an opportunity to make money off us. And perpetuate stereotypes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, just because we’re gay, does that mean we all want to fly rainbow flags all the time or wear rainbow clothes and buy rainbow things? I mean, I’m not ashamed of being gay but I don’t see a need to go around labeling myself.”
Aaron had no idea what to say. Thinking back on it, he wasn’t sure why he purchased those things. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Ryan said, “Anyway, if you like this stuff, that’s fine. It’s funny… this reminds me of this time right after my junior year of high school. That was what, 2007? Yeah. Nine years ago. Seems like forever. Anyway, my best friend Chris and I went to Kansas City one Saturday morning to go to some used record stores. Then we went to lunch at this barbecue place that’s popular in KC. After that, we drove past this park where they were having a gay pride festival. Chris wanted to go, so I said okay. He was like a kid in a candy store. It was like gay, gay, gay all over the place and he was totally into it. There was a booth where they were selling all kinds of gay T-shirts, and he bought several. Like there was this one that said, ‘I’m not gay, but my boyfriend is,’ and it had an arrow pointing one way. And there were others that had the arrow pointing the other way. So he wanted to buy one of each and I’m like ‘There’s no way in hell I can wear that shirt anywhere.’ Anyway, he was all enthusiastic about the whole gay community thing, and I was like, ‘Why do I have to label myself and be part of some community?’ It’s nobody else’s business. Anyway, you kind of remind me of him.”
“Uhhh… Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“Neither. It just is. I mean, he was so excited about being gay and finding out there’s a gay community and lots of other gay people. And you’re kind of in the same place now. It’s cute, really. But I was so terrified about my parents finding out I couldn’t get into it with that level of enthusiasm. I was like yeah, I’m gay, so let’s just get on with life, you know?”
Sometimes I ponder how 50 years of struggling for equality has led to having tacky rainbow-colored merchandise peddled to us. It’s hard to know whether the goal of those who create and market such merchandise is to express support for LGBTQ people or simply to make money from us. I suspect it’s the latter.
But in a way, this might be what we have been asking for all along. For the past three decades, LGBTQ employee resource groups have been trying to convince their employers that we represent a desirable subset of the market for their products, armed with data asserting our community’s purchasing power and promises of how brand-loyal we will be with all that extra disposable income we theoretically have. The Human Rights Commission publishes an annual Corporate Equality Index to let LGBTQ people know which companies are or are not good places to work and, by extension, which ones should receive our coveted gay dollars and which should not.
So I guess it should come as no surprise that companies are marketing products to us. We pretty much told them to do it. So now we have rainbow flasks, rainbow incense burners, rainbow coffee mugs, rainbow liquor bottles, rainbow dog accessories, and just about anything else that could come in six colors. I suppose we should have been more careful about what we asked for.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to surround myself with rainbow-colored everything to remind myself that I’m gay. I don’t need rainbows to feel better about myself. Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I think rainbows are a fashionable choice for clothing or decor. I guess you could say I’m “over” the rainbow.
During Pride Month, it’s great to celebrate. But after all the rainbow flag-waving and merchandising, let’s not forget that we still do not have laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in many states or at the federal level. LGBTQ people can still be fired, denied housing, or turned away from businesses in many places.
Now more than ever, Republicans are demonizing us (especially trans kids) in order to raise funds and attract voters. Even some corporations who allocate money for funding their LGBTQ employee groups, marketing to the LGBTQ community, and sponsoring entries in Pride parades still make campaign contributions to rabidly homophobic politicians when it serves their business interests. (Learn more here.)
I want to see the remaining barriers to full equality removed. I don’t need to have tacky rainbow merchandise foisted upon me.
© 2023 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.
#takepride store display: Elvert Barnes. Used under Creative Commons license. All rights reserved.
All others: Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.