How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Equals Signs

Clockwise from upper left: Atheists; Sex Workers; Queers; Undocumented Immigrants

Clockwise from upper left: Atheists; Sex Workers; Queers; Undocumented Immigrants

I have to admit, at first the little red squares on people’s Facebook profiles made me cringe. There were two reasons: first, this sort of thing has always triggered my most cynical side. Even in the 1990s, when people started wearing red ribbons to express solidarity with HIV/AIDS patients, I had really complicated, ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, it was a definite improvement over the dominant attitudes of the 1980s, which ranged between malign neglect and homicidal scapegoating. But on the other, the red ribbons seemed to quickly become more of a fashion accessory than an active political statement. Sometimes they seemed to be more about the person wearing them than the people who were at risk. It was even worse when Lance Armstrong’s “Livestrong” bracelets hit the scene. Imitators hit the scene before everyone had completely absorbed the idea of the originals. Even more than the red ribbons, they came to represent marketing more than social justice.

I have more examples of that sort of thing than I care to think. Every other day, it seems like we’re being asked to tweet a hashtag, recolor our avatars, or buy a special product to show what good people we are. We do it, and nothing changes, because we’re not really doing anything.

The second thing, of course, is that I don’t like where the equals signs come from: the Human Rights Campaign. The HRC is the most conservative of the national LGBT organizations, and they’re particularly bad on trans issues. They did in fact only add the “T” to their literature in 2004, long after the other organizations. This very week they marred what could be a moment of great triumph for queer communities when they asked a demonstrator in front of the Supreme Court to lower a trans pride flag. One speaker also said that he was told to edit out of his speech the fact that he is an undocumented immigrant.

Click here for transcript of video.

Jerssay Arredondo: My name is Jerssay Arredondo. I am undocumented, queer, unashamed and unafraid. I am sharing these identities with you right now because yesterday morning I was forced back into the closet. The Queer, Undocumented Immigrant Project, a project of United We Dream, was invited by the Human Rights Campaign to speak at the rally to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Prior to getting onstage, my speech was revised. I was told not to share the reality of what it means to be an undocumented queer immigrant in this country.

First Woman: Our real life struggles and daily challenges as LGBTQ people are not acknowledged, but rather continue to be pushed into the closet and excluded from the dominant narrative. It is not enough for LGBTQ communities to say that they are in solidarity with our struggle. Solidarity is love reflected through actions and support. Our intent yesterday was to share our stories, our struggles, and our experiences, to shed light on the complexity of the issue. And we weren’t even afforded that opportunity.

Second Woman: As an immigrant youth movement, we hold each other accountable. And we will hold LGBTQ and immigrant rights organizations accountable to insure that we are working towards social justice for all. In order to insure continued solidarity, we are asking for a public apology from the Human Rights Campaign’s leadership.

To be brief, there are lots of reasons not to like the HRC, and lots of people who will be happy to tell you about them. At length. And one of my first reactions to the red equals signs was that it felt like the HRC was putting their own corporate brand on the marriage issue. It felt like they were making the whole thing about themselves, not the people that this law was actually going to affect. It felt cynical and dirty. And frankly, I haven’t entirely changed my feelings about that.

But I have changed my feelings about the red equality symbols in general. Partly it’s because there’s been some very good writing out there. Miri’s piece on Brute Reason is an excellent example, and one of the first pieces I read that penetrated. But even more than that is the way that people have taken the symbol away from the HRC and made it their own. People have been enthusiastically tweaking the red equals sign to show their own personalities, and speak for their own causes in a million different ways.

People have made the red equals sign into the exact opposite of what the HRC wanted it to be. The red equals sign was designed with the idea of making same-sex marriage about the HRC. With each person who has taken that symbol and changed it, they’ve shown just how much more expansive the community is. I can’t keep track of all the different variations that have shown up; they include geeks, Trekkies, queers, undocumented immigrants, trans people, genderqueers, BDSM freaks, radicals, and even people who could care less about marriage.

Every time I see a new way that someone has hacked the HRC’s corporate logo to reflect their own life and their own beliefs, it tells me that these communities are so big and so strong that not only can they not be contained by the bigots of the religious right, but they can’t even be contained by the organizations that claim to speak for them.

What I really see in all those different red squares is that the change has already happened, and it goes much deeper than just giving conservative gays their white picket fence. America is much more than either the religious right or the HRC can imagine, and that’s a good thing for our future.

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