I first saw the rainbow flag of LGBTQ Pride in a church.
It was 1985, back when same-sex marriage was so taboo that pollsters didn’t even ask about it.
I had just come out of the closet as a lesbian and moved to San Francisco with my life partner. On our first Sunday in town, we decided to go to Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco. We had never been to a Pride march. The AIDS crisis was just getting started.
All I knew was that MCC was a church by and for the lesbian and gay community. (The term “LGBT” had not yet been coined, and “queer” was still an unredeemed insult.)
I wasn’t used to being open about my sexual orientation, so I felt nervous when I opened the door to the so-called “gay church.” I didn’t know what to expect, but I sensed there was no going back.
Immediately I was put at ease by the warmth of the congregation and the beauty of the rainbow flags hanging behind the altar and around the sanctuary. God’s presence was palpable.
At last I was free to be fully myself, both lesbian and Christian.
The flags and the fellowship are what I remember best about the worship service, although I’m sure that guest preacher Nancy Wilson must have delivered a powerful sermon.
After the closing hymn, my partner Audrey Lockwood and I chatted with a friendly gay male couple in the pew ahead of us. We told them how much we liked the rainbow flags. We thought they were pretty decorations. We had no idea what they meant at all—not a clue!
We were amazed and delighted when they informed us, “Those are the flags of the lesbian and gay community." It was a true moment of “pride” in the best sense.
Knowing that God loved me had given me the courage to come out as a lesbian.
The church affirmed me as a lesbian of faith and empowered me to hear and follow a call to ordained ministry.
The rainbow flag celebrates the diversity and values of the LGBTQ community. It was designed by Gilbert Baker and debuted at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in June 1978. Over the years its popularity has spread, and now the rainbow flag is recognized worldwide as a symbol of the LGBT community.
My experience shows that churches can play an important role in helping LGBTQ people integrate their sexuality and spirituality. Just seeing a rainbow flag in a worship setting can have a healing effect on sexual minorities. It expresses God’s love for LGBTQ people and counteracts the condemnation we have received in the name of religion.
Of course hanging rainbow flags in churches is only an outward sign of a deeper commitment that must be expressed in action.
As the Bible says, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)
Beneath the rainbow flags we LGBTQ Christians and allies at MCC-SF blessed same-sex relationships, prayed for the sick and buried the many who died of AIDS. We sang hymns of joy and sorrow, including favorites that proclaimed, “Surely the presence of God is in this place” and “It is well with my soul!” We carried the rainbow flag in marches for LGBTQ pride and freedom.
The LGBTQ community has come a long way in the 30 years since I first saw the rainbow flag. We can marry legally. We have a new phrase, “marriage equality,” and pollsters ask what people think of it. Same-sex couples can even go to Prom together in some high schools. It used to be that there were only a handful of openly gay or lesbian Christian clergy nationwide, and we pretty much all knew each other. Now there are more than I can count.
Happy memories of my first encounter with the rainbow flag came back early this month when Believe Out Loud announced its “Give a Flag, Get a Flag” campaign. “Paint the church in rainbows!” they proclaimed. “Through this program, we are sending rainbow flags to churches across the country to use at community and church events as they share God’s rainbow promise of joy and affirmation for LGBTQ people.”
And then a mass shooter killed 49 patrons at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando on June 12, 2016.
Anti-LGBTQ hate and discrimination persist, even though many more rainbow flags are waving all over the world now compared to 1985. Maybe progress on LGBTQ rights has even provoked the backlash. This extreme act of violence illustrates the ongoing challenge in the most powerful and terrible way possible.
The rainbow flag means more to me than joy and affirmation. When I see the rainbow flag, I also feel pride as I remember those killed in Orlando...and the more than 500 MCC-SF congregants who died of AIDS from 1982 to 1997...and all who suffer violence because of who they love. The resilience and aspirations of the LGBTQ community are reflected in the rainbow flag.
Baker assigned a specific meaning to each color when he designed the rainbow flag, and a few years ago I matched them with models of the queer Christ in the Rainbow Christ Prayer. People have used the prayer in a variety of settings around the world. This month it was translated into 10 languages.
Life has come full circle. Little did I know in 1985 that preacher Nancy Wilson would become my boss at MCC headquarters and we would travel the globe together advocating LGBTQ rights at the World Council of Churches. She went on to head the whole MCC denomination. Next month she will retire after 10 years as moderator and 44 years in service to Metropolitan Community Churches.
I am glad that more mainstream churches are getting rainbow flags.
But treat the rainbow flag with respect. Many have lived and loved, marched in the streets and even died because they are part of the LGBTQ community that it symbolizes. The rainbow flag has been hallowed by their courage and sacrifice. Our flag represents an honorable people blessed by God.
Photo by Jim Ross, University Baptist Church