THERE’S a lot to love about rainbows. People marvel their beauty and songs are written about their allure. Put the colours red, orange, yellow, green, indigo and violet side-by-side on a flag, however, and they’re more than a miracle of nature.
For members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, the rainbow flag is an international symbol of pride. For some, it is also a symbol of support.
When President Barack Obama announced the legalisation of same sex marriage across the US in June he called it a ‘victory for America’. Soon after, the White House lit up in a sea of colour. The landmark decision sparked a social media explosion of rainbows across the globe. Facebook users uploaded rainbow ‘pride’ profile pictures in a mark of support. For Australians, the vibrant visual statement also voiced frustration. Here, despite seventy-two per cent of Australians supporting the reform, it is still illegal for members of the LGBTI community to wed.
It’s not all love and rainbow-tinted glasses. For some members of society, the flag sparks a wave of homophobia, vitriol and heated discussions around sexual identity and gender equality. Earlier this year Marion Council voted to continue flying the gay-pride symbol at the council chambers after rejecting opposition from a councillor who said it “promotes homosexuality and sends the wrong message to children.”
Councillor Jerome led the bid to remove the flag but was unsuccessful. His motion to rescind the decision failed in a vote of seven to four.
When Feast Festival, Adelaide’s LGBTIQ (Queer) arts and cultural festival, hits town on November 14 to 29, Adelaide City Council will raise the rainbow flag high above Town Hall.
Since 2013 Feast Festival has sent a letter to every Mayor and every municipal council in South Australia inviting them to show their support for LGBTIQ people and their families living in their area.
Last year 13 councils statewide engaged in the Flying the Rainbow Flag — Celebrating Diversity project. This year the festival hopes up to 18 councils will take part. Confirmed councils include the City of Holdfast Bay and the City of Mitcham.
If local councillor Robert Simms gets his way we’ll be walking on rainbows too. In January 2015, the 30-year-old put forward a motion for Council administration to investigate locations, costs and approvals required for a permanent rainbow pedestrian crossing in the CBD. The motion was supported seven votes to four.
“This year is the 40th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in South Australia,” he says. “As the first state in the nation to decriminalise homosexuality, SA really led the way on gay law reform so this is an important milestone for our city. I think we should celebrate this with a new symbol of equality and diversity.”
Official rainbow crossings exist in Melbourne, Los Angeles, the Netherlands and in the British town of Brighton. Early this month the central street in Iceland’s Reykjavik was painted in rainbow colours to coincide with its Gay Pride event.
Even fast food chains are getting in on the action. During June 2014, a San Francisco branch of Burger King released The Proud Whopper during the LGBT Pride Week. The Whopper was served wrapped in a rainbow wrapper and bemused customers scratched their heads wondering what was so special about this ‘new’ burger. It was, in fact, the same meat and buns as always but when they opened the multicoloured wrapper the inside read, “We are all the same inside.” People cried, some recoiled, many smiled. The wrappers became a collector’s item and now fetch a pretty penny on eBay.
In South Australia the only gay monument in the CBD is a memorial plaque in memory of the death of Dr George Duncan. UK-born law lecturer was drowned in the River Torrens in 1972 and community outrage was a contributing factor when SA became the first state to decriminalise homosexuality in 1975.
“That’s why I’ve been pushing the rainbow crossing. It’s about cementing Adelaide’s status as a leader in diversity and inclusion and the leadership and activism of the LGBTI community.”
The local project is estimated to cost $150,000 and Simms says it will bring economic and tourism benefits to the state. For this councillor it’s personal.
“When I was about 12 I realised ‘Oh no, I must be gay’.” He pauses. “For me it was a terrible realisation. What’s the future going to hold? It wasn’t until I got to university that I started to be open with anybody about it.”
SIMMS was born in the UK and moved to Australia with his family when he was three. He didn’t come out until he was in his early twenties and is grateful his parents were supportive. “I’m really lucky that I have a great family but there was always a sense, certainly in my teenage years, that I didn’t feel very happy and something wasn’t right so telling them was a big weight off my shoulders. I’d been carrying that secret for over 10 years. I hadn’t told anybody,” he says. “It’s very draining when you’re in that situation … I often joke I was so far in the closet I was in Narnia.”
Simms learnt the art of political and personal resilience early. “I got bullied a bit at school and didn’t fit in. I was an uber nerd.” He smiles. “I was interested in debating and all of that kind of stuff and terrible at sport. My idea of athletics was running to catch the bus.” He didn’t date until his early 20s, instead focused on study … and politics.
“We always used to talk about political issues at home,” he recalls. “My mum likes a good discussion — so does my dad. My grandmother used to be very politically engaged. She would come and stay with us for eight-weeks of the year from the UK. She was a Tory and was quite conservative in her values.”
University was a time of revelations. During his Law, Arts and Politics degree Simms met people with similar interests.
“I felt like I fitted in and finally the things I was interested in I had the opportunity to do,” he says. “The issue that really got me engaged in politics at that time was the treatment of asylum seekers. I was really appalled by that. I couldn’t get over the fact the Australian Government was treating people like that … it’s disgusting that 10 years on we’re still having the same debate.” He was involved the university Student’s Association and landed his first political job with Natasha Stott Despoja when he was 17. “I used to do some of her correspondence work once a week on and off for six years while I was doing my degree. She was such an inspiring person to work for.” He went on to work for ABC rural radio, moved to Canberra to work as a media adviser for Scott Ludlam and was political adviser to Greens senator Sarah Hansen Young.
“Then I went to Flinders to do my PhD (at the School of Social and Policy Studies) and have been doing some teaching in the Politics department there.” He beams. “I get paid to talk about politics.”
Meanwhile, an internal battle with his sexual identity simmered below a confident exterior.
“I didn’t meet my first gay person until I was at uni,” he says. “My perception of what it was to be gay was the caricatures I saw on TV and in popular culture.” He pauses. “I just didn’t identify with that — which is one of the reasons why I want to be open about my sexuality. You can’t be what you can’t see and I found it quite difficult to conceptualise what a gay life would be like without seeing any gay people who were involved in public life.”
So what is a gay life? For Simms, it’s political.
“I think the personal is political. I mentioned feeling like a bit of an outsider … and in terms of my political philosophy that’s always been what’s driven me — to help outsiders and address structural inequality, whether that be sexuality, race, gender, ethnicity … those kinds of things. That’s my political interest.”
He also wants to make the world a better place. “Politics is the only way you can do that; the battle of ideas and how power is distributed. In that sense it is addictive once you see the potential of things you can achieve.”
SINCE his election as an Adelaide City Councillor in 2014 Simms‘s focus has been on policies for green roofs and walls and accessibility in the city. “Vibrancy to me is more than just having great places to get a coffee and a drink. How vibrant or dynamic is our city if a lot of people can’t experience it or get around? I want to look at things like considering incentives for businesses to provide ramps for disability access.” He is also passionate about planning and environmental issues. And that multicoloured crossing.
“It would be a really bold positive statement and such a great way to show we are a modern and progressive city,” he says. “One of the real worries and dangers we have at the moment is the narrative that says we’ve reached the point of equality and that things have changed. The changes over the last five years have been amazing and it’s terrific to see but we’re not there yet. There’s still young people who can’t imagine what a gay life is going to be like. We live in a culture that puts a very strong emphasis on traditional versions of masculinity and a lot of people don’t fit in with that whether they’re gay, straight or bi.”
Simms voices his political musings on ABC’s The Drum and via his personal blog.
“At 31 I can genuinely say I’m happy in my own skin. I’m an out and proud gay man and I have a great life. My message to any young person struggling with their sexuality is to stay strong — things really do get better.”
His honesty does attract an element of negativity.
“I do get abusive mail and things like that. One of the benefits about having been politically engaged for so long is I’m pretty resilient in terms of that sort of stuff,” he says. “I compartmentalise it. People attack my ideas but they don’t actually know me as a person.”
He smiles. “I feel sorry for people who are so fixated. There are so many terrible things happening in the world, why focus on someone’s sexuality? Be a lover not a hater.”