Of Birds and Moods and Liberation, Indigo-style

POFEV logo for web[Last night, Tuesday, September 24, POFEV: People of Faith for Equality in Virginia sponsored “The Many Voices of LGBT Pride,” an interfaith service focused on the spiritual foundations of LGBT liberation, at Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond. A small group heard some amazing color-themed meditations by various speakers–including a poem about indigo by NAACP Richmond President Dr. Kim Allen. I continue my own blog posts with some thoughts about indigo, and will continue to share more entries over the next few days to help us get ready for the celebration of Virginia Pride on Saturday, September 28, at Kanawha Plaza, in Richmond–and to continue focusing on our roots and dreams in the days to come.]

Who does not want serenity and harmony? That is what Gilbert Baker says is represented by indigo, a shade of blue I rarely hear mentioned these days.

Indigo BuntingMy earliest memory of indigo was hearing my parents talk about sighting a male Indigo Bunting, a bird, in our yard. The female, as is true in so many bird families, is quite drab, but the male is this glorious color.  When I looked up the bird, I was quite surprised to see how bright the color is. I had always thought of indigo as a very dark, almost midnight blue. But, as I am coming to realize, colors encompass a wide range of appearances.

This is true of LGBT people, of course. Those who do not know us, and especially those who choose not to know us, think we are all the same–in the same way some people act as if all Black people or all Mexicans are the same; seen one (or maybe just talking without any real knowledge), you know them all.  But like indigo, and other colors of the rainbow, we are a beautiful spectrum.

blueberriesIndigo appears between blue and violet in a rainbow. Purple grapes and blueberries are indigo. The deep blue of dark denim jeans is indigo. One of the colors of the rainbow, indigo — a dark purplish blue , sometimes more blue and sometimes more violet— gets it name from the indigo plant used to create the indigo dye.

Here’s more of what I learned in my digging into this color. Indigo is the color of the deep midnight sky. It can have a negative effect when used during a depressed state, because it will deepen the mood. Indigo symbolizes a mystical borderland of wisdom, self-mastery and spiritual realization. While blue is the color of communication with others, indigo turns the blue inward, to increase personal thought, profound insights, and instant understandings. While blue can be fast, indigo color rangeIndigo is almost instantaneous. Inventors use indigo skills for inspirations that seem to ‘come out of the blue’.

Reading about this psychological understanding of indigo, I realize it is the color of coming out, or at least the color that gets us to look inward and value what we find enough to announce to the world–to family, friends, co-workers, fellow congregants, people who matter to us–that we lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender. And then when we do come out, we gain seemingly instant understandings of ourselves.

As LGBT people so often say, our sexuality is not all we are, but when we claim it we surely know ourselves more and we are freed to become more ourselves in all parts of our lives. Things begin to fit together and we can work toward more personal fulfillment. Of course, when we don’t do this, we experience of the depression of the closet.

For me, indigo is the color of Maine. My first male lover, Marvin, lived in Maine, and I moved to Maine to be with him for about four years. Maine is very beautiful, and big parts of it are still fairly natural.  A special aspect of Maine are the “lowbush” blueberries that grow wild in what Maine folks call “barrens.” The blueberries we buy in stores are nice, but if you want a pungent taste, a real knock-your-socks-off flavor, find some growing wild, and bend down to pick them. I think this is the sort of authenticity, or wild integrity, older LGBT writers, people like poet Judy Grahn, mean when they write about our ancient roots and traditions. They want us to claim the parts of ourselves that are untamed by the world that so often seeks to make us all the same.

Duke EllingtonSpeaking of authenticity and indigo, there is, of course, “the Duke,” (no, not John Wayne), and his famous jazz piece, “Mood Indigo.”

Ellington was not gay, but in this piece he did something very “queer,” He took the traditional front-line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, and turned them “upside down.” At the time of the first recordings in 1930, the usual “voices” would be clarinet at the top (highest pitch), trumpet in the middle, and the trombone at the bottom (lowest pitch). In “Mood Indigo,” Ellington voices the trombone right at the top of the instrument’s register, and the clarinet at the very lowest. This was unheard of at the time.

Some of the earliest researchers about and theorists of same-gender-love and sexuality spoke of “inverts,” because we turned things inside out, we inverted the usual order.  Today, many accuse LGBT folks of turning things upside down, against their “natural order” (marriage is only between one man and one woman, e.g.).

In this sense, “Mood Indigo” might well be the jazz theme song of the LGBT liberation movement, as lesbian and gay–and bisexual–people continue to challenge the old narratives about how love and sexuality work together, and transgender people upend all the old narratives about the rigidity of gender–advancing the truth first articulated by feminists that biology is not destiny. If you want to listen to, and see, an early rendition of this classic by the Duke and his orchestra, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GohBkHaHap8

All this and so much more is wrapped up in a color–remembering that in this one color, as in all of them, are many colors. Can we not remember and celebrate the rainbows inside the rainbow(s), and know that it is God who calls us to do so? All this glorious color is, I believe, God showing off, and being pretty delighted to be doing so!

As an Older Man, I Shall Wear Violet

POFEV logo for web[Next Tuesday, September 24, POFEV: People of Faith for Equality in Virginia is sponsoring “The Many Voices of LGBT Pride,” an interfaith service focused on the spiritual foundations of LGBT liberation, at 6:30 pm at Congregation Beth Ahabah, 1111 West Franklin Street, in Richmond. I will be offering some color-themed blog posts over the next few days to help us get ready for this celebration, and the celebration of Virginia Pride on Saturday, September 28, at Kanawha Plaza, in Richmond.]

Rainbow flag 8 colors 1978Violet. The color at the other end of the original rainbow flag from hot pink is violet, and according to Gilbert Baker, it signifies spirit. Poet Judy Grahn opens her exploration of “gay cultural history,” Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, this way (the first chapter is entitled, “Sashay Down the Lavender Trail”). . .

‘Our color is purple, or lavender,’ my first lover affirmed, intensely whispering to my avid and puzzled young ears the forbidden litany of who we were or might be. ‘No one knows why this is, it just is,’ handsome Vonnie said, her lips against me like the vibrant breasts of birds . . . .

Another Mother TongueI once wrote a poem–it probably sits in a notebook somewhere–whose first line was “The purple pansies are lovely this year.” I think I borrowed the opening from poet May Sarton. I meant it as an affirmation of being a “pansy,” reclaiming what had at one time was, and perhaps today among some still is, a derogatory term for being a gay man.

purple panxyBut it was really about my Aunt Grace, whom I suspect was a lesbian–at least she was a spinster, that description we used to use for women who lived alone and with other women (May Sarton was probably called a spinster more than once). Auntie, as we called her, taught me about purple pansies, lavender scent, and spring violets. Again, my absorption in this knowledge should have clued my family into understanding my same-gender-loving ways (and me, too).

Some say this purple-centeredness comes from a mixture of female red and male blue (of course, this connection was in earlier times reversed, female was blue and male, red or pink),  Some point to ancient times, before male-dominated history, when women carried the spiritual life of the community. I see an echo of this in the story in Acts 16 where Paul encounters Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth (she worshiped at the river with some other women–it has long seemed to me possible, if not likely, that she was a lover of women). She certainly was an independent woman, inviting Paul back to her house and leading the women to accept Christianity.  Of course, purple is often associated with royalty, and there often were gender-bending and “different” people in royal courts–eunuchs and jesters, for example.

Violet color rangeBut why did Baker choose violet, why not purple? It may be, as Wikipedia tells us, that “From the point of view of optics, violet is a real color: it occupies its own place at the end of the visible spectrum, and was one of the seven spectral colors of the spectrum first described by Isaac Newton in 1672.”  The difference between violet and purple is that violet appears in the visible light spectrum, or rainbow, whereas purple is simply a mix of red and blue. Violet has the highest vibration in the visible spectrum. So violet is not a pale imitation of purple.

I am sure Baker knew this, as an artist. So, he picked violet, even though we may think of purple as the stronger shade. That feels so very “gay” to me, another example of the sort of “secret” knowledge that LGBT people have from living outside the normal social realms.  The artist, relying on scientific knowledge as well as historical associations, picked what appears to be the softer color to the rest of the world even though it has more strength in its essence.  The resilience, and even survival, of LGBT folks, like those in other marginalized groups, often depends on such knowledge (at least among some who can carry forward the group identity and traditions).

rainbow flag in front of the Supreme Court June 25 2013
Waving the rainbow flag in front of the US Supreme Court

The replacement of violet by purple as the rainbow flag evolved may be seen as a sign of the “normalizing” of LGBT experience. Some people complain about this–I think of people who wish there was not so much emphasis on marriage equality, some of whom reject the insistence that marriage be limited to couples only. They don’t want “us” to become so blended into “het” culture that our special history and ways are lost. I understand this–and even hold it in tension with my desire and work for political and religious liberation– although I am not in agreement with those who claim LGBT people are a separate people. I am not a separatist.

VioletsAccording to various interpreters, purple stimulates the imagination and inspires high ideals. It is an introspective color, allowing us to get in touch with our deeper thoughts. It carries the energy and strength of red with the spirituality and integrity of blue. This is the union of body and soul creating a balance between our physical and our spiritual energies. I am beginning to see this even more in violet (and lavender, and what is often called “lilac” on paint chips).

When I am an old Woman I shall Wear purpleI mentioned in an earlier post, in this series about the rainbow, the book, When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.  It is a glorious evocation of claiming all the parts of being a woman that society mutes, ignores, and belittles. I celebrate that. But for me, as I am moving into the second half of my life, about to turn 67, as an older man, I shall (begin to) wear violet.

Is the Rainbow Enuf?

POFEV logo for web[Next Tuesday, September 24, POFEV: People of Faith for Equality in Virginia is sponsoring “The Many Voices of LGBT Pride,” an interfaith service focused on the spiritual foundations of LGBT liberation, at 6:30 pm at Congregation Beth Ahabah, 1111 West Franklin Street, in Richmond. I will be offering some color-themed blog posts over the next few days to help us get ready for this celebration, and the celebration of Virginia Pride on Saturday, September 28, at Kanawha Plaza, in Richmond.]

This is a difficult post, because in a short space I am attempting to tackle a complex set of topics: color as in visual perception and art, color as in skin color and race and racism, color as in history of a people, and probably one or two other things.

Rainbow flag 8 colors 1978In our spiritual observance of LGBT Pride this Tuesday at Congregation Beth Ahabah, we will center ourselves on the eight-color rainbow flag that was originally designed and sewn by artist Gilbert Baker in 1978. That vibrant palette had two colors no longer in use, hot pink and turquoise, as has been noted in this space in prior posts. Also, indigo has been replaced by a more basic blue.

Over the years, however, I have been troubled by a color that was never included, namely brown. My distress has several foundations. First, as you may know from prior posts on the rainbow, I like color. And although brown is not a bright color it signifies much that I love: earth, of course, fall leaves, monks’ habits (especially the Franciscans), and wood. Jesus is so often portrayed wearing earth tones, and if we showed him accurately his skin would be that dark olive of the Middle East that is part green and part brown–no blonde, he! It also signifies for me, and many others, a whole people, or peoples, people whose skin color is not like mine. We often call some of them “black” people, but most of those are more accurately brown. And then there are Hispanic peoples who are so often shades of brown (and some Native American people may appear to be more brown than red).

When I see brown, I see the ground of being–even though according to experts, brown is not its own color, but rather a mixture of red, black and orange. It is officially considered a shade of orange. Check this out for more about brown. Oh yes, one more thing: many of us run after a “tan” each summer, wanting to look brown as a nut.

Hitler's brown shirtsI also know, that like the pink triangle and the yellow star of David, the Nazis, and their counterparts in Mussolini’s Italy, appropriated brown as the color of their uniforms. Once again, something beautiful and loving was turned into a symbol of hate and violence. So, as always, it is complicated.

But for me, part of the complication has been this: Are “brown people” included in the rainbow? One response is to say, well, of course, there is no white in the rainbow, and no black, so the absence of brown signifies nothing about race or racism. It sounds reasonable, and as a straightforward logical point of view it is.

But for those of us who are “white” (of course, most of us are not truly white–its more that we are not “black”), it is important to remember that it is people who look like us who created this rainbow flag–and I don’t just mean Gilbert Baker. White people have long held most of the leadership positions in the LGBT community, and until fairly recently, it was white people who always seemed to be pictured in groups of LGBT people. Context matters.

For-Colored-Girls who have considered suicideAnd I remember in the 80’s picking up a copy of a ground-breaking book, the book of a play called, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf,”by Ntozake Shange, a major poetic and drama voice among African American women. The play was produced off Broadway in various locales and finally, on September 15, 1976 at the Booth Theater on Broadway,

It is not enough to say that this play is powerful, it knocks your socks off. It was an early venture in what was known as “women’s theater,” at a time when that usually meant “white women’s theater.” It still, forty years later, catches you–the rhythms, the insistent truth-telling, the images.

One thing in particular caught me: there are seven parts in the show, seven ladies: one in yellow, one in red, one in green, one in purple, one in blue, one in orange . . . . and, yes, one in brown.

And here’s another thing: the show begins with the lady in brown.  Here’s part of her first speech:

I can’t hear anythin

but maddening screams

& the soft strains of death

& you promised me . . .


sing a black girl’s song

bring her out

to know herself

to know you

but sing her rhythms

carin/struggle/hard times

sing her song of life

she’s been dead so long

closed in silence so long

she doesn’t know the sound

of her own voice

her infinite beauty

she’s half-notes scattered

without rhythm/no tune

sing her sighs

sing the song of her possibilities

sing a righteous gospel

the makin of a melody

let her be born

let her be born

& handled warmly

Let her be born . . .  maybe the rainbow, our rainbow, is enuf, but then again, are we not yet engaged in giving birth to ourselves, to our community, too, and don’t we want to be sure none are left, none are stillborn, none are cast away or cast out?  So maybe we need a bigger rainbow? I know mine is bigger than six, and even than eight.

“Celebrating the Many Voices of LGBT Pride” means, for me at least, making sure the “brown” voice is heard.  Join us Tuesday night as we attempt to celebrate all the voices (and no doubt we will fall short–but making the effort is important).

The Rainbow Is Better with Turquoise



POFEV logo for web[Next Tuesday, September 24, POFEV: People of Faith for Equality in Virginia is sponsoring “The Many Voices of LGBT Pride,” an interfaith service focused on the spiritual foundations of LGBT liberation, at 6:30 pm at Congregation Beth Ahabah, 1111 West Franklin Street, in Richmond. I will be offering some color-themed blog posts over the next few days to help us get ready for this celebration, and the celebration of Virginia Pride on Saturday, September 28, at Kanawha Plaza, in Richmond.]

turquoiseTurquoise. Why did Gilbert Baker choose turquoise as one the eight colors of the original rainbow flag for the gay rights movement in 1978? There may be some answers in what follows, but after reading short biographies about Baker and more about the flag, I imagine he was just trying to capture the range of people in what we now know as the LGBT community. Baker is quoted in the 2007 book “The American Flag, Two Centuries of Conflict and Concord” saying “Flags are torn from the soul of the people.” I think he got that right in 1978 (with one exception, which I will discuss tomorrow).

GilbertBaker with 8-color Pride flag
Gilbert Baker with the 8-color rainbow flag

I am glad he did include turquoise, because a deeper shade, called teal, is one of my three favorite colors. My first memory of turquoise, teal really, was a dress my sister wore to a fancy party–it was a sort of satin, sleeveless affair, very sexy. I was probably about seven and I can still remember when she took it out of the closet. I was in heaven just seeing it (someone should have told me then that I was gay!). And my former wife loved her birthstone, turquoise. I delighted in buying some pieces for her.

But it is only in the past five years or so that I have begun to claim it as a very favorite color. There is a book which I cherish, “When I Am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple.” My version is, “When I Am an Old Man, I Shall Wear Teal” (I have worn purple a long time). I guess that makes me an old man–even though I intend and hope to live a long time yet.

teal enamel flower

Jennifer Bourne, a creative person who writes about color (and especially as it is used in advertising and mass communication), says that turquoise is “a blend of the color blue and the color green, has some of the same cool and calming attributes. The color turquoise is associated with meanings of refreshing, feminine, calming, sophisticated, energy, wisdom, serenity, wholeness, creativity, emotional balance, good luck, spiritual grounding, friendship, love, joy, tranquility, patience, intuition, and loyalty.”

The parts about sophistication, feminine, energy, creativity, intuition, and joy sound traditionally, even stereotypically, “gay.”

And many Native American people claim turquoise as spiritually healing, bringing together water and air, promoting a clearer movement of energy and healing.

So why no turquoise in today’s flag? The history of the flag (at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_flag_(LGBT_movement)  is that after hot pink was dropped and the number of colors became seven, it was more difficult to display the flag fully hanging from poles (the middle stripe was obscured by the pole). The decision was made to use an even number of stripes, so turquoise was dropped. But why turquoise? Why not drop green or yellow or orange, for example?

subtractive color mixing
Palette for “subtractive color mixing”

I knew turquoise was not a primary color, but I became unsure which colors are considered primary. I thought I knew from childhood talk and school art classes–red, yellow, green, and blue, plus orange and purple that are made from combining two primary colors, which are of course the six colors of today’s rainbow flag–but it turns out there are lots of theories involving this and actually the definition of primary colors depends on what media you are using. It did not take long for me to become overwhelmed with information and theory! You can read more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_color . Maybe your mind works better with all this than mine. I am a simple theologian, pastor, sometime poet, and community organizer,

That does not mean, however, that I am unhappy engaging in this research. Not at all. I love color–am known for wearing colorful socks, for example–and the more time I can spend with color the happier I am. And color clearly is a “gay” thing, and by that I mean largely gay men. That is not to say that lesbian women and transgender folk, and certainly bisexuals, oppose color. And I know non-LGBT people who like color, too. There are many colorful people in each group. But so many gay men choose to wear colors, bright colors, deep colors, strong and vibrant colors.

More straight men seem to want to stick to basic blue, black, and brown–of course blue and brown can be bright, but so often they are subdued shades.

I know I am dealing in gross stereotypes here. For example, my husband, gay as they come, has an underdeveloped sense of color. So I know there are exceptions. As a friend once told me, “Not all lesbians wear Birkenstocks, and not all women who wear Birkenstocks are lesbians.”

teal and turquoise socksSo, why turquoise? Because it is a beautiful, vibrant if soothing, color. And is different, not just blue or just green. Maybe that is like LGBT folks. We are not just L or G or B or T, and even within these categories we are a range, a combination of attributes. At various points in my life, I have worn long, dangly earrings–the kind you are more likely to buy in the women’s jewelry department than n some piercing palace for men. That has caused more than one person to ask me about my gender.  Some have assumed I identify as transgender.

I am male, a gay male, who likes earrings, big ones, small ones, but especially earrings that dangle from my ears. It is, I think, part of my maleness, which is a range of gender. Indeed, I am not really male, I am Robin. Sure, I have what are considered male body parts, but they are not the only things that shape me. My inner spirit is bigger than that, it is more of a range. Indeed, perhaps, as some gender theorists say, my gender is Robin. Certainly, my gender expression is my own.

And that may be the story with turquoise. It is its own color that is a combination of colors. Besides, it looks nice between green and indigo, its neighbors on the original rainbow flag. It may be as simple as that.

Whatever happened, I miss turquoise.  The rainbow is better with turquoise, certainly it is less without it.

Feeling Pink Today, and Every Day

POFEV logo for web[Next Tuesday, September 24, POFEV: People of Faith for Equality in Virginia is sponsoring “The Many Voices of LGBT Pride,” an interfaith service focused on the spiritual foundations of LGBT liberation, at 6:30 pm at Congregation Beth Ahabah, 1111 West Franklin Street, in Richmond. I will be offering some color-themed blog posts over the next few days to help us get ready for this celebration, and the celebration of Virginia Pride on Saturday, September 28, at Kanawha Plaza, in Richmond.]

Rainbow flag 8 colors 1978Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that the original rainbow flag, designed in 1978 by artist Gilbert Baker, included hot pink!

Well,maybe, if you don’t know me, you would not know of my delight, but trust me, hot pink, really any shade of pink, is good in my book. I still remember how much happiness my friend MJ Simmons brought me when she took a pink dress shirt and made it into a pink clergy shirt! And the pink dogwood is my favorite tree.pink_dogwood_lg

Baker gave meaning to each of the eight colors in the original rainbow. Hot pink represented sexuality.

Of course, it is sexuality that got us in trouble, at least with the authorities and those who are afraid of the whole range of God’s creation. So, it is right that it should be represented by a color that speaks of passion and being out of control.

But according to those who study color as part of psychological understanding, pink also is the color of nurturing and unconditional love. “Pink is feminine and romantic, affectionate and intimate, thoughtful and caring. It tones down the physical passion of red replacing it with a gentle loving energy,” say the writers at http://www.empower-yourself-with-color-psychology.com/color-pink.html

pink JesusSpiritually speaking, I like to think Jesus likes, or would like, pink. I don’t know if the color was in use when he walked the earth, but given his passion and his focus on love, I am pretty sure he would have worn pink. That would probably have been one more reason for him to get into trouble with the authorities. I also think Moses was a pink kind of guy. I often think of him as gruff on the exterior, but a real softie on the inside. He’d almost have to be to put up with all the grumbling. He certainly was a passionate guy, and pink fits that well.

As I read about colors, and especially about pink, I realize that the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Many of us probably have associations with a particular color that don’t fit someone else’s idea. So color is personal.

pink triangle menBut it also is sometimes political. No LGBT person should ever think of pink without remembering the badge of shame, that we now have made a badge of honor, the Nazis made gay men wear–the pink triangle. Talk about a symbol of love. The oppressor, in their twisted logic, took love and made it into hate.

That too often happens. People fear something and so they decide it represents evil. Colors can be made to do that–no Jew forgets the yellow star of David from the death camps (yellow is another color on the Rainbow flag, and I probably will have more to say about it).

Pink love shirtIn the pink. Sometimes we say that when are feeling especially good. “I’m in the pink!” So pink is the color of good health. Funny the American Medical Association doesn’t use pink in their symbol (it’s all blue–more about that color later). Maybe they’re afraid they will be seen as too feminine, or too gay?

I want pink back. My rainbow includes pink–hot, soft, rose, fuschia, pale, whatever. If its pink, I like it, I’m feeling pink today.

I think I am going to wear pink next Tuesday for “Celebrating the Many Voices of LGBT Pride.” If we don’t include pink, a voice will be missing.