Do Yourself a Favour: DIY a Rainbow

Usually DIY anything means hours of pain and frustration: IKEA flatpacks, or a lost Sunday at the hardware store trying to work out how to correctly measure a straight line so you can progress further towards that table-making course which seemed so attainable months ago (clearly I’ve never experienced that…) The #DIYrainbow, however, is of a completely different ilk. I promise.

Installed in the lead up to Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, a rainbow crossing, not unlike San Francisco’s, proudly displayed its colours on Oxford Street (Sydney’s main gay drag.) Having had its time in the sun, however, the crossing was removed. Twitter sighed and Facebook groaned under the weight of protests calling for it to be revived from its tar-covered grave. One gentleman, thinking a little outside the box, grabbed some chalk and decided instead to make his own.

DIY Raibow! Flickr

Although James Brechney only thought that this initiative might get him ’50 likes on [his Facebook] wall’ (and for the record I’ve never had that many Likes on any single Facebook post, perhaps even on all my combined posts, so even that seems ambitious to me) this #DIYrainbow trend exploded. It got itself the aforementioned hashtag (although #DIYrainbowcrossing is used too) and rainbows of any number of sizes and shapes started popping up all over Sydney. They were on footpaths and driveways, outside offices, shops and police stations. The movement quickly went global, hitting parts of Africa, Europe and the Americas; Canada and the US included.

At first glance, it seems inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between #DIYrainbow and that red equals symbol, which baffled me for so long. Although the rainbows are not specifically addressing marriage inequality they do both promote acceptance of our differences, gay or otherwise. Where I suggest they differ, however, is in the action necessitated. #DIYrainbow(s) require real-world people to get out and do something. Rather than trending support, showing people (and probably those in your circles who already agree with the position) your solidarity, the #DIYrainbow constitutes a movement as it physically engages people to act on behalf of equality.

Both are certainly highly political acts, but this distinction between an active movement and passive support seems to have been largely lost in mainstream media. This is not to say that the equals sign was devoid of any utility, but rather that the #DIYrainbow offers up a range of new possibilities for political expression and social change which seem to have been glossed over. There’s a bit of look-what’s-happening-over-here, a smattering of hey-maybe-there-is-support-for-gay-rights, but not a whole lot of serious talk about the future implications of this movement.

The very medium by which the #DIYrainbow was disseminated, however, can be held accountable, to some degree, for its occasional trivialisation. It’s not that chalkers don’t take these rainbows seriously but that the internet-based social-media world in which we live propels trends like this into the limelight almost daily, fatiguing everyone in the process. (Remember Gangnam Style, for instance? Or any of the Harlem Shake renditions. Or even those innumerable, some might say unnecessary, parodies of Call Me, Maybe? that turned up all over the place?) People naturally question the kind of long-term impact these rainbows can make.

What we’re all forgetting, however, is the history-making potential of individual acts. Sure, for each of these there are hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of dissenting actions that disappear from our historical record, but you never know which it is that’s going to disappear and which is going to change the world; you never know which is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Who, for instance, would have thought that the simple act of collecting salt would have driven the Indian independence movement forward in the way that it did? One of the most famous examples of the propulsion of change by this sort of collective action occurred in an Indian coastal town, Dandi, in 1930, and is now known as the Salt Satyagraha. Gandhi, the Gandhi, marched for 24 days to get to Dandi. Upon arrival, and joined by thousands of others, he waded into the ocean slowly, carefully, and deliberately, and extracted a small amount of salt, bypassing the exclusive British processing and distribution networks which had been set in place. Extracting salt in this way was illegal and resulted in tens of thousands being arrested so it differs from our rainbows in certain respects, but the essential truth remains. One act, setting off a chain of further individual acts, can work to change the world.

Dandi March. Flickr

This is obviously a potted history, crude and incomplete in many ways, but it still emphasises an important principle: the agency of an individual unit as a mechanism for transformation. In other words, that individual people, and single, seemingly banal events, can alter the world one shake of salt, or one chalk rainbow, at a time. Their manifestation usually bespeaks an already mounting groundswell but they can be catalysts for change; change which is by no means inevitable or predetermined.

Ultimately, we will of course have to wait and see how history judges these #DIYrainbow(s), but my hunch is that they are going to be remembered as the tail-end of a much larger movement towards greater social equality across parts of the Western world. What these tiny-little, politically-charged rainbows are actually saying (in what I imagine are voices sounding something like a gravitas-infused Alvin, from Alvin and the Chipmunks) is akin to: ‘Ignore us at your own peril.’ A change has been in the air for some time, and now we can see, with our own eyes, the rainbow-coloured writing on the walls.

Perhaps the most important and pointed message is for governments and legislators: to ignore these signs can only hurt your political credibility.


In case you were interested…

Histories of the Gandhi and the Salt Satyagraha abound, but for the facts I used Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), esp. ch. 4.

TIME also does a really short overview of this event in its ‘Top 10 Most Influential Protests’ (you’re looking for slide number 2, although the others are fascinating as well)

Much of what I’m talking about here, at least in the abstract, has to do with change and individual agency (a much debated topic amongst social scientists of all kinds). If you feel so inclined, one historical entry point to this is William Sewell’s, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Doing your own #DIYrainbow is but a few pieces of chalk away. It’s easy. Pick a spot, draw and colour in the rainbow. You’re welcome to try this in an abstract fashion, stick to the traditional arch shape, or go with Sydney’s contribution, the crossing.

(We should also note that while #DIYrainbows are great, there are varying restrictions on public art across states, counties, and countries, so you should check with local authorities to make sure that everything is above board.)

You may have noticed …

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Sean Cosgrove's research areas lie at the intersection of histories of medicine, science and technology, gender, and popular culture primarily in the late nineteenth century, united by an interest in the experiences of, and ideas surrounding, the human body. He is also committed to public engagement and actively interested in fostering greater inclusivity in higher education. He has previously conducted research focusing on patients, hermaphroditism, and sexual violence and criminality in the nineteenth century, but has also worked on projects outside of academia.