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A Show of Colors
by Adam Janke
Whether color or vision came first is probably a chicken-and-egg thing. Science tells us that ever since the Cambrian explosion, color and vision have been in a sort of parallel explosion of their own, proliferating, ever-refined, and ever-more remarkable. And no taxon demonstrates this proliferation more than my favorite: birds.
Well, them and my other favorite: gay men.
Birds and humans have a lot in common. Most birds use the same two primary senses we do – sight and sound. They live in all the places we live and endure the seasons with us. They’re physically conspicuous for their size (unlike the millions of micro-organisms we step over each day) and their affinity for daylight (unlike the shrouding darkness preferred by most other mammals). But, it’s their remarkable coloration that captures our imagination most.
Brilliant orange of the oriole and snow white of the trumpeter swan. The rich indigo of the indigo bunting or shimmering gold of the goldfinch. These birds light our lives and worlds in color. To do it, they ply sunlight, which meets the complex pigmentation and fine structure of their feathers to create a spectrum of colors as wide as a painter’s palette. Sure, they did it to attract their own kind or fool others. But when I see the vivid red of the red-bellied woodpecker streaking across a snow-draped landscape, or the fluorescent glow of the meadowlark’s chest contrasting with the green matrix of July, I’m overcome with gratitude for the gifts of others’ evolution.
Gay men, like birds, have an affinity for color too. I, of course, don’t mean to overgeneralize or stereotype, but the evidence seems conclusive. Drag queens embody the extreme, with their over-the-top coloration and ornamentation like the other-worldly birds of paradise. For generations, from da Vinci to Keith Haring, gay men have used color to create new styles and fashions, to stage theatrical productions, to design and build homes, and produce visual arts. Even in everyday life many embrace an affinity for coloristic flair through gender-bending style, hair, or accoutrement. Of course, there are downsides: I can’t wear a colorful tie to work without enduring a gauntlet of heteronormative questioning.
Scientists call coloration a “reliable signal.” Study after study shows that those of a species that embody the brightest of their form attract the most attention from mates and perpetuate their lineage the longest. This reward for coloration is the mechanism driving the ever-expanding coloration of the world of birds.
For centuries, it wasn’t so among gay men. Those that showed their colors brightest were ostracized, persecuted, jailed, beaten, or killed. They were forsaken by their families, their governments, and their Gods. Their shimmering color was forced into the shadows where, without light, it dulled.
But time passed, and with it the inevitable proliferation of color.
In 1978, a gay army veteran in San Francisco sewed together eight colored bars to wave on the street in celebration and protest. Through modifications that flag with its rotating rainbow-colored bars has become an international symbol for inclusion and pride. Our parades and protests are awash in those colors, and more. Our community takes culture’s pink and blue and mashes it together with white to wave our finger at the binary those colors represent. We march together, all manifestations of the infinite refraction of identities filtered through the prism of gender and sexuality. We refine language to tell our story and seek out space to live and love as we were born to.
My office-space wardrobe interrogations are a modicum of the ridicule others in my lineage faced in our cultural evolution. I’m far from the only one standing out in protest to society's sliding status quo today. The sun shines bright on my color and many more of my kind in a global flock of like-souls disinterested in the dark. But despite our rising profile, persecution persists. Flags are forbidden. Books are banned. Language kids learn is limited through legislation.
But time and color marches on, ever proliferating. In that march, I’ll flaunt mine in the way of the warblers in spring, with hope for a more colorful, inclusive future perched in my soul.
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Adam Janke teaches wildlife ecology at Iowa State University and conducts research on farmland bird conservation. He is involved in international advocacy and visibility efforts for LGBTQ+ wildlife biologists through the Out in the Field initiative of the professional society of wildlife biologists called The Wildlife Society.
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