I called a Sri Lankan friend of mine earlier a few weeks ago, hoping to find a time we could next get together. He told me he had been meaning to call me, and in particular, wanted to talk about a recent change I’d made on my Facebook profile.
That is, in the wake of the historic United States Supreme Court ruling to grant constitutional rights for same-sex couples to marry, I had joined many in the Facebook-endorsed movement to recast my profile picture in the colors of the rainbow.
I found out about the monumental decision when I came back from the village of Ekiriya, where I’d been without internet for a number of days. It came when I first logged onto Facebook, and noticed that some of my friends had made their profile pictures rainbow, with a caption that read, “Celebrate pride at www.facebook.com/pride.” Wondering what the particular cause for affirmation was, I loaded the New York Times website and quickly realized the landmark event that had taken place.
In hearing the news, I experienced an overwhelming synergy of excitement and disbelief–witnessing but perhaps not internalizing that one of the great barriers to actualizing freedom and equality in America had been lifted. This was a great moral shadow of our generation, and to see these legally-enshrined shackles broken was like the cleansing flow of a river washing through our land.
Admittedly, though, I felt a sense of distance in receiving the news days later, and from a small country on the other side of the world. Though this issue is hardly about me (though I would argue that the discrimination undermined our common humanity), I wanted to witness the “moral arc of history” bend first-hand.
I decided to join the company of friends and family in making my Facebook profile picture rainbow. It was, obviously, reactionary to something that had already happened, and largely symbolic, but it was a small way to give tangible affirmation to a historic change in my home country, and to lend support to all the friends and family and good people I know who are not straight–to all those who swim against an oppressive tide just to be themselves.
As a straight ally of the LGBTQ community, I was humbled to see a status update of my former tennis coach who is gay:
“I want to thank my straight friends that posted rainbow profile pics over the past two weeks. I’ve been out for 15 years now and I would like to think that we don’t need the rainbow anymore. However, the truth is that whenever I see a friend’s FB profile pic rainbow-fied it makes my heart jump. The gesture is a declaration and a very clear one.
This in no way implies that people who did not display the colors are not ridiculously and fully supportive. Rather, this is a simple thank you to those that did. It sends a message. This has been a monumental week … I’m still in disbelief. Love = Love!”
I sometimes criticize Facebook and our hyper-reliance on technology, but this was an instance where I experienced a real sense of solidarity with others, and joined in celebration from across the globe through this digital medium. The movement allowed me to keep connected and offer some tangible manifestation of human values I share that transcend the particularities of where I may be situated in the world.
And thus, I was somewhat troubled to hear my Sri Lankan friend urge me to take the picture down immediately. He told me that in Sri Lanka, most any person who saw that rainbow-fide picture of me would assume I were gay. Though I am a straight ally of LGBTQ people, and my friend understood this, he told me that many people would simple not understand the prospect, and would instantly rush to conclusions that could negatively stigmatize me, and potentially, even undermine my life and research in rural Ekiriya.
I told him I understood, and relayed my thanks for the educational learning moment his words presented. After all, as a scholar with the Fulbright program, I believe I am primarily in Sri Lanka to listen and learn, not to project my Americanized sense of identity, custom, and worldview on Sri Lanka. At the same time, I remained quite unsettled about how I was suddenly pressured to carve my identity (or, more precisely, an amorphous digital identity that in this case was an intentional expression of self) around such fine lines. Would I leave the photo up, risking possible stigma to my name here in Sri Lanka, for the sake of holding onto symbolic expression and deeper values? In fact, was this altered Facebook picture actually a critical way to express my values, or support the broader cause of LGBTQ equality, or was this more about making me feel good through rather insubstantial, technological action? Was this even a big deal?
In some ways, it wasn’t–the paradigmatic ruling had already taken place back in the US (the rainbow profile picture movement emerging as a retroactive affirmation of that), and on a personal note, I’d like to think my friends, family, and platform of intentional influence readily convey my convictions on these issues, regardless of any quick-fix, technological maneuver.
But in more important ways, it did matter. The seemingly trivial action of rainbow-fying my Facebook profile picture while in Sri Lanka brought a larger issue to the fore–that is, can I be an entirely passive cultural observer who will actively suppress strongly-held, personal convictions in deference to the customs of another country, or will I draw a line in the sand somewhere, standing up for what I believe in in some capacity, regardless of how it may be perceived? After all, it’s worth explicitly emphasizing the reality that homosexual activity is criminalized in Sri Lanka–something any equality-minded individual (not to mention any non-straight person) with a relationship to this place will have to contend with.
In this case, I chose the latter. While I eventually changed my profile picture to a newer photo, I didn’t take the rainbow-fied one down. Because I remembered what my old tennis coach wrote, that “…whenever I see a friend’s FB profile pic rainbow-fied it makes my heart jump.” And maybe, for a Sri Lankan Facebook friend of mine struggling with their own identity, or for a loved one of theirs who might not be straight, my rainbow picture elicited the same kind of experience. I’m not parading out the streets of Colombo in civil protest, riding the coattails of Fulbright to forcefully pursue socio-political change in another country, but on my intercultural, digital platform of keeping connected to others I keep in my life, I won’t hesitate to portray who I am, and what I stand for. If that’s cause for concern among any Sri Lankan friends, and in a country I love, I look forward to more of the educational learning moments that make this Fulbright experience so enriching.