Who Owns the Rainbow?

Janet Coburn
4 min readJun 16, 2024


I can’t believe that a rainbow is controversial, but there you have it. These days it is. The problem is that the rainbow means many different things to many different people.

This being Pride Month, we see a lot of pride flags, shirts, coffee cups, buttons, posts, memes, etc. with rainbows on them. They are brightly colored rainbows, not the more pastel kind you see in the sky after a rain. They’re meant to symbolize sexual diversity and visibility. The rainbow flag was first flown in 1978 at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade. Now the rainbow flag stands for gay pride. You also see flags with white, pink, and blue, and black and brown added in some configuration for trans visibility and POC intersectionality.

There’s pushback, though. There’s the question of whether — and how much — rainbow merchandise should be displayed in mass-market retail stores during Pride Month. The manufacturers and sellers, whether they actually support the LGBTQIA+ community or not, naturally want to make money, and their first instinct is that people supportive of gay pride will buy rainbow-themed products. The pushback comes from some in the heterosexual community who feel that too much square footage and prominence have been given over to gay pride merchandise. Fearing that they would lose money if the complaining heterosexuals shopped elsewhere, some retailers cut down on the stock of rainbow merchandise or put it in the back of stores so it would be, if not back in the closet, at least less in-your-face.

Some Christians also push back against the rainbow-as-gay-pride concept by invoking religion. The rainbow, they say, belongs to God and is not to be associated with what they see as sin. It was a sign of God’s promise never to destroy the world with a flood again and so symbolizes holiness, faithfulness, and salvation. I’ve seen Facebook posts and memes promoting this understanding of rainbows and an attempt to “take back” the rainbow for God.

Call me pedantic, but no one seems to talk about what a rainbow actually is. It’s a product of refraction, which Sir Isaac Newton explained in 1665 when sunlight hit a prism and produced a color spectrum that resembled a rainbow. National Geographic defines a rainbow this way: “a multicolored arc made by light striking water droplets.” The controversy over rainbows, however, is not about what they are but what they symbolize.

Symbols, to get pedantic again, are not absolutes. They mean what we put into them, what we believe about them. And they change meanings over time. The Don’t Tread on Me flag (technically called the Gadsden Flag) was once a symbol of Colonial America’s resistance to the British. More recently, it became associated with the Tea Party movement and other right-wing causes. What does it symbolize now? Independence (though not from the British)? No taxation? Anti-government sentiment in general? Objections to one particular political party? All of the above? None of the above? When there’s that little agreement, the symbolic meaning fades out and the flag simply means “I’m angry” or perhaps “I’m defiant.”

The same is true of the American flag as a symbol. To some people, it represents the United States itself. To others, it means American ideals like liberty and justice for all. To still others, it stands for the US military. So if you disrespect the flag (in whatever way) who or what you’re disrespecting — the nation, the ideals, or the military — depends on how you interpret the symbol. (There’s no pushback at all against flag-themed clothing. At one time that was thought to be disrespectful too. It’s part of the US Flag Code that the flag shouldn’t be worn as clothing, but hardly anyone knows that anymore, much less abides by it.)

So, back to the rainbow. Going on the principle that a symbol means what you put into it, there’s no use fighting over what it means. It means different things to different people in different circumstances. Everyone is entitled to associate it with any meaning they prefer, whether that be gays or God. Or, as I prefer, refracted light in the sky that looks pretty. That’s a lot less contentious.

Now I wait for the comments that I’m disrespecting gays, God, or America (though probably not Sir Isaac Newton). You’re entitled to your symbolism. But no one owns the rainbow.



Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at butidigress.blog and bipolarme.blog.