Waving a Rainbow Flag in Spain: What Should Study Abroad Students Know?

Waving a Rainbow Flag in Spain: What Should Study Abroad Students Know?
By: Eero Jesurun | Director of CIEE Global Institute – Madrid

Every year in June, Gay Pride festival starts up in Madrid and infinite rainbow flags are waving in the hands of most revelers who celebrate the hard-won rights of gays and lesbians. This year, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the annual Gay Pride in many parts of Spain was canceled or celebrated online. Amid this new reality, the public display of the rainbow flag became an unexpected target of cultural strife in Spain. 

While the country emerged out of lockdown, the Spanish postal service announced its historical decision to print rainbow flag stamps in honor of LGBT pride. The post office also spent 10,000 euros (12,000 US dollars) on its pride campaign to brand several mailboxes and delivery vans with the rainbow flag. There is nothing unusual about the display of rainbow banners since they remind everyone that the LGBT community is an essential part of our modern society. Yet there was public criticism for the post office´s “frivolous” marketing expenses during a global health pandemic. This was fueled by ongoing allegations from rightwing Spanish politicians that the rainbow flag is a symbol of a leftwing political lobby. And then the Spanish Supreme Court ruling of June 1, 2020, stated that unofficial flags cannot be placed on the exterior of public buildings. This invigorated many conservative leaders who refused to hang the rainbow flag at their townhall this year. In one terrible incident, someone even burned the rainbow flag that was on public display at a Toledo province mayor´s office.

Why did this Pride icon come under attack in a Western European country that has been hailed for one of the first to enact marriage equality laws and many other civil rights protections of its LGBT citizens?

The response of many Spaniards, and especially the youth, to these events, was an immediate reaction on social media in favor of the rainbow flag and the LGBT community. The postal office made nearly 500.000 euros profit on their stamp sales. Despite the commercial success and community support, the public debate did not quiet down in Spain. Any study abroad student coming to Spain, and possibly many other locations, will need to be open-minded and brave to hear talk and disagreements about politics, religion, sexuality, and the origins of people. This requires that our participants get support in developing intercultural skills, local language learning, and ongoing orientation or access to local resources. One example may be an onsite LGBT buddy peer system.

But I want to come back to the display of the rainbow flag. Students should actively look out for this colorful symbol printed with the rainbow colors. Restaurants, bars, shops, study abroad offices, etc. that have the rainbow flag on their window, door entrance, or indoor walls show support for others with different sexualities, if not a demonstration of full acceptance of these differences. Unfortunately, in some study locations, the rainbow flag is under social scrutiny and faces ongoing censorship. Whereas most in the Western world embrace rainbow flags as a sign of support it is also increasingly seen as a sign of a safety risk, especially and perhaps strangely for minors in certain countries. In Turkey, for example, most children are not allowed to draw rainbows out of a public fear it may “make” them gay.

Spain´s LGBT organizations, fortunately, rallied to embrace the rainbow flag and garnered support with lower regional court rulings that banners or posters of the rainbow-colored flag are part of an immemorial practice in Spain of hanging confectioners. These judges recognized that the rainbow flag identifies certain social groups and, therefore, it does not compete with the official flag of Spain. They also cited a custom in most Spanish towns where flags or banners are hung when remembering important social or civic causes (for example, banners against gender violence or ALS awareness).

In summary, despite the ongoing resistance by several conservative groups and hardline objections by some politicians, the rainbow flag has a renewed meaning of compassion and solidarity in Spain. Albeit Spain is often listed in the top 10 countries in the world for LGBT freedoms, it is not perfect. Hence, I also recognize that this is only one component regarding diversity and inclusion support in study abroad, but I believe that these recent occurrences in Spain cannot be overlooked when Covid-19 dominates world news and we have students preparing participants for study abroad.