Opinion: The rainbow crossing debacle risks reawakening a long-dead culture war

  • Opinion
  • 28/03/2024
A rainbow crossing on Auckland's Karangahape Rd, known as K Road, has been painted over in white overnight.
A rainbow crossing on Auckland's Karangahape Rd, known as K Road, has been painted over in white overnight. Photo credit: Newshub.

By Dr Peter Lineham

Why do rainbow crossings matter?

In one sense, they are a nice symbol and nothing more. I suspect if you polled residents of most cities, they would not be embraced – unless they were very cheap.

But for the rainbow community, they matter a great deal – especially given the meaning of a pedestrian crossing.

When I step out onto a crossing, the traffic stops and I know that I can walk across in front of the combination of power and might that is the modern vehicle.

I’m protected by the law, the shared values that lead cars to stop, and by the force of confidence that this is a safe place.

That is exactly the symbolism of a rainbow crossing. It says that the community is symbolically declaring that it will protect me, even though I am part of a defenceless minority. 

So when another minority decides to deface those crossings, I feel uncomfortable, even wishing that they had never been there in the first place. It vividly declares that my rights are not respected and that, at any moment, what I think is a safe place may turn out to be a place of great danger.

That’s what Destiny Church’s actions look like.

I know some younger and more nervous members of the LGBTQI+ community who feel exactly like this, interpreting that the state is not there when they need protection.

They ask, if someone can get away with an attack in a place as public as a pedestrian crossing, what will happen to me when I am by myself and facing up to this incipient violence?

What worries me is that we are at risk of reawakening a culture war which we thought was concluded several decades ago.

At the heart of this culture war, particularly where it flourishes in the US, is a sharp debate between the Trump-supporting Christian nationalists and those who have a vision of a society where various identities and minorities are made to feel safe and secure.

This is not exactly a debate between the church and secular society. There are plenty of Christians who support LGBTQI+ people, and I don’t think this has a lot of meaningful religious content behind it.

But it certainly reflects a debate about where cultural minorities fit in a society, and how we all learn to live together.

It is quite a challenging time for the trans community in particular. They are typically a younger group, somewhat unsure of their own identity and where they fit, disproportionately struggling with mental health issues.

They are a very significant section of the teenage community, and these signals of suspicion and hostility are especially risky for them, because they have not lived through the years of struggle of the rest of the LGBTQI+ community. I worry for them.

It is my hope that the ethos of New Zealand society will assert the view that we need to live and let live.

Destiny Church and other non-affirming groups have a right to hold their views, so long as they do so in an appropriate and civil way. We in the LGBTQI+ community need to be careful to act in the same way.

But the temperature has been raised by this defacing of rainbow signs. Already at the rainbow crossing, I have witnessed shouting matches and tensions.

In themselves, the rainbow crossings mean little. They don’t cost the councils much, and if they were not there, little would change. The defacing of them incites strong and violent feelings and that is risky.

Chalked over the edge of the crossing on Karangahape Rd today, someone has written the slogan “love is love”. Yes, that’s exactly right, and I can only hope that love will also sponsor love, not hatred.

That seems close to the message espoused by Jesus, the supposed lord of these narrow-minded Christians and of these rainbow people – and one we need to all keep in mind.

The crossing should be a safe place for all to cross.

Dr Peter Lineham is a theologian and church historian, a member of the LGBTQI+ community, and the author of ‘Destiny: The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle’.