Opinion: Why Caius’ Pride U-turn isn’t brave

Caius shouldn’t be congratulated for deciding our existence isn’t ‘political’

Back in February, Gonville & Caius college announced it wouldn’t be flying the Pride flag; or, as their careful wording put it, it would be flying only their college flag. I wonder if they knew they would be eventually forced into reversing their decision a few months later.

At a time when every June, companies and corporations rush to bedeck themselves in rainbows to appeal to the LGBTQ+ market, the idea of any institution actively taking a stance against the rainbow flag seems absurd. The fact that Caius had been apparently happy flying the Pride flag since 2016, and had flown the progress Pride flag the day previously, only made the situation more bizarre. Protests by its student body seemed inevitable. Among my friends, the prevailing attitude was “surely they don’t think they can get away with this?”

But apparently, they did. The statement Caius released at the time expressed concern that the Pride flag was “political,” implied that flying it had “the potential to divide us” and to avoid “concerns regarding political neutrality,” only the college flag could be flown. The brazenness of this statement almost beggared belief.

A ‘political’ existence?

LGBTQ+ people have been told, again and again, sometimes by self-proclaimed “tolerant” people, that we need to stay in our lane, to keep affection behind closed doors, that our feelings aren’t “family-friendly” or “appropriate.” Caius’ apparent belief that a symbol expressing our pride in our own existence was a “political” statement is just another variation on this theme.

The implication is that tolerance is a contentious issue rather than a fundamental right, that LGBTQ+ people must be careful not to create “divides” between ourselves and bigotry, that we can express ourselves, but only within limits. We wouldn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable, after all.

It is true that Caius did not forbid individual students from displaying Pride flags. It’s true that as an educational institution Caius isn’t obliged to fly any flag. But context matters. Pride flags were displayed by many other colleges in Cambridge in February. That Caius chose to go against the grain means more than it would have if no other colleges were flying the flag.

Why is political neutrality more of a concern to Caius than other colleges? Aren’t they concerned about “dividing” their communities? Yes, it’s true that flying a flag isn’t an automatic commitment to supporting LGBTQ+ students, but really, if your college is one of the few choosing not to fly the Pride flag, wouldn’t you feel like it cares just a little less about you? That while other colleges are happy to risk their “neutrality” to show your support, yours would rather play it “safe” and not extend its support too far?

Caius’ statement was not an explanation for its decision. It was an excuse.

A belated u-turn

To be sure, I was happy to hear the news, and especially gratified by the activism that had led to this outcome. But something left a sour taste in my mouth. The new statement released by Caius was a bare five sentences long.

There was no apology, no acknowledgement of how the previous decision may have made LGBTQ+ students feel. The new decision had the air of making the smallest possible concession. The Pride flag will be flown for just one day? Wahey, let’s celebrate! The way the decision was reviewed ahead of the expected date in 2024 reveals a college scrambling to damage control and repair its image.

Far from offering a spirited defence of its supposedly deeply-held values of political neutrality, Caius buckled once it came under pressure, conceding as much as it felt it could get away with. How deep did its “neutrality” ever go? Was the Pride flag decision really the necessary outcome of a thoughtful choice, or did the decision come first and the rationale come later?

Cowardice, not courage

It seems that Caius really didn’t think it would have to reconsider, that the LGBTQ+ community would be fobbed off with the same lazy excuses we’ve heard many times before. When it came under more scrutiny than it liked, both the decision and the excuse were dropped.

Yes, we should be happy that the college has reconsidered its decision but let us not even entertain the idea that it has “come to its senses” or, God forbid, that it was “brave”.

Everything about this story reeks of cowardice. The fact that it took protests by students to obtain even a token marker of respect and acknowledgement from college, let alone any concrete efforts to support the LGBTQ+ community, is nothing short of shameful.

I can end only by expressing my hope that Gonville and Caius, and Cambridge as a whole, have learnt from this incident that quiet “toleration” isn’t enough. The age of restricting our existence for bigots’ comfort is over. It’s time to demand real change.

Gonville & Caius College has been contacted for comment.

Featured Image Credits: Ted Bruce

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