After the NHS began using a rainbow arch to show support for its workers throughout the pandemic, we can’t help but ask: is it okay to use the rainbow symbol or things other than Pride?
The use of the rainbow as a sign of support for the brave workers of the NHS became increasingly prevalent as the outbreak of Covid-19 continued. While the need to appreciate frontline workers that have been restlessly dedicated to saving lives is unquestionable, I can’t help but question the way that this appreciation has taken a symbol commonly associated with a civil rights movement.
Rainbow flags have been used to represent the LGBTQ+ movement for more than 40 years, allowing the colours to stand as a widely recognisable, international symbol of solidarity, kindness, acceptance, and peace. Using the rainbow to represent something besides Pride shouldn’t be forbidden, but what needs to be kept in mind is the flag’s original purpose. The possibility of overriding the association of the LGBTQ+ community with its own symbol is making members of it uneasy, myself included, and I believe that the reasons for feeling uncomfortable are not unfounded.
“Using the rainbow to represent something besides Pride shouldn’t be forbidden, but what needs to be kept in mind is the flag’s original purpose.”
The pride flag has a rich history, with the rainbow colours carrying years of meaning and purpose. Just five years after the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, a gay man by the name of Gilbert Baker and his team designed the prototype for the pride flag we all know today. Baker later stated that Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office, urged him to create a symbol for his community shortly after beginning his work in public office in 1977.
Gilbert didn’t simply use the rainbow as a general symbol for pride; each stripe of colour has a meaning of its own, representing such things as life, healing, spirit, and art. Having those colours on a flag specifically was, in Baker’s mind, a powerful way of proclaiming visibility, a way of saying ‘this is who I am!” The pride flag gained official recognition in 1994, with the stripes coming to represent both the unity and the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community.
Despite the rainbow symbol’s history with the LGBTQ+ community, it has recently become associated with the NHS. Making the rainbow synonymous with NHS appreciation did not originate from the NHS itself but swiftly took hold as people were adapting to the challenges of the pandemic. Despite the fact that a distinction could be made, since the rainbow colours in support of frontline workers often came in the shape of an arch rather than a flag, one could nevertheless be unable to distinguish the purpose behind it. The rainbow can be used to represent a multitude of different things: the connection between the Bible’s Noah and “all living creatures”, anti-war sentiment commonly expressed in the early 2000s, and now the NHS. Nonetheless, I would heavily discourage the use of a rainbow flag beyond its primary, well-known, pride-related connotation due to safety reasons.
For a member of the queer community, seeing a rainbow flag in a public space can be a signal of freedom of expression, acceptance, and, most importantly, safety. Subsequently, it should remain as such as the fight for the liberation of my community is far from over. The number of homophobic hate crimes reported in the UK has increased drastically since the beginning of the last decade with continually rising data. UK research has shown that one in five LGBTQ+ people are to experience a hateful encounter or crime due to their gender or sexual orientation. The statistics are nothing but a cause for concern and proof that activism for the LGBTQ+ is still necessary.
Co-opting of the rainbow flag contributes to the erosion of one of the queer community’s most distinguishable marks, so before you may want to use the rainbow flag as a sign of support for frontline workers, I ask you to consider its significance to a large marginalised group of people. After all, there are many other ways and gestures one can use to thank the NHS that don’t harm others.
A queer person’s world is often an uncertain one, so I want every one of them to be sure that they are not going to be put in danger after taking the flag as what it most often means – the international landmark for acceptance and justice.