The emerging phenomenon known as the ‘NHS rainbow’, has been appearing in windows since early April. It is bizarre that the LGBTQ rainbow has been appropriated and it seems to have escaped everyone’s notice.
In the last twelve weeks, if you were to venture outside for a scheduled hour of exercise or essential food shop, you would likely pass deserted play areas, empty roads and a wealth of ‘Closed Until Further Notice’ signs. Lockdown has, for the most part, been respected by the British public. This is interesting, as many people (including the government) have neglected to respect the socio-historical background of the LGBTQ community with the ‘NHS rainbow’.
The majority of British people have not given this seemingly harmless campaign a second thought. However, not everyone is at ease with the appropriation of a symbol which, for the last 42 years has encompassed a set of values which were fought and died for by so many. At first, the rainbows didn’t bother anyone, they were merely the product of parents understandably desperate for activities to occupy primary aged kids. However, the rainbow has taken on a decidedly more sinister guise as the pandemic wears on.
The confusion in the LGBTQ community
Youtubers Rose and Rosie, who are two gay women living in The Cotswolds discussed their uneasiness at the number of people who had displayed not only drawings by children but repurposed LGBTQ flags to ‘support’ the NHS.
Before watching this video, I had not been able to put my finger on why I felt so disdainful about the rainbow campaign as there is always a risk when discussing the actions of children to be labelled as unreasonable, or a cynic. I even wondered if this was the reason no one seemed to be discussing the blatant appropriation of a symbol which still means so much to so many today. Even during research, I found scarce to no publications mentioning the LGBTQ community alongside discussion of the rainbow.
Rose and Rosie were discussing this issue in the Cotswolds and expressed that the area they live in is “No Brighton” – it is majority conservative, white and straight. Though this couple have not claimed to be subject to any homophobic abuse, many have.
During June and the months to follow, it is tradition that LBGTQ allies and members of the community display rainbow flags in their window. This is to show their support and commitment in protecting the safety of LGBTQ people during a celebration of their identity. We are in June now, the official Pride month and we are now commemorating the Stonewall riots which were monumental; acting as the catalyst for the first pride march the following year.
In late May, BBC news published Ben Hunte’s article outlining the experience of a 32 year old gay man, Alex, who faced abuse after displaying a Pride flag in 2019 Pride month. He was approached by two young men and received death threats for displaying the flag in his window. Yet, in 2020, Alex’s street is filled with rainbows, repurposed for use in support of the NHS. This story not only highlights the erasure of any meaning of the six-stripe symbol, but the continuing need for such symbols in the fight for acceptance on a wider, ongoing basis.
The flag in the media
Many members of the LGBTQ community have taken to Twitter to share their distaste for the trend. @J3Lyon posted a picture of the six stripe Pride flag, captioned “My Grandad who is a staunch ‘I’ve got nothing against them, but I don’t want to know about it’ has put this up out front and refuses to accept it’s an LGBT pride flag”. This encapsulates the most prominent issue with the rainbow trend, you wouldn’t see an individualist or republican displaying a hammer and sickle in their window for any cause, even if it was branded otherwise. Why is it okay to appropriate the LBGTQ flag?
In ‘normal’ circumstances, high street retailers would be sporting the colours of the Pride flag this June. While there are certain problematic aspects of this ‘pink pound’ approach to Pride, the NHS rainbow campaign has exacerbated the capitalist approach to the LGBTQ community in disturbing ways.
Dawn Ennis’s article published by Forbes, outlined the official Pride merchandise for various retail corporations, titling the article ‘Business Is Booming For Pride Merchandise, Even Without Parades’. This worried me. Why are so many buying Pride themed merch when there is no Pride? I personally can’t bear to think what this merchandise has been appropriated for.
In the same article by Ben Hunte, the writer mentions a bus company in Plymouth that openly re-appropriated their Pride bus range by sticking an NHS sticker on the six colour rainbow flag, posting on twitter; ‘what better way to show our thanks to our amazing NHS and key workers, than to re-brand our Pride bus to our Rainbow NHS bus?’. Although this frankly brutal attempt at marketing did fail, with the company apologising and cancelling the launch of the bus, it is only the most blatant erasure of LGBTQ history. If this campaign had been allowed, one of the integral parts of modern society – public transport, would have shown support for abusing the six colour Pride symbol, a symbol which comforts so many.
Now, in early June, it is impossible to distinguish what companies are supporting.
The erasure of the pride symbol may have already gone too far, stories like this have already shown that there is no longer a comprehensive way to demonstrate support or acceptance of Pride. LGBTQ people now live in a murky, ambiguous environment where the key symbol of their struggle and resistance has lost its impact.