Much like everyone else this lockdown, I have taken to going on lots of walks. I’ve lived in this neighbourhood half my life and know it like the back of my hand. However, lately there has been a vibrant new addition to this otherwise fairly ordinary village: rainbow flags. The first time I saw one, I was like “Oh, great! Happy Pride month,” but then more and more cropped up. It was only when I saw many rainbow signs accompanied with “THANK YOU NHS” that I understood.
Perhaps like many other LGBTQ+ people, I didn’t know that the rainbow flag was the flag of the NHS until these public displays of gratitude for everything the NHS has done during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you search “NHS flag” into amazon or eBay, you’re immediately met with a vast array of rainbow designs. However, searching “Gay Pride flag” obviously gives you very similar result. I thought the Gay Pride flag was very well known, so how have the NHS managed to convince people that it’s for NHS workers rather than a way for LGBTQ+ people to show pride?
On the 6th July 2019, the day of last year’s London Pride, the NHS launched the “Rainbow Initiative“. This was initially introduced as a means of showing support for LGBTQ+ staff, patients and their family within the mental and physical healthcare system. However, since then, it has become a symbol amongst the general public of pride for the NHS as a whole, which, while this is absolutely a good thing given all of the amazing work they have done during and before the pandemic, it takes away from the original meaning of the rainbow flag.
The rainbow flag was originally created by drag queen and gay man Gilbert Baker in 1978, with each of the colours of the flag having their own distinct meaning. The flag became “truly established as the symbol for Gay Pride” in the 90s and has since become a symbol of LGBTQ+ solidarity and pride. Other identities also have flags of their own, including the transgender pride flag (pink, blue and white) and the bisexual pride flag (purple, pink and blue). The rainbow flag symbolises pride more generally however as resistance and solidarity; it is a vibrant display of being true to oneself and outwardly supporting fellow community members. It is no wonder that the appropriation of the flag to represent NHS workers after being a symbol of resistance to oppression puts a sour taste into the mouths of members of the LGBTQ+ community.
This is not the only time the Gay Pride flag has been appropriated in a way that doesn’t seem to directly benefit the community. June every year sees companies adorn their social media pages and products with the rainbow flag as a way of showing “support”, when often they do not donate to LGBTQ+ foundations, support homophobic individuals (Taco Bell supporting Trump, for example) or actively discriminate against their LGBTQ+ workers.
However, the difference with the NHS situation is that it is not that the Pride flag is used as a way of coming across as “supportive” by a corporation who see the queer community as merely a target audience. In this case, the history of the Gay Pride flag and those who fought not only to create it, but to exist at all, is being erased. Queer history is not taught in schools and is often only known by LGBTQ+ individuals themselves. The community has had to deal with not only this lack of representation, but also having their efforts to show pride erased completely.
There is obviously nothing wrong with supporting our amazing healthcare workers at a time where their unrelenting efforts have saved so many, but historically, queerness in all its forms has been illegitimated and hidden. The use of the flag as a symbol of the NHS is a perfect example of this – we live in a time where members of the community are still being attacked, where a lesbian couple were assaulted on a public bus in London less than a year ago. It is for this precise reason that a rainbow flag created for and by a community who have always faced hardship should be understood as representing them and only them, including those in the community who work in healthcare. I just hope that the elderly straight couple who have rainbows pinned to their window will one day realise where that rainbow comes from and stand in solidarity with the community it truly represents, as well as the healthcare system that has appropriated it.
Photo courtesy of Tristan Billet