For the better half of a year we’ve had to deal with national lockdowns, social distancing, varying extents of isolation from our loved ones and some of us have had to endure testing positive with Covid-19. Throughout all this the people who are being praised right, left and centre for their hard work are the NHS staff and other front-line workers. It’s hard enough being a doctor or nurse in an increasingly privatised healthcare system, navigating a global pandemic is something else entirely. The year 2020 has left us with a feeling that nothing could surprise us at this point. With that said, I can’t say that any preconceptions I may have had about a global pandemic included Pride flags being confused with the NHS.
As all the days merge into one, it is easy to mix up last week and last month, particularly during the “first lockdown”, which is where this issue started to emerge. Before local lockdowns, before the phased relaxing of restrictions, the levels of Covid-19 cases were at dangerous levels, levels that we are starting to see again in parts of the UK that have returned to the stay at home strategy. The NHS were on the front line putting their lives at risk to reduce the spread, and a response to their efforts emerged in a way we have never seen before. One way of which I’m obviously talking about is every Thursday at 8pm when we would clap for the NHS. Another way people showed their gratitude, was putting messages on their window saying “thank you NHS”, often accompanied with a drawing of a rainbow. Considering the overwhelming numbers that have participated in this, the rainbow has unmistakably become associated with the NHS. This is innocent enough and I cannot emphasis enough that my issue is not with the NHS or the use of a literal rainbow being used as a symbol for the NHS.
The issue for myself and many other people, particularly those in the LGBTQIA community, was the six-stripped Pride flag/Gay Pride flag being claimed as the “Thank You NHS” flag. At first it seemed simply laughable to me, when for example in May a bus branded with the six colours of the Pride flag by Plymouth Citybus for Pride month, was re branded the “Thank you NHS and key workers” bus while still being decorated in the Pride colours. This was not a tasteful decision by any means and was very much a visual appropriation of the Pride flag. I wouldn’t have expected it to happen in the first place let alone become a continuing issue, but this is 2020 after all. After this incident we could see flags that were literally just Pride flags being sold as “Thank You NHS” flags across the country
To add insult to injury, many people including those unmistakably conservative in their non-progressive views towards LGBTQIA people, were putting these flags up publicly and refused to acknowledge the longstanding historical roots of the flag that is tied to the LGBTQIA community. When other members of the community and I have expressed our disapproval, almost bizarrely we have received responses arguing “gays don’t own the rainbow”, to which I cannot help but roll my eyes. In a country where people have received abuse for putting up their Pride flags, is the same country that is happy to erase the queerness from the Pride flag and re brand it. Our argument has never been that the rainbow “belongs” to us, and I don’t know how much simpler I can put it than the rainbow has seven colours whereas the Pride flag has six. They are two separate things. If your child is drawing a literal rainbow to show they’re thanks to the NHS, they are free to do so, and the LGBTQIA community don’t have any issue with that. The issue is taking an iconic symbol of a deeply marginalised community, completely ignoring its historical significance and claiming it is something else entirely.
Has the NHS “stolen” the Pride flag, intentionally or otherwise? The short answer is no. I believe the symbolism of the Pride flag to our community is very potent and is not easy to dilute. Given the history of our community as activists, and the strides we have made in reshaping a more inclusive society, I honestly think it would take a lot more of a conscious effort to erase our claim to the flag and we as a community would not let-down so easily. Should we abandon the flag anyway and adopt a new more progressive flag? I for one welcome the variety of flags that represent different parts of our community, but the stubborn activist in me refuses to abandon a symbol we have a rightful claim to just because of attempts to blur its meaning. If you’re not convinced there is a history to support our claim to the flag: then read a book, do a google search, and learn the history behind the 6-stripe gay pride flag.
[Stephen English, He/Him, @stephen_scottish]
[Photo Credit: Markus Spiske]