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  • Savannah Fishel

I support the NHS – but not its rainbow symbolism

During the pandemic, rainbows have adorned the streets as a sign of support for our NHS and frontline. The NHS was established by the Labour government after World War Two, and ranks as the institution that makes people proudest to be British[1]. No person is immune from potential ill health, and the idea of free care at the point of need can offer unparalleled security. Covid-19 has awakened many people to the unwavering empathy, precision, and commitment deployed by healthcare workers every day. During this pandemic, they put themselves at risk to protect others. I support the NHS. I respect and revere our health and care workers. I stand in solidarity, and in gratitude. But I do not support the adoption of the rainbow[2] as its symbol.


The rainbow flag was designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker as a symbol of LGBTQ pride. Of course, no one owns the rainbow[3], but since the 25th anniversary of The Stonewall riots - a catalyst for gay liberation - it has been an international symbol for gay rights, eclipsing any previous vexillographic uses. The symbol recognises the hard-fought fight for sex and gender equality, a battle that persists today.


Symbols evolve and can be repurposed. But the purpose of the rainbow for the LGBTQ+ community is still vital in the UK, and around the world.


In the UK, conversion therapy is still legal and last week plans emerged for our government to abandon reform of the Gender Recognition Act to allow self-identification. Meanwhile, in the US, legislation just passed allowing healthcare providers to refuse transgender people treatment. Russia is notoriously intolerant of the LGBTQ+ community. The Russian government has a ‘gay propaganda’ ban (which passed unanimously) and this March, Putin announced proposals for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Even in countries with overt discriminatory policies and unsafe hostile environments the Pride flag is bravely flown, a powerful symbol of equality and resistance.


The rainbow flag is not only a symbol for granting LGBTQ+ people the bare minimum, namely basic rights, but a symbol of pride. It is a public declaration of pride in your identity and its rightful place in society. As Baker said, the rainbow flag is a vehicle for queer people “to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth”. Hostility, whether in the form of microaggressions or explicit discrimination, remains rife in our country. Whether it be spotting a rainbow flag in a new environment, seeing it hanging out of a window on a street, or even the flash of someone’s rainbow socks, the symbol can alleviate anxieties and help to engender a welcoming environment. It is Pride month, a time where the LGBTQ+ community and its allies display the rainbow to show solidarity, recalling the bravery of activists who fought for our freedoms, yet the new dual purpose dilutes the symbol’s function.


No matter how important and well-intentioned it may be, organisations, individuals and institutions repurposing the rainbow dissociates it from its Pride meaning. The rainbow may lose some of its vital power if it is no longer clear what it is symbolising.


The rainbow symbol indicates a welcoming environment, safety for LGBTQ+ people, and solidarity with the historic and ongoing toil for equal rights. The NHS workers need all the solidarity, reverence, and respect we can give. But, let us not forget that the rainbow symbol is already in use. The rainbow flag is needed in the ongoing resistance against homophobia and the domestic and international movement to live our lives out and proud.

[1] The NHS is in urgent need of reforms, and potentially systematic change. But I support its existence and founding principles, and how the NHS can function at its best is a topic for another article. [2] The rainbow is traditionally presented seven colours, whilst Baker’s Pride rainbow is six. There is an argument for increased distinction between the seven and six stripe symbols, keeping seven stripes for the NHS, but clearly distinguishing between these would be a near-impossible task, and many individuals and companies are actively rebranding the Pride symbol for the NHS [3] The rainbow has many symbolic uses, representing hope as it brings beauty during a period of rainfall. For Christians, the rainbow itself signifies God’s covenant with nature.

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