Front and center of the COVID-19 U.K. epidemic has been Health Secretary Matt Hancock, wearing an NHS rainbow badge.
The rainbow is, of course, a universal symbol of hope and peace that has been around for thousands of years that no-one owns.
But for the last 42 years, in the particular form of a flag with six distinct colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, it has been the internationally recognised symbol of the LGBT community.
Matt Hancock’s NHS rainbow badge was, too, created to show solidarity for LGBT+ workers in the NHS.
But in the current context of a global pandemic, it is easy to forget the original purpose of the badge.
That’s because in the U.K. a wave of rainbows is on display in windows up and down the country. Like the weekly “Clap for Carers” they are a symbol of people’s solidarity with NHS and key workers.
But this act is leaving some in the LGBT+ community feeling uneasy about whether they are losing their symbol, accusing some online shops of erasure and ignorance as they sell LGBT+ pride banners rebranded as “Thank You NHS” flags.
Online shops selling LGBT+ Pride flag as ‘Thank You NHS Flag’
eBay is now hosting sellers calling the LGBT+ Pride flag–distinctive due to its six stripes–a ‘Thank You NHS Flag.’
James Symth, who tweeted about these eBay listings, thinks it’s “humorous” that some purchasers will display the LGBT Pride flag at their home “completely unaware of the flag’s actual meaning.”
But as many of the replies to his tweet pointed out, he admits: “It’s worrying that the universal symbol of the LGBT+ community might be being ‘overtaken.’”
This irony wasn’t missed by another James who shared the case of his grandad displaying the LGBT Pride Flag at his house “for the NHS”:
“[My Grandad’s] quite happy thinking it’s for the NHS and doesn’t want it any more complicated than that.”
“What I find frustrating are the people who know it’s an LGBT flag but are taking the stance ‘well it’s a symbol for the NHS now, we repurpose things all the time.’
“Those are the people who are actively trying to steal our flag, in my opinion. And those people are definitely frustrating.”
James’s tweet took off–he shared that his mentions became flooded with people saying “it’s fine if the LGBT flag gets repurposed, because it ‘can be anything we want it to be.’” Others asked–”why can’t it just be a rainbow?”
What is the history of the six colour LGBT+ Pride flag?
Over the years, the rainbow–ultimately a meteorological phenomenon caused by the refraction light in water droplets–has held different meanings.
“In Ancient Greece, if you saw a rainbow you might think that the goddess Iris, who was a messenger deity, had come down to earth from Olympus,” LGBT+ Museum freelancer Sacha Coward explains.
“It’s also a powerful symbol for community, because all these colours combine into one whole, from different pieces coming together. And that’s why in 1978 Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag.”
To be really specific, it actually had eight stripes when Baker first made it for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade celebration on June 25, 1978.
Before Baker’s eight stripe flag, Pink Triangles were the universal sign of LGBT+ suffering due to their use in Nazi death camps to denote gay people.
Baker’s version of the flag lost its first stripe after the first U.S. gay politician Harvey Milk was assassinated and demand for the flag rocketed. But the hot pink stripe was culled for the simple reason that it was a difficult fabric to get hold of at the time.
The second stripe disappeared when the organisers of the 1979 San Francisco parade split the flag into two to decorate either side of their parade route. They merged indigo and turquoise into the more universal blue so they could achieve an even number of stripes for either side of the parade.
This is what left us with the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet LGBT pride flag. And despite many reworkings of the flag–for example adding black and brown stripes to include people of color or blue and pink for trans communities–it remains a universal symbol.
But as Coward points out in a recent #MuseumFromHome video about the history of the flag, “no-one owns the rainbow.”
He does warn “it is worth remembering it has different meanings for different people.”
Indeed, the peace flag, which has seven stripes, was used as a symbol of anti-war movements. Something which, in 2003 when it was used by anti-war groups, also raised similar questions in reference to the Gilbert Baker six stripe flag.
And historically outside of the context of a flag, rainbows have a multitude of meanings for different people. Not least in Christianity where the rainbow denotes God’s covenant–a connection between God and all living creatures–with Noah.
Is it erasure to ‘reclaim’ the rainbow Pride flag as a Thank You NHS flag?
Since James’s tweet earlier this week, others on social media have been sharing their uncertainty about whether they should be upset or–in Twitter user Chuck’s case “low key p**sed off”–with this reinvention of the flag.
“I feel that the importance of the symbol for our community is being tarnished,” Chuck Deer tells me.
“I’ve seen many things on Twitter [since the start of the epidemic] including businesses using the rainbow symbol as a logo.
“Some of these are businesses that would refuse to hang a rainbow flag outside their business during Pride Season.”
“It feels like those that fought and campaigned for us to have a symbol of solidarity, are being belittled by the meaning of the rainbow being changed in the current climate.”
“We’ve fought so long for a place in the world. I feel that this has weakened our power and stance within the country and world.”
And Chuck is clear, it is the use of the flag he is most concerned over, over the rainbow itself though he admits “the correlation of colours still has a meaning for many in our community.“
“There are many other ways to show your support for the NHS rather than using a symbol that has an alternate meaning for a large portion of the population.“
Is a fear of LGBT+ rights being taken away after the pandemic fueling erasure calls?
This worry by some in the LGBT+ community, may be born out of a fear of change.
One study into the impact of coronavirus on the LGBT+ community by Queer Voices Heard suggests just under six in 10 (57%) in the U.K. LGBT Community fear they will be worse off after the pandemic.
Early signs suggest there is already evidence that might be the case.
In Europe, Hungary, Poland and the U.K. have already announced plans or begun changes that affect LGBT+ rights.
Hungary’s change, widely expected to be voted through this month, could mean trans people are no longer recognized at all.
Poland’s parliament is considering a “Stop Pedophilia” law which seeks to criminalize those who teach sex education by falsely linking homosexuality with pedophilia.
Meanwhile in the U.K., the equalities minister Liz Truss has signalled that gender recognition reform, long called for by activists in the trans community, could now mean rights are taken away from trans people instead of given to them as many hoped.
The reform has been stuck in the long-grass since day one of Boris Johnson’s premiership, when he delayed it.
If Truss is successful in rushing through legislation during the pandemic, trans people under the age of 18 could be stopped from transitioning.
This is alongside a question that looms over the U.K.–what will happen when we Brexit? The legislative change of leaving the transition period at the end of the year is already going to remove some rights U.K. LGBT+ citizens have.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has recognised the “increase in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric” during the pandemic and called on all member states not to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to undermine LGBT+ rights.
What does this have to do with rainbows?
It is in this backdrop, during a time of such uncertainty where LGBT+ people are worried about their future, that symbols and identity are more important than ever.
Though those I spoke to are happy to draw a line between the universality of the rainbow, that only the refraction of light can truly claim, and the Gilbert Baker flag.
To them, the flag represents a hard-fought battle for fundamental human rights—its reinvention as a ‘Thank You NHS Flag’ is contentious for some in the LGBT+ community.
eBay was contacted for a response to this article.