Throughout the never-ending year that was 2020, TV was a massive break from reality. One show we all found comfort in was Great British Bake Off – yet many LGBT viewers were rightly annoyed and mocked Paul Hollywood when he mistakenly claimed rainbow bagels “represent the NHS”.
During the first lockdown, everything felt hopeless, but one thing we could all agree on was the debt of gratitude we owed the NHS and all keyw orkers. One way people showed their support, along with the Thursday night clap, was by placing rainbows in their windows. They became a sign of hope in a difficult time, something lovely to spot that cheered us up on our daily walks but most importantly a way to thank the NHS and other frontline workers.
There is a problem with this though: the rainbow is already recognised as the pride flag. To LGBT people like me, it symbolises hard-fought representation, and refusing to live in the shadows. When we saw someone else wearing the flag, we knew this person was either one of us or an ally.
“To LGBT people like me, it symbolises hard-fought representation, and refusing to live in the shadows.”
Unfortunately, it now feels like it’s been taken from us, and that our message is being shouted over by, for the most part, cisgender straight people who don’t really care about queer issues. Case in point the rainbow bagels; for years these have been sold during Pride month with profits going to LGBTQIA+ charities, but a cis white middle class straight man goes on telly proclaiming them to be “NHS bagels” without even looking into the history of them.
Another layer to this erasure is that there was already a rainbow campaign within the NHS itself. The Rainbow Badge Initiative, created by Guys and St Thomas NHS Foundation Trust in 2018 meant NHS staff could discreetly let LGBT patients know that they can be open and honest with the wearer about their gender and sexuality without judgement.
A Stonewall survey in the very same year found half of LGBT patients faced inequalities in their experience of NHS healthcare. The survey estimates that one in five LGBT people are not out to any healthcare professional about their sexual orientation when seeking general medical care, and one in seven LGBTQIA+ people have avoided treatment for fear of discrimination.
The fear with the general populace adopting the rainbow is that we no longer know who is safe to speak to. Sadly transphobia and homophobia are still very present in the NHS, and even more so widely in society: another Stonewall survey found one in five LGBT people had experienced a hate crime or incident because of their sexuality and/or gender, rising to two in five trans people.
“What would have been wrong with a love heart, a dove for peace, or even some flowers? Frankly, anything that didn’t already have such a big meaning.”
Here’s my issue: everyone suddenly proclaiming their love for the NHS by wearing rainbows and clapping on their doorsteps feels a bit hollow when we as a society continue to be so apathetic about a government that allowed thousands to die in this pandemic.
I’m not denying that the NHS and key workers deserve our support in the pandemic – but I wish the public had chosen another symbol. What would have been wrong with a love heart, a dove for peace, or even some flowers? Frankly, anything that didn’t already have such a big meaning and symbolic nature would have been better.
I’m not for one moment suggesting that this was done with ill intent, but I think going forward there needs to be more understanding of what the rainbow represents. The rainbow flag is a symbol of hard won freedom, being safe to live and love out loud without shame.
I applaud the vital key workers in the pandemic, but this was never their flag to wave.
Rachel Charlton-Dailey is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelCDailey