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The Rainbow: Peace, Equality and the NHS

The rainbow symbol has been adopted by many as a symbol of hope during the pandemic and used as a way to say thank you to the NHS and its staff who have been at risk whilst caring for those with the virus. It has been drawn by children and put up in windows, it’s been put on the sides of buses and a company who designed the Aston Martin logo, released a special rainbow NHS badge that is being sold to raise money for NHS Charities.

Children drew rainbows as a symbol of peace with messages thanking the NHS and put them up in their windows. 

 Saltaire Stories: Rod, Enso, Katie, Kate, Saskia, Safina & Elsie.

These images are all from the village of Saltaire as part of the Saltaire Stories project, people were encouraged to decorate their windows with messages throughout the lockdown. One includes Captain Tom, a man born in Keighley, who fundraised for the NHS throughout the pandemic.

The rainbow is well represented within the museum’s collection. It has long been used as a symbol of peace and equality and therefore features of many of the objects in our collection, including this amazing banner by Thalia Campbell and this peace badge. 

Banner by Thalia Campbell, featuring a rainbow in our gallery. 

Peace Badge featuring a rainbow from our collection. 

Whilst the rainbow has been used more broadly, its most prominent use is as a symbol of pride for LGBTQ+ communities. The idea of a rainbow flag as a symbol of gay pride was designed by Gilbert Baker, a gay activist in the US. He was tasked with creating the symbol by Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California. It is thought Baker was inspired by the peace rainbow used by the peace movement in the 1960s, but also by Judy Garland’s song, ‘Over the Rainbow’. The flag was first flown at the Gay Freedom Day Parade held in San Francisco in June 1978.  It first had 8 colours, but due to the limited availability of pink and light blue dyes these colours were removed, leaving the 6 colour version which is still used today. Demand for the flag increased after the assassination of Harvey Milk in November 1978.

Original Pride Flag designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. 

Today there are various versions of the flag to represent different sections of the community, including the inclusion of black and brown to represent people of colour, and pale blue and pink to include transgender people. In 2020 a new flag has become popular which features the original colours, plus black, brown, pale blue and pale pink. This is in response to the rise of #BlackLivesMatter campaigns across the world in response to the murder of George Floyd and #TransLivesMatter. The flag is an important tool for the LGBTQ+ community as it is used as a maker for safe spaces where people can go to feel welcome, such as bars, restaurants and shops, and is an important tool for campaigning and activism.

Pride Flag featuring Trans Pride colours, black and brown designed by Daniel Quasar 2018. 

Many within LGBTQ+ communities have spoken out against the use of the rainbow as a symbol of the NHS, because it erases, or reduces its significance and historical importance of the symbol as a tool for LGBTQ+ pride.

Does the use of the rainbow as a symbol for the NHS erase the importance of the symbol as a tool for LGBTQ+ communities? 

We asked Usman, a local resident and active member of Bradford’s LGBTQ+ community for their opinion on the use of the rainbow:

“Yes, it creates a dangerous situation in which queer people may believe someone supports them/recognises them when in reality they could be in a completely unsafe/homophobic environment. The co-opting of the rainbow to celebrate the NHS / key workers is just another example of how capitalism exploits. It isn’t interested in supporting a cause, or having a stance, it is interested in profit. Companies just turned all their pride merch into support the NHS merch, when they continue to be spaces in which lgbtq+ people are not safe/supported/valued. And finally, it demonstrates a very sinister use of symbols/motifs by the Government to distract during times of crises. This was all about supporting the NHS and key workers and yet nothing has actually changed for those workers. The symbol allows people to feel they are doing something, and association of that symbol, creates a mask/shield behind which the Government can hide (reminiscent of war time). On a very basic level, being brown and queer, [the use of the rainbow in this way] it’s very disorientating. People who are openly homophobic, are wearing a symbol that means something valuable to you. It’s a sick joke. The level of cognitive dissonance to realise that just because a street is displaying rainbows, does not mean you are safe walking down that street.”

What are your thoughts? Share them on social media.