Rainbows and the LGBT+ Movement

Our Associate Coach and LGBT+ expert, Christopher Hulme, discusses the use of rainbows and its connection with the LGBT+ movement.

It’s been really special to see so many houses decorated with handmade rainbow pictures and drawings in the midst of lockdown. These messages of community and hope adorn homes across the country and it’s not difficult to see the unity they encourage in supporting our NHS, and the pleasure they’ve brought to those outside. But for many in the LGBT+ community, there are elements to this campaign that signal something more uncomfortable and problematic.

The significance of the traditional rainbow flag

For those following mainstream media narratives centred around the LGBT+ experience, the significance of the traditional rainbow flag cannot be understated. Whether we’re referring to the traditional Gilbert Baker 6 stripe version or – following recent developments within the community – the version with the additional black and brown stripe to represent racial diversity within the LGBT+ experience, the rainbow flag has served as an indicator of those it represents.

As a young LGBT+ adult trying to find my way in the world (figuratively and literally) seeing a rainbow flag flying above a venue meant safety, and community. When visiting a new or unfamiliar city, even now, a big part of me finds solace in seeing the rainbow flag guiding the way to dedicated venues or services that are safe for us.

BBC LGBT Correspondent Ben Hunte recently reported the story of Alex, who, after hanging a rainbow flag from his bedroom window for Manchester Pride last year, received a deluge of criticism and negative response from neighbours. Despite the death threats Alex received at that time, he since noted almost all his neighbours have rainbow artwork displayed to support the NHS now.

What does and should the rainbow symbolise?

In the same way no one owns the wind and the rain, no one owns a rainbow. It’s a symbol of hope around the world. But it’s churlish to ignore its significance to the LGBT+ community and its cultural nuances in media representation.

Erasure of LGBT+ experiences and lack of representation in media is nothing new. Misappropriation of cultural identity markers is not a new concept either, nor is it a scourge exclusive to the LGBT+ community. All minority groups face a daily battle to maintain their seat at the table. But like a dog-whistle heralding a frightening societal shift, those attuned to the pitch can recognise that these seemingly innocuous examples occurring during lockdown could signal a wider ignorance and disenfranchisement in society when it comes to understanding the needs of LGBT+ folks.

This isn’t just conjecture or scaremongering, unfortunately. Plymouth CityBus were recently courting headline news when the story broke of their decision to rebrand their ‘Pride Appreciation Bus’ (using the 6 stripe rainbow) as the ‘Rainbow NHS Bus’. Some folks liked the idea. Many others felt it was inappropriate, arguing that you don’t support one group by erasing another. “Pride is only a corporate concept when it’s profitable, and Covid-19 has seen to that this year.”

Displaying a rainbow flag outside your residence or business can be a step in a long journey toward self-acceptance and celebration. It shines like a beacon to the community; a light in the dark to help find the way. It isn’t an anti-NHS statement to worry that the ‘support the NHS’ rainbow campaign may dilute the identity of the traditional LGBT+ rainbow flag. It’s perfectly normal to feel discomfort in watching a slow disassociation of the pride movement from the rainbow motif. History has warned us about this time and again.

Because the LGBT+ rainbow flag is more than just the flag. It’s an echo of a time when the LGBT+ experience was largely happening underground, in an era when being ‘out’ meant being at risk of persecution and social marginalisation. The flag is momentous; reflecting the sacrifices of generations before us who lived and died never knowing a time would come when LGBT+ people could live freely. As Anthony Watson states, “those of us who drink the water have an obligation to honour those who built the well.”

The future of the rainbow

To move forward, the question invariably becomes about education. Talking to those around you so the story isn’t lost is crucial. Discrimination is firmly moored in ignorance, and entire movements can be lost because stories are forgotten. It took decades, if not centuries to achieve this (arguably minor) level of equality in society. It’s terrifying how quickly it can all be snatched away when you can’t (or won’t) acknowledge the signs.

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