‘It’s been co-opted’: What young LGBTQ+ NHS staff actually think about the rainbow flags
‘People need to learn the reasons why the Pride flag is there’
“I really liked seeing kids put rainbows up in the windows”, 21-year-old medical student Jo, who also worked for the NHS throughout the pandemic, tells me. “I thought it was a really nice gesture and it made me really proud to be part of the NHS. But it did always sort of annoy me when instead of using an arched seven-colour rainbow, people used the Pride flag.”
This past year, you’d be forgiven for thinking LGBTQ+ rights have had some huge step forward. There have been rainbow Pride flags literally everywhere – flying from people’s houses, posters in shop windows and on busses, and even printed on badges and lanyards. But the whole of the UK hasn’t suddenly become huge allies – no, the rainbow has been adopted as what feels like the official “thank you NHS” symbol.
We’ve already told you queer people are allowed to be angry the Pride flag has been appropriated for the NHS – the flag is a symbol for LGBTQ+ people, and it has context and history many people who’re now using it are missing.
But what about the people who are part of both communities the flag is now being used for? The Tab spoke to a number of young LGBTQ+ members of NHS staff and medical students. Many of them liked having the rainbow’s positive symbol at the start of the pandemic, but feel the Pride flag is too important to be given this new meaning. Here’s what they had to say:
‘Rainbow badges help people feel safe’
25-year-old Harry is a trainee Operating Department Practitioner in the NHS – working in operating theatres. He explains even before the pandemic, rainbow badges have been given to NHS staff who sign a pledge saying they’ll stand up against discrimination and “protect the wellbeing and welfare of LGBTQ+ patients”.
The badges are there, Harry says, because some patients might not feel comfortable talking about their sexuality or gender identity over fears of being judged or mistreated. “There have been public cases in the past” so, he says, it’s understandable why some patients don’t feel able to speak openly.
Jo says when she’s been a patient, there have been times when she’s found it “really difficult” speaking to her GP and other medical staff as an LGBTQ+ person: “When they say ‘oh, is there a chance you’re pregnant? You’re sexually active’ and you’ve got to do the whole ‘I’m sleeping with a girl’ thing.”
She says it doesn’t bother her too much, but she knows lots of people worry about it. She says if someone went into a consultation nervous about having to bring up their sexuality, two years ago they could’ve seen a rainbow badge or lanyard and known they’d be supported. “It really reassured people, whereas now you see a rainbow lanyard and it’s trendy” – a nervous LGBTQ+ patient wouldn’t know if a doctor was an ally, or simply supporting the NHS.
Harry tells me about patients he’s had in the past, who see the rainbow NHS badge, quickly identify with him and feel more comfortable. They don’t necessarily talk about their sexuality, gender identity or the LGBTQ+ community, but “it just means they can perhaps feel safe and they’ve got a friend in that environment”, he says.
“That was the point of the rainbow badge in the first place, so they knew there was an ally there – and that’s become heavily diluted,” Harry says.
‘I love seeing a shared symbol of unity, but it’s been co-opted’
The NHS staff I speak to tell me they did like the symbol at the start of the pandemic. Harry says he was working 12-hour shifts and “no one knew what to do”, so seeing arched “rainbow-shaped rainbows” in windows was “a pleasant feeling”.
Finn, 23, works in mental health and agrees, saying “I really love seeing people have a shared symbol of unity”.
However, as rainbows became synonymous with the NHS over the coronavirus pandemic, people began using the NHS Pride badge to symbolise this – rather than to show they’re people who’ll stand up for the LGBTQ+ community.
Finn says: “People see the badge and they just don’t realise it’s for LGBT people, that’s why the badge was made and people have just co-opted it”.
Obviously, no one’s blaming kids who draw rainbows, scrawl “thank you NHS” at the top and stick it in their front room windows. “No one minds that”, Harry says. But he tells me: “As the months went on and the enamel pin badges that are actually meant to be used to represent LGBTQ staff and patients started being used, that’s when as a member of the community as well as a member of staff I started to think twice about its use”.
Like Harry, Jo draws a distinction between a seven-colour arched rainbow, and the Pride flag. “There’s a reason the six-colour Pride flag exists, it stands for stuff and it means a lot to a lot of people,” she says.
Jo doesn’t believe it’s “inherently malicious” the symbol became synonymous with the NHS, but says: “It suddenly felt like people who had been flying the flags and getting rubbish for it four months earlier, suddenly their homophobic neighbours were flying the same flag.”
‘It does seem kind of malicious’
Harry says he’s seen rainbow lanyards being given out to medics and nurses, and he’s spoken to a number of straight staff about it. He says they’re wearing the rainbow as it represents the NHS, but he asks them what they’d do if an LGBTQ+ patient approached them and wanted to ask about something personal. “A lot of them wouldn’t know where to start, they wouldn’t know how to support them in the best way,” he says, which could lead to confusion and discomfort for these patients.
He says a lot of members of staff are “still older straight white men” so being able to identify allies is important. However, Harry doesn’t think this is down to individual members of staff who are just being given rainbow badges and lanyards without knowing the context behind them – “that’s an organisation-level mistake”, he says.
Harry says he doesn’t “see any ill intent” in this at first, but points to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who’s been wearing “one of these badges meant to represent LGBTQ+ staff and patients”.
“It does seem to me kind of malicious now”, Harry says. “It’s meant to be there so service users know they can open up to someone without fear or judgement.” He also speaks of the government’s “recent attacks on trans people, the three year waiting list for trans healthcare. I am starting to feel like it’s just being washed over and they don’t really care.”
‘People need to learn the reasons why the flag is there’
Finn doesn’t think the issue is actually with the NHS – but rather, people now associating the rainbow with the NHS rather than Pride. “It’s a complex thing,” they tell me.
Finn says some cis, straight people talk about it as being “just a flag”, but says the Pride flag “isn’t just a flag, it has a lot of history behind it”. Finn thinks all allies should learn its history, and in general make sure they’re informed on LGBTQ+ issues.
For example, they say some people may wear the badge but still misuse trans or non-binary people’s pronouns but “say ‘I love the gays'” and choose get the badge. “People need to learn the reasons why the flag is there,” Finn says.
Similarly, 22-year-old medical student Charlie says he’s encountered NHS staff “display transphobic language and ideologies”, and “not understanding the struggles” of trans people. He says the rainbow badges being used could be “damaging if you were to confide in someone who did not support you”, as trans people “face some of the greatest oppression and discrimination”.
Charlie says “it’s easy to see” why people would want a bright symbol for the NHS during the pandemic, but says the issue’s with it now changing “how some people use the rainbow.”
He tells me: “The Pride flag is so important as a sign of respect and a signpost of safety”, so “it feels weird there is now a dual meaning to it”. Charlie points to examples of people using the rainbow to support the NHS without acknowledging the history and context behind the rainbow. “It seems a bit naive to ignore this history”, he says.
Harry says he’s seen NHS Scotland using a different symbol for the LGBTQ+ community, which uses the Progress Pride flag – a flag which incorporates the original Pride flag, the Trans Pride flag, and stripes for marginalised LGBTQ+ people of colour. As with the original NHS rainbow Pride badge, staff members are required to make a pledge before receiving the badge.
‘The NHS needs its own badge’
The Pride rainbow being used for different reasons isn’t a new thing: Rainbow-washing happens every year, and it’s often seen in Pride Month in June when companies throw the flag onto their logo or a product – calling themselves “allies”, but remaining silent on LGBTQ+ issues which the flag represents.
Charlie says the rainbow feels “very commercialised” and is often used as a “marketing tool”. But he says it’s different and “more challenging” where it’s a symbol for the NHS, and overall supports the rainbow being used as a “bright and colourful” NHS symbol. However, he thinks education on the flag and LGBTQ+ history is important, and people who use the symbol for the NHS should “recognise it can be used for both”.
Finn thinks the NHS should have a badge of its own: “I do think the NHS itself, void of LGBT stuff needs its own kind of badge to say ‘I’m proud to be an NHS worker’, because I am.”
The Tab’s Pride reporting series is putting a focus on highlighting LGBTQ+ issues and celebrating queer voices across UK campuses.
If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s an incident of homophobia on campus, an experience you’d like to share, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing email@example.com