What does the rainbow mean to you?

Written by Eleanor Formby, Jen Slater and Drew Simms

This is the question being asked in new research by Jen Slater, Eleanor Formby and Drew Simms in a project funded by BA/Leverhulme. The rainbow flag is often synonymous with LGBT+ people and/or Pride, and we’re interested in exploring how LGBTQIA+ people relate to the rainbow personally, and their views on the ways that rainbows are used within institutional settings – both as symbols of LGBTQIA+ inclusion and, since COVID-19, as a symbol of the NHS. Currently, we’re focussing on the use of rainbows in higher education, but in future we hope to broaden this out to also look at other intuitional settings.

Our interest stems from observing increasing numbers of university-branded rainbow flags, lanyards and coffee cups on campus, coupled with a healthy scepticism about how much these translate into better working or learning conditions for staff and students. However, in March 2020, the rainbow took another direction as children were encouraged to draw rainbows and stick them to windows; a bus, previously used for LGBT+ Pride events (cancelled due to the pandemic), was rebranded an ‘NHS bus’; and Paul Hollywood of The Great British Bake Off asked contestants to bake rainbow bagels to ‘represent the NHS’, with no mention of their significance to LGBT+ people. Some LGBT+ commentators labelled this separating the rainbow from LGBT+ lives as erasure; others pointed out that the change of symbolism was not just irritating, but dangerous, as it no longer offers reassurance of a ‘safe space’, because there is no way of knowing whether a rainbow now signals support for the NHS or a welcoming attitude towards LGBT+ people. We have sympathy with these views; even before the pandemic, supermarkets, banks, and even the Home Office liked to fly the rainbow flag, but this didn’t necessarily mean they work in the best interests of LGBT+ people. Since we got the research funding, we’ve also begun to see rainbow symbolism demonised as there has been increasing transphobic backlash against mainstream LGBT+ organisations such as Stonewall.

In November 2021, as part of the annual ESRC Festival of Social Science, we held an online launch event, and invited a range of speakers to talk about the rainbow. This included:

  • Finn Warman, Artistic Director and CEO of Sheffield-based queer arts organisation Andro and Eve
  • Ellie Curran, a young person involved in SAYiT (a local charity in Sheffield working with LGBT+ young people)
  • Tara Hewitt, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Northern Care Alliance NHS Group, and co-founder of the Trans Equality Legal Initiative
  • Drew Simms, talking about their experiences as a nurse in the NHS
  • Stephanie Davis, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, and co-founder of Rainbow Noir, a social support and organising space for queer and trans people of colour in Manchester.

We spoke about the importance of the rainbow flag in signifying a space/place or person is ‘LGBT-friendly’, but also the risks of ‘rainbow capitalism’ or ‘pinkwashing’ – essentially the commercial use of rainbows without any real impact for LGBT+ people. Around 65 people attended and fed back how much they had got from the event. Regarding the emerging link between the NHS and the rainbow symbol, one participant commented, LGBT+ people have “one less clue” now as to what is a safe/accepting space – and that ‘clue’ matters. Another said, “the rainbow’s part of my identity, it’s not something I want to let go of”. It was clear that there are concerns about who ‘owns’ the rainbow, and how it is used and/or appropriated – which can have practical and emotional impacts for LGBT+ people.

Since the event, we’ve started recruiting to interview people as part of the research (specifically those that identity as LGBTQIA+ staff, LGBTQIA+ students, and/or LGBTQIA+ allies). After just a couple of tweets and emails we had over 50 people signed up, so we’re clearly not the only ones interested in talking about rainbows! What’s quite interesting is that we’ve heard from fewer heterosexual cisgender folk who have signed up to some kind of ‘allies’ scheme, so if that’s you and you’re interested in knowing more about what involvement in the research would mean for you, please get in touch (at: e.formby@shu.ac.uk)! If you would like to hear more about the project’s progress you can also follow us on Twitter!


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