Pride Merchandise and the Appropriation of the Pride Flag
This piece was written for publication in June 2020.
The streets of London should be resplendent in June and July, clad in every colour of the rainbow, bunting serpentine weaving from door to door. Shop windows and the bodies of those marching in the annual Pride parade should be too, as they dance through the capital’s thoroughfare. However, owing to lockdown, Pride finds itself inside this year. Parades are cancelled and those that would have revelled in the opportunity to celebrate our identities are forced to find new ways to show our pride.
We will still wear our rainbows and, just like every year, we’ll be meticulously scanning the digital high street's kaleidoscope of Pride pieces for those that give back to the community.
Whilst compiling my own shopping list, I noticed that searching “pride” on a handful of high street retailer’s websites returned some unexpected results.
As the chronically underfunded NHS became the focal point early on in the effort to combat COVID-19, the British public was spurred into action by the stumbling Government response on whether to lockdown or not. We all felt the overwhelming urgency of the situation and wanted to contribute to the effort. But, sitting at home alone, we felt useless. Millions of us chipped in to raise funds to support the vital work of the NHS staff. Captain Tom raised £33 million alone. NHS workers have been resolute and tireless in their work, as they are year-round, and deserved far more than the weekly clap on our doorsteps.
At one point the humble rainbow emerged as the preeminent symbol of solidarity with the cause. Supposedly it was chosen by children who displayed their drawings of rainbows in street-facing windows, or chalked them onto the pavement outside of their houses to spread joy, and lift spirits. Historically the rainbow has been a symbol of hope, or a sign of brighter times to come; arguably in Pride month it is more modernly seen as a sign for equality & tolerance.
There is concern that brands repurposed existing rainbow-themed pride merchandise to create these charity shirts. This thesis is not disproven when searching ‘Pride’ on online stores and getting served NHS charity shirts instead of Pride merchandise. Far be it from me to suggest that some brands see Pride season as a metaphorical dollar sign, that is if they are indeed so flippant. New Look’s website surfaced multiple products that featured rainbows - two being NHS charities t-shirts. Searching ‘Pride’ on Marks and Spencer’s store surfaced 45 items, most featuring rainbows, yet none belonging to a pride campaign. 3 of that number were NHS charity shirts.
This would suggest that corporations see rainbows as synonymous with Pride since the only discernible link between the NHS “Thank You” charity shirts and Pride is the use of a rainbow.
My own relationship with the Pride flag is nascent. I know I will become good friends with it; I smile when I see it and I’ve caught myself taking a moment to acknowledge the presence of the flag wherever we stumble across one another. Whether that’s on a bracelet in the street, stitched to a backpack, or stuck to a car bumper. It makes me feel I have friends nearby if I need them. This is the significance of the flag - it’s a signpost towards acceptance and understanding. Author Calum McSwiggan explains: “for me, the pride flag has always been a way for me to know that I'm welcome and safe, as I say in my book Eat, Gay, Love.” He goes on “I loved my rainbow watch not just because it was cute, but because it was a signifier to everyone around me that I identify as LGBT. The same goes for the flag being flown, you can be in any country in the world and know you're accepted and welcome when you see it.”
“A rainbow has 7 colours and the pride flag has 6 stripes. One is a flag, one is a natural phenomenon. ”
Chloe agrees with Calum.
The LGBT+ community is disproportionately affected by the impact of COVID-19. According to research led by the LGBT Foundation, “As well as higher rates of anxiety and depression, poor mental health has been linked other behaviours detrimental to overall health including extended use of substances, self-harm, eating disorders and suicide ideation.”
At a time where there is concern for the mental wellbeing of those shielding at home with limited outside contact, the report found LGBT+ people more susceptible to loneliness. “LGBT people, in particular older LGBT people, are more likely to be socially isolated. Coupled with the fact LGBT people are less likely to have children or wider family social networks this means that if someone falls ill they may have less of a support network upon which to rely.”
Sadly many LGBT+ individuals can be distant from their biological families, unaccepting of their queerness, and so they’re forced to choose their own. ‘Community’ get’s bandied about liberally but it wasn’t until I came out to an LGBT+ friend that I gleaned some understanding of what it means. We have a shared experience that forms the basis of a connection that’s hard to verbalise. This flag represents that.
It’s a symbol of progressiveness, which makes it particularly uncomfortable seeing it decorating communities that their LGBT+ inhabitants would describe as less than accepting, or wherein it’s particularly hard to find allies. Ellis, 23, who identifies as Lesbian & non-binary, finds it painfiul to see her conservative community decking the village in re-purposed pride flags “in a place where I have faced a lot of microaggressions it really bothers me that suddenly I see it everywhere.”
Whilst we all want to feel as though we are making a contribution to the fight, it’s hard to see the Pride flag become collateral. We all want to pay respect to the endless hard work of NHS staff, especially now, but that can be done without the Pride flag. From the LGBT+ individuals I spoke to, there is a unanimous fear of its purpose being diluted, even if temporarily, which has fed anxiety around erasure. This isn’t aided by brands like Plymouth Citybus in rebranding it’s rainbow bus as a “NHS bus.”
Calum adds “it has encouraged people to use the More Colour More Pride flag (eight stripes with brown and black) or the one with the trans colours too. We're hanging those flags outside, not only to support QPOC and trans people, but because we want people to be absolutely certain that they are for the LGBT community.”
The flag is the universally accepted sign of LGBT+ people everywhere. Cited by the Museum of Modern Art as of equal importance to the recycling logo, wouldn’t you know. As much as it is the envy of the world, the NHS is a British institution and thus I feel it’s unlikely it’s meaning has diminished globally.
The rainbow has become a source of unity and joy for millions across the UK at a time when it was most needed. The pride flag is the same for the LGBT+ community; this is a blip in the flag’s storied history yet it’s on us to remind the UK of its true purpose this pride season.