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rainbow crossing

Rainbow crossing at the University of Surrey: is it just for show?

The University of Surrey made headlines last Monday after unveiling what they called the "first permanent rainbow crossing in any UK university" on their campus in Guildford.

The announcement, which also coincided with the flying of the Bisexual Pride Flag on campus in celebration of International Celebrate Bisexuality Day—or Bi Visibility Day—marked the University's commitment to LGBTQ+ celebration and solidarity. As one can imagine, however, such a move stirred up a strong mix of emotions amongst residents.

For some, the rainbow crossing represents something very positive for the student community of Surrey: driving, cycling or walking over a massive, and very much permanent Pride Flag every day as you're arriving on campus sends out a clear message that to anyone in the LGBTQ+ community, this space is one of safety, tolerance and celebration.

This message can be a lifeline to so many; for members of a community that have been or continue to be systematically oppressed, persecuted, or that have been forced to remain closeted, such an initiative can help cultivate a sense of safety, belonging and acceptance on campus.

What's more, the concept of visibility is important amongst marginalized groups for two reasons: firstly, when people are able to see something represented, even in a rainbow crossing, it promotes and encourages a greater level of understanding, which in turn can help spaces feel more inclusive.

However, the new crossing also saw many criticize the initiative. Taking to social media, many branded the crossing as an act of tokenism; a meagre attempt by the University of Surrey to pander to the liberal left without implementing any meaningful change that may help these systematically disadvantaged groups in their ongoing struggle for equality. Indeed, a rainbow crossing is not a substitute for providing equal opportunities for queer, disabled or POC, nor does it help stamp out discrimination. The rainbow crossing is a great step in the right direction, but as a rather superficial statement of tolerance and acceptance, it should go hand in hand with real and impactful change.

Are we doing our best to safeguard individuals from vulnerable communities? Are we best addressing any social, political, economic or other institutional disadvantages?

It is worth discussing one more feature of the Surrey campus; in the middle of campus, one can look upon a bronze statue of the mathematician and logician Alan Turing: heralded as a father of modern science, his work deciphering the enigma code during the Second World War arguably turned the tide of the war, saving thousands of lives in the process. But the statue of Turing tells also of a much sadder tale; as a homosexual, Turing was arrested in 1952 and convicted of "gross indecency". Turing faced imprisonment, or probation, on the condition that he be chemically castrated. Choosing the latter, he was forced by the government to take synthetic oestrogen for the rest of his life, rendering him infertile and leaving him with unwanted physiological changes. It is widely believed Turing took his own life on 8th June 1954. He died alone, unable to live freely and openly, and unknown to the world: the enigma machine would not be declassified for another two decades.

It was said that Turing spent much of his life in Guildford, and to think how he may have reacted if he could have seen the campus at that moment would be something quite remarkable.

We cannot deny how far we have come since Turing in the fight for greater equality, visibility and inclusivity. But we must make sure that any symbolic commitment to this ideal is coupled with real and meaningful change.

Rainbow crossings and Pride flags are great and simple ways to evoke sentiments of safety, belonging, and celebration, but it is not rainbow crossings that protect members of the LGBTQ+ community: progressive change is what ensures our rights, privileges and liberties.