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July marks a stark contrast with June in rainbow themed merchandise and social media profiles, with many companies continuing business as usual as Pride month comes to an end. While we consider corporations publicly supporting the LGBTQ+ community to be a positive step in the fight for queer rights, the temporary nature of advertisements perfectly illustrates the issue of symbolic allyship.
What is Rainbow Washing?
During Pride month, companies often release Pride products, engage in social media campaigns, or participate in parades with corporate floats. Yet, people often view their efforts as ungenuine, for good reason. Corporate participation in Pride has been criticized for engaging in rainbow washing: the adoption of Pride symbols or rhetoric without making actual, tangible contributions to the LGBTQ+ community.
Rainbow-washing is performative action— it allows corporations to gain the economic benefits of allyship without creating meaningful change to benefit queer people. For example, companies may put out rainbow-branded logos or showcase LGBTQ+ employees on social media but fail to adequately compensate queer workers or include queer people in leadership decisions. Campaigns that donate a portion of profits to LGBTQ+ charities also frequently lack adequate disclosure on exactly how much is donated, obscuring how much a company earns from their participation. Perhaps the most startling examples of rainbow washing are companies which portray themselves as pro-LGBTQ+ but donate significant funds to anti-LGBTQ+ political campaigns. For example, Toyota, a Pride March sponsor, has donated USD 601,500.00 to anti-LGBTQ+ political campaigns.
Rainbow washing misleads consumers into believing their purchases support queer people rather than corporate interests, sometimes in ways that directly harm queer people. Even when corporations don’t engage in blatant homophobic activities or workplace discrimination, consumers should remain vigilant to corporations looking to exploit the LGBTQ+ community for profit. The barricaded, corporate-sponsored Pride stands in stark contrast to the grassroots activism that ignited its history and brought about advances in LGBTQ+ rights.
Pride Parades and the Commodification of Queerness
Pride, in the United States, originates from the June 1969 Stonewall uprising, a riot in response to the police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. It was the result of years of rising anger towards constant police raids, genital inspections, arrests, brutality, and a general violence towards queer people and their spaces. The event sparked an annual protest which morphed into the Pride marches we see today.
The Stonewall riots were a far cry from today’s festivities— it was staunchly opposed by most police, politicians, and politicians’ corporate backers. Stonewall was an explicit challenge to cis-heteronormative institutions, and a policing system with a long history of targeting queer people. It was a protest forefronted by Black and Brown queer people and sex workers who were most violently targeted by the police.
Today, Pride parades are lined with corporate floats and politicians advertising their election platforms. Many parades feature police floats which are perhaps the most blatant example of rainbow-washing. These floats decorate the institution of policing with LGBTQ+ symbols, despite their continuous targeting of queer people, especially queer people of colour.
Commodification is when objects, actions, ideas, or people are thought of in terms of their monetary value. It is the result of capitalism highlighting the market as the primary determinant of something’s worth. Rainbow-washing emerged out of a realization that queer people were a group with increasingly strong purchasing power and that popular attitudes have shifted into general disdain for openly homophobic brands. The ultimate purpose of Pride-themed merchandise and product samples handed out from floats is increased profit— queerness is supported to the extent it is monetarily worth doing so. This turns queer identity and history into a product to be consumed.
Rainbow washing is a form of commodification, exploiting symbols of liberation for their profit-making potential. For instance, the Pride flag, made by Gilbert Baker, Lynn Segerblom, James McNamara, and several volunteers, was designed to symbolize the community and unity that flags connote. The design was requested by Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. Milk was later assassinated by an ex-coworker who frequently opposed him on queer issues, fearing a breakdown in traditional values. 10 days before his assassination, he recorded a goodbye video acknowledging the risk of assassination for a gay activist. Commodification removes this history to present the most palatable version of queer representation and encourage hyper-consumption.
The Pitfalls of Corporate Allyship
Criticisms about rainbow capitalism are often met with people praising a rapidly changing system which has made it so corporations and police publicly support LGBTQ+ people. Indeed, increasing public outrage towards anti-queer companies are indicative of positive social change. There are also many material ways to help queer people in capitalist systems, such as pay equity, investing in diverse leadership, and so on. However, progress within the system comes with significant constraints for liberation.
Allyship that is contingent on marketability is extremely weak. Data for Progress finds that there is a general tendency for buyers to disapprove of corporations funding LGBTQ+ hate, but only in instances when they are actually aware of this. Low corporate transparency makes it easy for brands to circumvent negative public opinions and prevent the loss of profit. Their superficial engagement in Pride while maintaining political neutrality is a tactic to attract profit without investing in social change or significantly losing anti-queer customers.
For example, Target recently pulled a queer brand from their Pride collection in response to conservative backlash. Erik Carnell, the designer of the pulled line, notes how Target’s Pride line is an attempt to profit from queer people and a failure to stand by them when needed. Once allyship becomes challenging, the company can simply back out.
The Limitations of ‘Respectability’
Fundamental to rainbow capitalism is the expectation of ‘respectability’. Respectability politics encourages marginalized people to be ‘respectable’ (in the eyes of the dominant group) to gain support. Respectability politics expects queer people to conform to gendered expectations, the gender binary, monogamous relationships, etc. By its logic, queer people can’t be overly radical if they want to be accepted. Mainstream corporate Pride campaigns do not stray from the currently most respectable portrayals of queerness. It is therefore a lagging, sanitized reflection of social change, not the source of it.
Respectability also replicates existing power dynamics within marginalized groups. In the queer community, respectability may afford acceptance to a subset of cisgendered White men but will always leave other people behind, particularly queer people of colour and trans people. Intersecting identities and oppressions make it harder for some queer people to be perceived as ‘respectable’ in the mainstream. As a result, the contributions of many Black and Brown queer people have been whitewashed out of history. It has also what historically led to the aggressive forefronting of gay marriage as the end-all-be-all of activism while ignoring tops like queer homelessness and incarceration or gender-affirming surgery access.
Respectability politics presents the most sanitized version of queerness and sees progress in narrow ways that are siloed from other social movements. Many early queer activists were connected with radical groups like left-labour organizations or the Black Panther Party. Queer people hold diverse experiences that cannot be captured without a realization for intersectionality, which goes ignored when the most socially acceptable version of queerness is highlighted, as it is in rainbow capitalism. During Toronto’s 2016 Pride parade, BLM Toronto stalled the parade and demanded a ban on uniformed and carrying police, the presence of which disproportionately endangered Black and Brown queer people. This was met with a wave of backlash, often from people failing to consider how race impacts experiences with queerness.
Corporate allyship will always be beholden to the marketplace. As such, it will not advocate for the transformations that are essential to queer liberation. Even if corporate boards became perfectly representative and brands began publishing their exact donations, progress in service of capitalism is flawed.
Queer liberation for all, a project which requires solidarity with other social movements and a demand for rights, is something that must be pursued in ways that forefront action. Black Lives Matter Toronto helped inspire other groups like New York City Pride to ban police, creating a safer space for queer people of colour during marches. Actions like these make queer spaces safer by taking action to protect their wellbeing despite backlash which may occur— a rare occurrence in corporate Pride campaigns.
Direct action challenging harmful institutions and putting queer liberation, not consumer goods and profit, first is key. It should serve as a collective reminder of the bold, radical, and certainly not mainstream ‘respectable’ politics of the Stonewall riots. Further, it must highlight that queer people often experience intersecting inequalities and that activism does not exist in siloes.
Edited by Zander Chila