By: Yasmin Vejs Simsek, Staff Writer, & C Icart, SFU Student
Content warning: mentions of homophobia and transphobia
Pride month merch from faceless, multi-billion-dollar corporations is among the most calculated, yet somehow weirdly personalized marketing schemes ever. Over the course of a month, companies with seemingly no relation to the movement will emblazon their logos with rainbow flags and produce cringy but supportive merchandise. But does a corporate presence at Pride represent a victory lap for a marginalized community, or is it a smokescreen that hides companies’ actual lack of loyalty to the LGBTQIA2S+ community?
Yasmin: I will be the first to admit that companies’ overtly over-the-top attempts to be allies to the LGBTQIA2S+ community are extremely performative and there’s no way the majority of these CEOs actually give a flying fuck for the community’s rights and liberation. That being said, I can’t help but see this is a huge step from where we were 50 years ago, with Stonewall being an example of raiding gay safe places, arresting folks, and police checking people’s orientation. Now, I bet you that many of these organizations have homophobic or transphobic managers who strongly disagree with Pride month messaging. But they’re forced to support the community because waving around the rainbow flag in an attempt to prove allyship has become the corporate norm. And this norm is helping silence those haters.
This is obviously looking at it from a North American point of view — unfortunately, there are still places in the world where being LGBTQIA2S+ is a crime, even punishable by death. Corporate support for North American Pride Month doesn’t extend to those countries, which is a problem.
C: I can’t get behind the idea that this is a victory lap. There is no evidence that queer and trans folks are the people who primarily benefit from the corporatization of Pride. Even today, many people in the LGBTQIA2S+ community don’t feel safe around police, anti-trans legislation is sweeping the US, and discrimination against LGBTQIA2S+ individuals still happens in Canada. Companies selling us overpriced rainbow everything doesn’t address any of this. These companies only participate in Pride month because they can benefit financially from doing so. Every June, we see corporate Pride logos, but generally, these same corporations do not display their Pride logos in the Middle East, for example. Only being a visible “ally” in countries where it won’t affect your business is not allyship, it’s bullshit, and we don’t need it. Seeing Pride flags pop up in more spaces makes me smile, but I think as a community, we still need so much more, and we shouldn’t be afraid to demand it just because things could be worse.
Yasmin: No doubt about needing more. We need everything! And I think generally the white saviour complex stretches into this in terms of doing things to benefit the self, but not actually to benefit the community. Part of the problem is that corporations don’t actually ask the community what they need! As of 2022, only four CEOs in the Fortune 500 were gay, so any seemingly pro-Pride decisions are being made by people outside of the community.
I agree that pride merch shouldn’t only be offered in countries where a display of support won’t affect your business. However, I think shows of support in those regions where homophobia is prevalent, wouldn’t just harm your business, it could actually bring harm to the community. I think we should keep demanding what the community deserves, whilst still celebrating the victories along the way and picking our battles. I won’t fight corporations overcharging and overselling Pride merchandise, but I will fight their support for anti-LGBTQIA2S+ campaigns. I think those two can co-exist.
C: I don’t believe rainbow capitalism happens because corporations are trying to help anyone. They’re trying to make money. You are right; corporate Pride logos wouldn’t help queer and trans folks in regions that are hostile to gay rights. In the same way, they don’t help anyone here. They are strictly performative. Many corporations are both Pride sponsors and anti-LGBTQIA2S+ campaign donors. This is something that needs to be called out. Companies don’t get to market themselves as an “ally” when they want to sell us things while funding our oppression at the same time. I do believe in celebrating victories along the way, but I can’t think of a single LGBTQIA2S+ victory that was corporate-led. The first Pride was a riot led by Black and brown queer and trans folks, many of whom were sex workers. Pride is about liberation, and corporate visibility does not liberate us.
Yasmin: See, I think corporations at Pride help folks here; not directly, not financially, but by raising awareness and making the rainbow the norm. On funding anti-LGBTQIA2S+ campaigns, I completely agree, that’s why I pointed it out. It’s a huge issue and they need to be called out! But I think we can do that without stopping corporate Pride awareness, performative as it is, because I think it’s better to have it than not to have it. It can’t be compared to the liberation that Pride itself gave us, but I think there is a level of liberation. I don’t know that it would be possible to make statistics on the decrease in homophobia due to the over-awareness of Pride that corporations contribute to, but I do believe it might be the case.
We are allowed to be angry and there are a lot of things we need to fight for. I just think we will get further not by fighting the performative rainbows, but by fighting the rest of the shit these companies do. We need to target their support to anti-LGBTQIA2S+ campaigns rather than the flags themselves. As hypocritical as these corporations can be, the corporatization of Pride helps silence homophobes by making Pride the status quo.
C: I think the impact of general “awareness” of the LGBTQIA2S+ community is overrated. I’m concerned that the corporatization of Pride may be normalizing empty acts of allyship. When people use the Pride flag, it should mean something. It should be attached to a real commitment toward queer and trans liberation. Corporations being performative may be better than corporations actively contributing to harm in the community, but I still think corporations being performative while simultaneously harming the community is an extra level of twisted that we should not stand for.
To be fair, rainbow washing criticism is not new. In response to the charge of “hypocrisy,” some companies contribute to charities with the profits they make from Pride campaigns. Rainbow washing remains an issue for the community issue because it obscures the real needs that LGBTQIA2S+ folks have. I’m not targeting the flag; I’m targeting corporations co-opting an important symbol, diluting its meaning, and selling it back to us. If you want Pride merch, I encourage you to get it from queer and trans folks! Vancouver Pride Society has a helpful list of local LGBTQIA2S+ producers.