By Nimra Amir, July 2 2021—
Along with the increasing support for the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride Month, comes the corporate incentive to align with these sentiments. To do so, companies engage in “rainbow-washing” through marketing themselves as LGBTQIA+ allies, primarily using their online platforms. Yet companies promoting pride are often not consistent with their support — as they display very little to no meaningful contributions to the cause. Instead, they are merely capitalizing on the support the general public wishes to give the LGBTQIA+ community. Through this commercialization of Pride Month, it is established that the intention of these companies is just to profit. This heightened performative activism disguised as advocacy brings into question what Pride Month truly signifies.
Pride Month has historically been an avenue for the LGBTQIA+ community and allies to address their continuing work towards acceptance and equality. It originated from the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City led by LGBTQIA+ activists of the time — notably including Black drag queen Marsha P. Johnson. Prompted by the frustration of targeted harassment, the LGBTQIA+ patrons of the Stonewall Inn, who were predominantly people of colour, fought back against the police resulting in four nights of rioting. Yet before the Stonewall Riots, “gay leaders had primarily promoted silent vigils and polite pickets,” Fred Sargeant, one of the original organizers of the march, wrote.“ It was then a year later in 1970, the first Pride March occurred to commemorate the Stonewall patrons who fought with no suppression of their true identity for equality in one of the most monumental moments of the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights.
Through these Stonewall patrons and generations of LGBTQIA+ people and allies who fought for the rights of the community, the world is now an easier place to live for the LGBTQIA+ community than it has been in the past. Despite the previous divisions that existed in issues of basic equality and freedom for the LGBTQIA+ community, there is now shown to be overwhelming support in America as there is a “trend toward greater tolerance” said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at National Opinions Research Centre (NORC) and author of the NORC report, “Public Attitudes toward Homosexuality.”
However, recent advances in LGBTQIA+ acceptance have led to an odd dynamic. Pride celebrations were initially a political act created out of circumstances in which tolerance had not been achieved. Now the very same pride celebrations are being criticized for developing into more of a party, to some extent because of the progress that has been made. This view being the reason that Pride Month has then been far more susceptible to being commodified compared to a political act. The main attraction of the pop culture attention like celebrity appearances that surround Pride Month eventually results in the corporate world overshadowing LGBTQIA+ history with performative activism for profit.
Mainly, this is through the phenomenon that denotes any rainbow object to represent “awareness” for the LGBTQIA+ community. This rainbow-washing creates a context in which the general public is led to believe they have been contributing somehow to support pride by purchasing rainbow products from these companies. Yet the issue with this commercialized support for Pride Month is that it is ultimately void of creating any meaningful impact for the LGBTQIA+ community beyond this vague notion of “awareness.” While it may raise money for a charitable cause, there’s no guarantee that money will result in any sort of tangible outcome outside of the profits for the companies selling these products. Especially since companies vary by how much of the donation goes towards the charity in question. For instance, while J. Crew donates 50 per cent of the sales made from its “Love First” collection, H&M only donates 10 per cent of the sales made from its “Pride Out Loud” collection. This nominal activism divorced from real action gives companies a low-effort way to support social and political causes while maintaining relevance with profit as the end goal.
Besides exploiting support, this commercialization of Pride Month further flattens out the complex landscape of LGBTQIA+ issues. Given that the LGBTQIA+ community is not a monolithic entity attempting to achieve just one central goal. Rather, there exists a variety of issues that affect different cross-sections of LGBTQIA+ people. Notably, there is a continuation of hate crimes that have targeted LGBTQIA+ individuals — transgender women facing the brunt of this issue as they are disproportionately affected by fatal violence. Yet this rejection that LGBTQIA+ individuals deal with often exist at home as well. This family conflict results in 20 per cent to 40 per cent of the homeless youth population in America being gay or transgender while only representing five to ten per cent of the total youth population.
It is then through obscuring all these separate issues under a one-size-fits-all rainbow that some if not all issues are naturally going to be neglected of the respect they deserve. This is all to create an image of LGBTQIA+ issues into this concept of “awareness” that is easier to sell to the general public. The political roots of Pride Month are then diminished into commercialized mass appeal — taking away from the less pleasant issues that do hold weight for many people in the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies.
The most illustrative example being Gilead sponsoring New York City Pride — a pharmaceutical company that is known for producing the pill Truvada for pre-exposure prophylaxis, more commonly referred to as PrEP. This medication regimen when taken daily has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV from sex by over 90 per cent — a virus that is found in gay and bisexual Black men at a much higher rate in the US in contrast to any other nation. Yet Gilead Sciences estimated in 2015 that about 75 per cent of men who had attained a PrEP prescription were white, while black men only comprised nine per cent of those prescriptions. This disportionate use of the drug exists because the communities in need of PrEP often cannot afford insurance that covers it. While generic versions can allow more disadvantaged groups to attain this medication, Gilead will not release its patent. In doing so, Gilead contradicts their public support for the LGBTQIA+ community in one of their biggest celebrations of the year, as the marketing they hold is comparatively disproportionate to their service to LGBTQIA+ people most affected by HIV.
This is not to say that the solution is for companies to entirely disengage from the LGBTQIA+ community. Rather, it is expected that they participate with resources and authenticity that does not minimize the history of the LGBTQIA+ community that is represented through Pride Month. To do so, companies should partner with an organization that specializes in LGBTQIA+ issues. An authentic partnership would allow those interested in supporting the LGBTQIA+ community the proper resources to do so instead of being limited to the company.
Considering the growing presence social media has retained in social justice movements, it would also be recommended that companies sponsor LGBTQIA+ influencers who hold the audience more directly affected by Pride Month. The corporate world does hold the power to raise donations, provide a platform and garner awareness to rather difficult conversations. All that is being asked by the LGBTQIA+ community is that if a company is choosing to insert themselves into a subject that they do not regularly advocate for, that they do not do so lightly.
This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.