For Whom Does Your Rainbow Flag Wave?
In the early hours of June 28th, 1969, NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn gay bar in Manhattan’s West Village, sparking a series of riots and ultimately coalescing a broader national movement called, at the time, the gay liberation movement. The following year, marches commemorating the riots and the queer agitators who incited them were held, and thus, Gay Pride was born.
So, now it’s Pride month again, more than 50 years later. We’ve come a long way in the last half-century and made some truly incredible progress—built on the backs of those original rioters and activists (and countless more who followed) who literally put their lives on the line to demand visibility, basic human rights, and the freedom to live our queer AF lives in peace. Today, with increased queer visibility and acceptance, the face of Pride is less of a radically political riot, and more of a party, with a heavy dose of retail-conscious branding and corporate sponsorship.
Cue the limited-edition rainbow Doritos and Smirnoff bottles, hackneyed “love is love” platitudes plastered on branded merch, and temporarily re-worked rainbow corporate logos. Is this cavalcade of dubious brand activations by corporate entities indicative of true allyship, or is it hollow pandering to score pats on the back for being “woke,” while making a tidy profit in the process? In spite of the ostensibly benevolent and socially progressive intent behind these short-lived campaigns, what do they actually accomplish, and who are these brands waving the rainbow flags for?
If a government agency, company, or celebrity spends most of the year doing exactly zero things to promote LGBTQ+ rights—or, more disturbingly, in the case of the criminal justice system, actively harassing and abusing trans people at alarming rates—what good does a pride campaign do for queer communities? Slapping a rainbow decal on a police cruiser, selling disposable rainbow crap, or leveraging Pride to promote an album are all forms of rainbow-washing that cover up, at best, an opportunistically pathetic lack of effort, and at worst, anti-queer violence and oppression.
These counterfeit shows of “support” are a slap in the face to queer people who still face horrific legal injustices, physical violence, and economic marginalization—especially at the non-cis, non-male, non-white end of the spectrum. That queer visibility and acceptance is at an all-time high does not mean the battle for equality is won, nor does it mean you get to flaunt the oppression and marginalization of queer people to score some easy PR points. If your company or org waited until this relatively safe present moment to do a Pride campaign, chances are you’re not actually supporting queer causes or queer people. And we aren’t buying it.
Now, there is something to be said for visibility, especially outside of cosmopolitan megalopoli with large, vocal queer populations. In this context, reminders that queer people A) Exist everywhere and B) Are fundamentally just like everyone else, are perhaps useful in normalizing queer lives and integrating queer identities into the fabric of everyday life. I wonder, though, if in addition to the rainbow-emblazoned merchandising displays at your local West Hollywood or Chelsea CVS—are corporations pushing the queer agenda at branches located in more conservative municipalities, where queers are less likely to have legal protections for things like employment and housing discrimination? Well, I guess I don’t have to wonder, I live in what could be called a “redneck flyover state” and I certainly don’t see the same volume of Pride season campaigns in my local corporate drugstore that I did when I lived in lower Manhattan.
So then, what is the point of putting up these displays in already gay-friendly cities? Is it just to tell us, “Hey urban queers, we support you in theory, but only in a way that is skin-deep, completely free of risk, and ultimately self-serving.” Good for you. How bold. Hawking products with fun imagery of rainbows, glitter, and unicorns in select markets isn’t empowering to communities that remain very much at society’s fringes. It’s disingenuous and objectifying, and actually quite dangerous. The facile adoption of sanitized queer imagery, with no underlying commitment to progressive change, creates a false sense of progress and masks the fact that so much work remains to be done. It strengthens the surface tension of the liberal bubble while doing nothing to improve the lives of queer people who can’t or don’t want to leave their less-than-progressive hometowns.
That being said, there are certainly companies, organizations, and public figures who are active 24/7, 365 in the struggle for queer equality, and for whom Pride month isn’t just an opportunity for a brand-enhancing lip service campaign. Ironically, it is often those who don’t feel the need to scream in all-caps rainbow letters during the month of June who are committing the most effort toward advocacy of queer causes. However, if you or your company are truly committed to supporting LGBTQ+ rights, but want to avoid the pitfalls of specious allyship, there are ways to reach out and authentically engage with the community. The out-and-loud gay writer/podcaster and deputy editor of Out Magazine, Fran Tirado, tweeted a guide for companies/orgs who are considering a Pride campaign. It’s pretty spot-on. In addition to transparency on how much (if any) of the profits from said campaign are going toward queer nonprofits, he suggests the following:
– Donating 100% of profit to a queer org
– Hiring several (not just one) queer/trans creatives to develop yr campaign
– Removing yr product from the idea
– Investing real $$$ in the idea
– Educating/activating—tell a fucking story
– Doing so 12 months of the year
Anything less, and maybe you should just put that flag down and consider wtf you are doing, and who you are doing it for. Pride is rooted in a celebration of the radical politics, bitter struggles, and unbelievable resilience of the queer rights movement—a movement that half a century later, even with all its successes, is far from over. It isn’t about PR enhancement for your brand, and it certainly isn’t about corporate profit. Unless you are prepared to join the fight and take a risk, or contribute your profits toward the cause, I think you know where you can shove your bullsh*t rainbow flag.