The Commodification of Pride Must Come with Real LGBTQ+ Representation
Before the commodification of Pride flooded the event with corporate sponsors and support, Pride was an act of defiance against straight, cisgender hegemonies. Alan Light // CC BY 2.0.
I grew up in the deeply-religious suburb of Wheaton, Ill, where the expectation wasn’t that the LGBTQ+ community was wrong — queer identities simply could not exist within the evangelical confines of the city limits. One morning sophomore year while attending church, I was pulled aside by the youth pastor who confronted me about having posted support on social media for the LGBTQ+ community (at the time, I was not out). Some church members had complained that this sort of support should not be held by any members of the congregation — deeminging me “unwelcome.”
So when the pandemic brought me back to Wheaton last year, I was surprised come June, 2020, to find a majority of the small businesses in the city decked out in rainbow colors. What had once seemed relegated to the large corporations and businesses on the coasts had reached my hometown: the commodification of Pride.
Corporations’ efforts to commodify activism is nothing new. Everything from Black History Month to Breast Cancer Awareness and even the calls for accountability on the January 6 Capitol Riot have seen corporations dip their toes into the realm of social issues. On the surface, the commodification of Pride seems like a good thing. The main goal of the private sector is to maximize profits, so viewing alignment with the LGBTQ+ community as profitable signals that social change is moving forward.
However, it is this very goal of maximizing profits where the danger lies — brands which capitalize on Pride may not consistently support the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. A June, 2021 investigation by Popular Information found that 25 major corporations which have 100 percent ratings on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2020 Corporate Equality Index, including Amazon, Google, and Deloitte, donated a combined $10.8 million to either federal lawmakers who received a score of zero from the HRC or to sponsors of anti-trans legislation.
This represents a drop in the bucket of the corporate Pride hypocrisy — in 2018, for instance, Adidas offered their annual Pride Collection while simultaneously being a sponsor for the Fifa World Cup which took place in Russia, a country infamous for its anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Even when removed from the United States context, the actions of corporations abroad matter for the lives of LGBTQ+ folks globally.
But the danger in Pride branding is not simply relegated to hypocrisy at the corporate level. Businesses large and small who engage in Pride branding continue the trivialization of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Pride originates from the 1969 Stonewall Riots; a series of riots led predominantly by Black and Brown members of the LGBTQ+ community who had been harassed and targeted by the New York City Police Department. This led to nationwide protests, and kick started the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Over the years, however, the origins of Pride as a protest have been lost as progress has been gained for LGBTQ+ equality. As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos writes: “The ostensible goal of the Stonewall riots and pride events is to make the world a place where LGBTQ people don’t need to fight for rights. Subsequently, one of the biggest criticisms that’s grown up with pride celebrations across the country is that they’ve become more about the party … than the politics.”
Essentially, because Pride has become a more “palatable” party rather than the intended revolutionary fight for equality, businesses have a much easier time commodifying the annual event because Pride is no longer viewed as countering the status quo — for many of privilege in the queer community, the “pressing issue” now is debating whether or not kinks should be on display at Pride events.
That said, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is long from over. To this day, 17 states lack employment protections for either one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBTQ+ hate crimes have been on the rise in recent years, and the panic defense, a strategy to justify hate crimes or assault against the LGBTQ+ community, is legal in all but 14 states.
To be a genuine ally to the LGBTQ+ community, businesses of any size must be intentional in their shows of support. Instead of investing in rainbow flags, corporations should redirect this funding to lobby and support those advocating for LGBTQ+ rights — and against those who seek to take them away. Moreover, businesses should be conscious that sometimes allyship means removing yourself from the Pride discourse entirely to make space for queer voices.
The representation I felt when seeing my hometown’s businesses celebrate Pride made me as a gay person feel seen. The ever-increasing support for queer identities across all communities, including within the evangelical church, signals that there is a greater cultural understanding of LGBTQ+ issues than ever before. That said, what matters more in the long run is not seeing your identity validated through branding initiatives, but rather through tangible actions to further the cause for LGBTQ+ equality.
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