The queer community exists in our purest, most joyful form during Pride Month. If you’ve ever been to a pride celebration, or interacted with any queer person ever, then you know what I mean.
But, as always, we also exist as consumers.
Corporate ‘pride’ has become an overwhelming presence in the last decade. Pride — and, dare I say, queer existence in and of itself — has become an opportunity for brands to market themselves to the queer community and [mostly well-meaning] allies.
You’ve certainly seen it, because practically every brand has put out at least one rainbow in the last few weeks. On Twitter this month, I’ve seen an insane amount of brands revamped for Pride.
Take, for example, over-the-counter cough medicine: Robitussin supports the queer community? Yup, according to their profile picture. So does Listerine, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, PayPal, Cisco, Mercedes-Benz and more.
Your favorite brand has a rainbow-striped version of their logo as their Twitter profile picture, or they pinned a “happy pride” post on their Facebook page. Maybe they even aired a commercial, developed a new gimmick like personalized pride soda bottles, or are selling ridiculously flamboyant pride clothes.
Great — but do they actually support the movement? Does their interest in pride go beyond profit margins? There are a few ways to tell.
Coca-Cola is an excellent example of a brand that, despite what their PR teams would have you believe, does not actually support queer liberation. They offer customizable glass bottles of their products with a pride-themed label to put on it. However, when it was first launched, the tool would not let users put words like “lesbian,” “transgender” or “bisexual” — but slurs, “blue lives matter” and other *actually* offensive material were permitted.
Also, like other companies mentioned previously, Coca-Cola makes their “pride” loud and clear in regions where queerness is more openly accepted, and where liberation is making headway. But in regions where queer people live in the closet out of fear for their safety, or where homosexuality is illegal, the corporation’s ‘pride’ is nowhere to be seen.
Pride-branded products simply would not sell in areas like Russia or Saudi Arabia. The profit trumps the activism. Companies like this are profiting off of the products that people buy thinking that they are supporting the queer community. If my Coke has a rainbow on it, that means I’m supporting a company that has good values, a company that cares about my well-being and identity as a queer individual, that sees my people as more than a bottom line, right? No.
Corporations and brands are not your friend. No matter how quirky their social media presence is or how many rainbows are on their products, they care about the bottom line and if your movement will negatively impact that, then they no longer care about your movement. If your movement is not profitable, then they do not care about your movement.
Performative corporate activism had left me confused — if a company doesn’t come out in support of a movement, are they a bad company? If they do, are they good? The real answer is that no matter what they do, they are not good. Whatever they do publicly is not necessarily what is happening behind the scenes.
There are some companies that do pride better than others. Skittles, for example, has gone black-and-white for Pride Month, to highlight the “one rainbow that matters.” They partnered with queer artists from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and are using their brand’s platform to highlight the work of those artists. They also partnered with GLAAD to share resources for the community and allies and are donating to them a portion of profits from special “Pride Packs,” or Skittles in a gray bag (see the “one rainbow that matters”), up to $100,000. If pride has to go corporate, then this is a solid way to do it.
Is this representation a bad thing? No, not necessarily. But queer representation shouldn’t only matter one month of the year.
As podcaster Fran Tirado pointed out in this great Twitter thread, “queer inclusion is no longer the exception. It’s the standard.” More than that, representation is not the biggest problem here. Are the companies with rainbow logos protecting their queer employees from harassment and discrimination? If they offer health insurance, does it cover gender-affirming surgeries and other treatments? If they are involved in politics, are they supporting politicians and organizations that support queer movements and queer people? Are the profits from pride-branded merchandise going to LGBTQIA+ organizations or into the pockets of the executives?
Putting “love is love” on a t-shirt or in a commercial or having gender-neutral bathrooms in some retail locations is not equivalent to actively supporting the movement for queer liberation. These gestures, while nice, are ultimately meaningless without the work to back it up.
When I’m at Pride, I don’t want to see big corporations trying to sell us products with rainbows slapped on them. I don’t want to march in a parade alongside a float for a company that makes billions every year and doesn’t pay their workers. I’d rather see queer-owned businesses or advocacy groups or local artists or literally anything else. Pride should feel like a celebration– not an advertisement.
Our pride does not exist for profit. Pride is a celebration of identities that have long been stifled or hidden away or persecuted. Pride is a memorial for those who died in the fight for queer liberation, who have been attacked or killed for who they are, who have died of AIDS, who have been imprisoned, who have taken their own lives. Pride is a movement, a continued fight for queer liberation, the act of living radically as yourself. The first Pride was a riot started by Black trans women against police trying to shut down a gay bar. It was never meant to be commodified. But in capitalism, anything that moves can become a product. During the summer of 2020, many brands came out in support of Black Lives Matter and the movement against policing, including Amazon, IBM and Microsoft, to name a few. They pledged to stop or hinder the sales of racist surveillance equipment to law enforcement, but continued to do so anyway.
As this Pride month comes to an end, I ask you to reflect on the commodification of the movement and think deeper about what it means for a brand to be “woke.” Don’t trust the rainbow logo, and don’t get used to it because it will be gone on July 1, with queer liberation off the table as a marketing strategy until next year.