5 Queers Share Their Thoughts On Corporate Rainbow-Washing

Photo by Ra Dragon on Unsplash

This year, more than any year in my past, I’ve noticed the near-total rainbow-washing of social media by corporate brands. As a signal of where we are as a society, I know this is a good thing; but I can’t help feeling conflicted.

I’ve lived in Toronto’s famous “gaybourhood” for 7 years now. I’ve watched Pride happen every June. I watched it evolve from something that felt like grassroots activism to something that felt … commercial.

While we haven’t had Pride since 2019 as a result of COVID, we can still feel this shift online. Even in 2019, the tone was different. Bigger. More stages, more music. More people. More allies identifying themselves with stickers.

But mostly, it’s been more companies.

Companies handing out stickers. Offering me some discount to buy something (do I have to be gay to receive the discount? Unclear.) Trying to sign me up for a credit card I don’t need. Asking me to wear a shirt with their logo, washed in rainbow.

This year, I couldn’t kick the feeling that something felt off about the logos.

Perhaps because it’s COVID and Pride isn’t happening in the way we’re used to.

Perhaps it’s because of the amount of time I spend on LinkedIn. Perhaps it’s because it’s so prevalent.

Perhaps it’s all of the above.

And so I went out and asked four people to share their thoughts. Here are their answers.

A cis lesbian assumes they’re all bandwagon jumpers

I love Pride. But the corporations getting involved is too much. Like, handing me a sticker isn’t doing anything for me. Why do I need your rainbow sticker? Why do I deserve a 20% promo code to shop your merch? Is it doing anything for me or my community? No — it’s benefitting your company, that’s it. You just want me to buy your stuff.

At the same time, I’m guilty of falling for it. I’ve bought rainbow bras, shoes, boxers. I have a lot of rainbow shit. And I liked it. I still do. But I feel different about it now.

When I see a corporation’s rainbow logo, two things happen.

First, it actually makes me trust you less.

Second, it frustrates me, because I can no longer tell which companies are purely bandwagon-jumpers and which have been involved in our fight from the beginning.

Like, banks are spending crazy amounts of money on weather-proof rainbow building stickers. But are they putting equivalent dollars towards providing trans youth with a safe space if they’re kicked out of their home? For providing grants for top surgery for trans men? For helping LGBT+ youth overcome oppression? I honestly doubt it.

And that’s kinda just made me put all the corporations into the same bucket. I just assume they’re all using my symbol as a cheap marketing win.

A bisexual, cis man expects corporations to act like corporations

I’m glad to see it. but I also know it’s not for me. Like, I kind of don’t expect corporations to behave like anything other than corporate entities. I expect them to do things that increase their share prices, and to squeeze as much good out of their workers. I don’t tend to think of companies as agents for good.

And so I think that them hopping on a bandwagon during Pride month is positive in that it reflects what sells well. I like that having rainbow flags on everything makes non-queer people happy.

When I say these things are not for me, what I mean is this: they don’t represent an extenuation of change, or an extenuation of the things we experience. They just represent the modern status quo. Which, here, is that celebrating queer people is good, especially if you do it at the right time.

In context, I’d rather have that than the alternative. Sure, it’s frustrating to have a symbol that should stand for disruption of the status quo instead stand for its maintenance. But i think the current status quo isn’t as onerous as historical ones have been.

A cis gay man feels frustrated by capitalism

I have a lot of different thoughts about this. The first is around companies as communities and the meaning of the logos to employees. I feel good that my company runs LGBT initiatives and that the community gets funding and has real influence internally. These internal initiatives, when done with good intent, can make companies feel safer; but if it’s just a token, it can make everyone feel worse. It’s generally harder for me to disparage a companies pride stuff when I know it’s made by queers.

That said, Pride is inherently anti-capitalist but companies are incentivized by profit. People don’t really think about this contradiction, but I think it’s at the heart of this discussion.

Companies change their logos to gain support from consumers. Whether that’s a token gesture during Pride or ongoing support, the reality is that capitalistic pride will always lag behind real activism, and distracts resources from pushing for societal and political changes. They are invested in reinforcing the status quo, and it’s rare for companies (particularly big ones with lots of money) to support real, radical change.

The commercialization of Pride ultimately influences individual conceptions of what Pride is, shifting people’s idea of Pride away from a protest toward something more palatable for the general public.

In my opinion, this was partly why it was controversial for cops to be excluded from the parade and for BLM to use Pride as a platform. Neither of these are controversial in the context of Pride as an act of civil unrest, but they are if your goal is to appeal to the general public and make money.

I guess in summary I’m generally annoyed (and frustrated) by Pride logos, but I recognize the need for them in a capitalistic system. That said, I wish we lived in a system where we could have large-scale protests without it turning into an opportunity for profiteering.

A gay trans man is cautiously optimistic

I love how widely Pride is celebrated now and that June is full of rainbows! But when companies change their logos, I don’t necessarily believe that they’re doing anything substantial for the community.

Sure, there are many companies that uplift the voices of queer folks during June. Maybe they donate to great organizations, too. But at the end of the day, are they trying to sell us something, or are they investing in a better future for queer people?

I think most companies are just doing the former. So while I love being surrounded by all the queer-positive messaging, I’m ultimately suspicious. I wonder:

Do the queer people who work for them feel safe?

Do they hire people from diverse backgrounds?

Do they have hard conversations around homophobia and transphobia throughout the year?

Do they invest in community programs and queer-run small businesses?

And, do they educate the public about queer history?

Ultimately, I want to see companies acknowledging and working towards ending oppression of queer people more than I want rainbow t-shirts. That said, June is a great time to start and if rainbow logos is the first step forward, I welcome everyone to celebrate pride with us. But if it’s the only step forward, then it’s just capitalism.

A cis bisexual woman is suspicious

I want to feel like it’s a good thing. I do. I’m sure, ultimately, corporations getting behind Pride and showing their support for the LGBTQIA+ community is good for everyone’s acceptance.

But for some reason, it doesn’t feel like a good thing. It feels…nefarious. Like they’re capitalizing off of my sexuality, and my peers’ sexuality. Like they’re co-opting our symbol, one that should be indicative of the pain, injustice, and fight we’ve all put up for equal rights. Like they’re using something as a cheap marketing gimmick.

To them, the rainbow is fun; it literally brings color to their social presence once a year. But I’m sure it was some Marketing Manager somewhere who said, ‘we should do this,’ and everyone went along with it.

Maybe the reason I feel so bad about it is that some of the companies I’ve seen do this have leaders that I know are homophobic.

I have to wonder: how many of the companies rainbow-washing are actually doing anything to support LGBT+ groups (especially youth)? Probably few.

How many are investing any of these proceeds to lesbian, gay, or trans youth or adults, who exist on the margins, who have been persecuted for their sexuality or gender, who struggle disproportionately with mental health issues, addiction, and homelessness?

I did a quick Google search of 10 corporations, and the only one that came up with actual LGBT+ initiatives is RBC. That’s pretty frustrating.

In contrast, how many of them are showing shareholders or investors a better bottom line during Pride Month because they offer discounts and incentives? Probably a lot.

At the end of the day, I want to be hopeful and optimistic. But I’m ultimately skeptical.

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