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Pride: Opportunistic Activism Can Do More Harm than Good

July 8, 2019  |  John Wiese

Pride month is over, and it’s time we address the giant, rainbow-colored elephant in the room. This June, our social media feeds were flooded with ads from brands who slapped a multicolored filter over their logo and appealed to the LGBTQ community with words of support, acceptance, and love. In short—it was wonderful. 

This mainstream rainbow imagery and ultra-visibility for the gay, lesbian, and trans US citizens would never have been realized 5, 10, or 15 years ago. With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots, the New York uprising that was the impetus for every subsequent Pride celebration, the rainbow wave could not have come at a better time. 

Brands abandoning conservative values to embrace a community that has historically been oppressed and disenfranchised is extremely empowering and progressive. That being said, this commoditization of LGBTQ imagery and opportunist capitalization of a social justice oriented movement can also be both damaging and problematic. 

“Pinkwashing” is a term that originated after many brands began capitalizing on Susan G. Komen’s pink ribbon imagery, selling pink products in the name of “Breast Cancer Awareness” without making any significant contribution to the cause. Pinkwashing has since been adopted as a term for companies using LGBTQ imagery and expressing outward support for the community in order to be viewed as modern and progressive, or even downplay past negative behaviors. 

Brands Not Walking Their Pride Talk When it Comes To Business Operations

Albeit some brands do manage to incorporate LGBTQ inclusion and real support, others fail to put their money where their mouth is, for example:

  • H&M has an extensive Pride collection of apparel, all with some sort of LGBTQ imagery. They also contribute 10% of their profits from their Pride collection to LGBTQ charities. Nonetheless, many of their manufacturing plants are in China, a country notorious for its historic oppression and persecution of the gay community. 
  • The pharmaceutical company Gilead is one of the biggest sponsors for New York Pride on a yearly basis. Gilead also manufactures the drug Truvada, or PrEP. PrEP reduces the risk for individuals exposed to HIV to contract the virus by 99%. This drug has saved lives, that is not in question. Though, without insurance it costs over $2,000; it is also a well-known fact that the groups of people most at risk of HIV infection cannot afford the level of insurance coverage that would make the drug available to them. This is a company that has made astronomical amounts of money selling Truvada to the gay community, yet has taken no steps to support the areas of the community that cannot contribute to those profits. 

It’s not only retailers and pharmaceutical firms who were guilty of pinkwashing this June:

  • On June 17th, Taylor Swift released her predictably sensational music video “You Need to Calm Down.” The absurd, fun, and, above all, gay music video was jam-packed with famous gay, lesbian, and trans people. The straight pop star used all the same iconography as the brands with the rainbow filters over their logos. Some members of the LGBTQ community have chosen to look at it as a carefree celebration of gay culture which provided some much needed visibility for up and coming trans celebrities.  However, others have interpreted it to be a blatant appropriation of LGBTQ culture and a garish display of opportunism by a pop star who, historically, has not shown outward support for the gay community. One should note that the video does end with a call-to-action for viewers to sign a petition supporting the Equality Act, currently sitting in the US Senate. Vox highlights the mixed response that the video has since incited in the LGBTQ community.

Pinkwashing and the Rise of Slacktivism

One outcome that stems from brands behaving like this is the rise of slacktivism. The incentive to purchase clothes because some marginal portion of the profits will go to a good cause allows consumers the sentiment that they are contributing to the support of the LGBTQ community. Awareness of the presence of the LGBTQ community, amplified by dawning a $12, rainbow “LOVE” T-Shirt, may be an endearing display of affection towards LGBTQ culture, but it is often mistaken for activism and real support. 

So where do we go from here? If June is Pride Month, perhaps July can become Accountability Month. We can call on companies who profited off of the LGBTQ community with their Pride commerce to turn those profits into real acts of support. Empower your trans employees. Divest from the economies of countries with explicit LGBTQ discriminatory policies. Make your products available to communities of people who need it the most. But, above all, display support not just when it is convenient, and not only when it is profitable. Join in on the conversations that matter, year round. One month of good behavior does not make up for years of taking on the role of not-so-innocent bystander to the systemic oppression and professional discrimination the LGBTQ community has experienced.

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