During Pride month one year when I was in high school, I got my underage hands on a limited-edition vodka bottle — one of the ones with a rainbow label, its contents mostly gone. Even when the bottle itself was empty, I tucked it away in the back of my closet, and kept it there for years: at the time, my family didn’t know I was gay. But the bottle was a concrete, tangible reminder that there was broad — or broad enough — acceptance of gay culture that when I did eventually come out, I could have the kind of life I dreamed about. That little symbol mattered to me.
Now that I’ve been out for years, and have found the very acceptance and love that I envisioned as a little gayby, mere acknowledgement or limited-time-only support doesn’t feel like enough — for me, or for younger queer people who are still finding their place in the world. Every year in June, my inbox fills up with promotions for things like “Love Wins Gender Freedom LGBT Themed” rainbow cutting boards and “rainbow cocktail” recipes made with checks notes, uh, peanut butter whiskey. These sorts of products, with their vaguely supportive statements and bright rainbow designs signal acceptance, if not active support for queer people.
But when I look further into these products, often the company’s founders and upper management are not part of the queer community, and outside of a week- or month-long campaign, they are doing little to concretely uplift queer people, either by distributing a portion of profits to a queer-focused organization, or by actively working to better the lives of their queer workers year-round. Acceptance is great, yes, but these campaigns are largely short-lived marketing schemes. If Pride month is about buying gay stuff (which, for a lot of people, it is), why not buy it from actual queer people? And if it’s about finding allyship in non-queer spaces, then businesses should be coming through for queer people every day of the year. That is allyship.
This halfhearted support is how we end up with bags of grey Skittles being released into the wild because “only one rainbow matters during Pride.” This cloying need to voice support for a community that has spending power is fuel for more insidious marketing campaigns, with companies like the massive beer producer Anheuser-Busch voicing their dedication to “inclusion and diversity,” while, as Rolling Stone points out, they simultaneously support anti-LGBTQ legislators.
Though most of these product drops and statements of support are as vague and vanilla as it gets, Pride’s roots are radical, and have nothing to do with marketing campaigns and limited edition sneakers. This month is, in part, a recognition of the Stonewall riots in 1969, where a group composed largely of drag queens, trans patrons, and gay men of color fought back against an all-too-common police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village, and propelled the movement for queer liberation forward. Without this action and leadership, fighting against police brutality and the criminalization of queerness, there would be no “Pride” as we know it. This month is also spent in acknowledgement of the many lives lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was largely ignored by the government as an entire generation of gay people died. But as (predominantly white, gay) queer culture has become marketable — and as huge corporations have gotten in on the action — the roots of Pride have been obscured.
This sort of rainbow branding to attract queer dollars, without making substantial or long-lasting commitment to queer causes, is known as “rainbow washing.” Random companies put a rainbow overlay on their Twitter icons, and every other clothing brand seems to have a rainbow capsule collection. By July 1, it’s just a technicolor dream. Unless, of course, you happen to be a part of the 68 percent of LGBTQ youth experiencing general anxiety disorder, or the more than 50 percent of trans and non-binary youth who’ve reported seriously considering suicide, per a study by the Trevor Project. For them, like for younger me, the visibility of big, bright rainbow Pride campaigns may provide some comfort, but they’re not enough — not even close.
If every corporation that commodified queerness for Pride lobbied against these anti-trans bills in state legislatures none would pass.
— Chase Strangio (@chasestrangio) March 13, 2021
Many companies adopt the imagery and symbols of mainstream Pride celebrations (namely, the rainbow flag), while ignoring the month’s radical origins, or actively supporting anti-queer initiatives and politicians as they profit off the community. For too many companies, both in the food industry and elsewhere, Pride month becomes an opportunity to pander to the upwardly mobile members of the queer community, without advocating for those who are in urgent need of resources and support.
These corporate efforts make queerness feel mainstream, as though all is good and well and we’re safe to live our lives openly. For white gay men like myself, living in major cities, that may be close to true. But according to the Human Rights Campaign, 2021 was the “worst year in recent history for LGBTQ state legislative attacks.” Trans people — a majority of whom are Black women — are still being murdered with crushing frequency. The movement for queer liberation is an ongoing fight, and it shouldn’t simply be celebrated by companies as if it the work is done. Queer people don’t need more stuff, we need the corporations that court us to fight anti-trans legislation and fund queer organizations in perpetuity.
It’s the dissonance between outward allyship and a lack of internal change and ongoing support and action which is most striking, and makes me raise my eyebrow at so many of these Pride campaigns. Stating that love is love (which, well, yeah) and that queer people exist (we do!) is not an adequate form of allyship when so many queer people are still fighting for their lives. Corporations that do little to support queer people outside of this one month have found a way to profit off of and commodify queerness, without truly engaging with the issues that are detrimental to the wellbeing of so many in our communities.
I urge those tempted by June Pride collections to dig deeper into these campaigns, and take note when companies are throwing a rainbow flag on their products without engaging with queer issues. What’s even better than supporting massive straight-owned corporations selling rainbow products is to support companies run by queer people. And if a straight-owned and operated business does choose to be vocal about its support for queer people during June (and profit off of that support), pressure them to continue through the year. This year, Effen vodka released a rainbow bottle that will be available year-round, with a portion of profits from each sale benefiting a queer organization. The fight for queer liberation is ongoing, and a bottle of vodka with a rainbow sticker and a mission statement won’t change that. But we can push brands in the right direction and demand that our money — and our lives — are treated as more valuable than a rainbow with an expiration date.