From Stonewall to Rainbow Washing - Where Are We in 2021?
On June 1st, the first day of Pride Month, well-known brands and companies large and small emblazon their logos, websites and social media channels with the colors of the rainbow — a symbol popularized by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978. And while their logos “chameleonize” themselves we don’t often see these companies change how their business operates or bear witness to them supporting the LGBTQIA+ community. In fact, the use of the rainbow has, for many, become solely performative. As a person who is Black and queer and has worked at an LGBTQ+ non-profit organization, Pride is always a joyous and overwhelming time. While I am excited to celebrate Pride with my community and pay homage to the folks who made Pride possible, I am constantly appalled with how often companies miss the mark.
For historical context, Pride began with the Stonewall Riots where predominantly Black and Brown Trans and LGBTQIA+ folks in New York fought for their rights after being targeted by a police raid. The Rainbow became a symbol for LGBTQIA+ folks in 1978, when artist Gilbert Baker, an openly gay man and drag queen, designed the first rainbow flag, at the behest of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country. There is a rich history in the LGBTQIA+ community; filled with struggle, strife, liberation, tolerance and understanding. In 2021 things may appear to be easier than they once were but it doesn’t mean that the fight has ended, it just looks different now. This is why the commercialization of Pride Month and the Rainbow Flag is such a point of contention.
Let’s be perfectly clear, rainbow washing or rainbow capitalism, better known as slapping a rainbow background behind your logo isn’t allyship, it’s marketing. Companies will peddle rainbow merchandise and say they celebrate Pride while also paying astronomical amounts of money to do everything but support their LGBTQIA+ employees. Some go as far as to support harmful legislative bills and political movements that directly affect LGBTQIA+ folks negatively or discriminate against LGBTQIA+ members who are both queer and a person of color, fat, disabled or hold another marginalzation. “It’s estimated that businesses earn $917 billion annually from Pride,” according to @youcancallmeaz (instagram) and CBS News; however, we often don’t see too many of these companies giving back to the community. Making all of that money, in one month, by profiting off of LGBTQIA+ and then not investing that money to benefit the queer community isn’t support, it’s capitalism.
We also need to address how these advertisements can actually cause more harm than good. We need look no further than the alcohol industry to see this type of harm at work. Countless alcohol brands “show their pride” by using rainbow washing but studies show that alcohol is often the drug of choice for LGBTQIA+ community members. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents are 90 percent more likely to use alcohol and drugs than their heterosexual counterparts, especially as a means to cope. So while some companies see this as a celebration, it could really be doing more damage. These companies often have the power and the financial backing to create actual positive change if they wanted to. If every company that rainbow washed actually directed money to making sure that LGBTQIA+ folks were more safe at work, at home, all over the world, we would be having a very different conversation.
There have been some good examples of companies utilizing the rainbow flag while also being allies and supporting the LGBTQIA+ community. Per North Face’s Instagram they are “donating over $70,000 in connection with our Pride Collection to Brave Trails, a non-profit summer camp, dedicated to LGBTQ+ youth and leadership.”
In June 2021, the NFL posted on their Instagram, “Happy Pride Month! The NFL is proud to unveil our new NFL Pride shield to show our support and solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. We stand with LGBTQ+ people this month and year long with a commitment to our players, our fans and our staff to live proudly and authentically.” The NFL standing with the LGBTQ+ community is a step in the right direction and gives examples to bigger companies and organizations to be more inclusive. After Colin Kaepernick took a knee in 2016, and watching how the NFL and other major companies responded to this protest and then the rejuvenation of the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2020, has shown the way our country is constantly falling short, learning from their mistakes and then doing better. I think the best example of allyship, within the NFL, comes from the San Francisco 49ers. “Led by 49ers PRIDE, the official fan club of 49ers Faithful who identify as LGBTQ+ and allies, the 2021 celebration will be highlighted by the 2021 49ers PRIDE Collection, the first-ever gender-neutral retail line released by an NFL team...When wearing these items, the Faithful will not only be supporting the team but also several relevant beneficiaries who will receive 100% of the 49ers proceeds from collection sales: San Francisco LGBT Center, Oakland LGBTQ Center, and The LGBTQ Youth Space: San Jose.”
Pride happens every day. Pride is when someone feels safe to transition and has the support and financial means to do so. Pride is when we give someone the support to live as authentically as they want. Pride happens when you remember that Pride started as a riot, led by Black and Brown folks. Pride is supporting LGBTQIA+ folks and businesses every day. Pride is perseverance. Pride is love.
Given the title, “The love child of Oprah, Beyonce, and Michelle Obama," Briona Jenkins is a public speaker, activist for the LGBTQIA+, female, and people of color communities, and has years of experience using her platform to evoke change.
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