Every year in June a tidal wave of rainbows splash across our screens, merchandise, and streets in celebration of Pride month. These rainbows are supposed to remind us of the power and diversity of the queer community.
Monetizing a Movement: Pride and Rainbow Capitalism
June marks the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that took place in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1969. The rainbow was a flag that was sewn to be flown in the marches that followed after the riots and each color stands for different aspects of the LGBTQ experience.
The roots of both the celebration and the symbolism of the rainbow are passionate and rebellious. They stand for the generations that lived under the tyranny of oppression and the criminalization of our identities, as well as a rejection of the systems used to violently control and erase those experiences; they remain as a reminder of the forces that still seek to eradicate our community and our pride in who we are.
Yet, if we look at our current cultural Pride month and its celebration what are we seeing? Pride marches have turned into parades, which in turn have centralized corporate sponsors. The parades now include VIP events with high ticket prices, low accessibility, and services that cater to only the most privileged in the community.
Read: Am I Queer Enough?
Many of the festivals that stand now are monotonized deviations from the community-building gathering that once held their place. Too often, small LGBTQ companies and artisans are pushed out by pricing that caters to major corporations, ticket prices go to funding bigger celebrity names at events instead of mutual aid or funding for queer non-profits.
So how did we go from a riot and rally cry that was led and supported by LGBTQ people of color and which served as a resource for visibility and protest to 4 figure tickets and alcohol-infused events?
In the 1990s Pride was becoming more socially accepted by the mass population throughout the United States and parts of Europe. No longer seen as a celebration of perversion increased awareness, education, and visibility encouraged more and more fence-sitters entertain the idea of allyship.
Emerging from the destruction that lay in the wake of the early AIDS crisis, household names began to come out publicly. With increased dialogue came further acceptance and with further acceptance came a new social expectation of, at least the idea, of queer inclusion.
Read: I Miss Being Visibly Queer at Pride
In general, increased social pressure to expect inclusion and celebration is a good thing, but the negative impacts of said expectations can be the performance thereof i.e. virtue signaling.
As Pride became more socially acceptable businesses began to notice an untapped market building. Could these advocates and protesters also be buyers? If they painted a rainbow on a product would it then become a fashionable accessory for attendees?
Megan Smith, co-Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Spectrum South, explains, “Rainbow Capitalism [is] businesses and brands finally recognizing the power of the gay—and more recently, LGBTQ+—dollar and intentionally targeting queer consumers in their marketing efforts to harness our purchasing power and, in turn, profiting off of our community. Rainbow Capitalism has evolved exponentially in the last five to ten years, particularly since the legalization of marriage equality.
“Rainbow Capitalism [is] businesses and brands finally recognizing the power of the gay—and more recently, LGBTQ+—dollar and intentionally targeting queer consumers."
Smith continues: "Business strategy most often mirrors public opinion and, until the last decade or so, LGBTQ+ identity was not accepted by most people. Additionally, with the exception of a few companies (like Subaru marketing to lesbians in the '90s), most businesses did not see the LGBTQ+ community as a viable market or recognize our purchasing power.
Now, with the legalization of marriage equality, the increase in societal acceptance of queer identity, and with Gen Z being the queerest generation to ever exist (with 15% identifying as LGBTQ+ according to a recent Gallup poll), businesses are recognizing the need to capture this consumer base.”
Pride organizers now had to fund bigger and better events for those who wanted a party instead of a protest. Price-point-exclusionary access to performances, comfort (such as air conditioning and shade), along with food and drink became the norm. Funding was funneled into making Pride a better experience for those with financial privilege while outright ignoring accessibility for community members of color and those with disabilities. Ask the organizers about spending on getting banks as sponsors? Great idea. Spending on sign language interpreters and BIPOC speakers, not feasible, they say.
Smith agrees, “There are numerous problems with Rainbow Capitalism, but personally, the issue I find most problematic is that businesses tend to only see part of the LGBTQ+ community as a viable market. A household of two white, gay males is, in general, going to have more disposable income than two lesbians, a single bisexual person, or a trans couple. Therefore, businesses tend to market predominantly to the 'G' in LGBTQ+. Due to lack of education, some identities, like non-binary people, asexual folks, or BIPOC community members, get left out altogether. There's also the problem of brands slapping a rainbow on their product for one month out of the year and calling it "support" for our community. Is a portion of that product's sales actually going back to our community? Often not.”
Not all visible allyship is a bad thing, however. Having small and large businesses demonstrate their support for queer people can be an impactful step towards equality- but equity has to come first.
If companies want to put a rainbow on a product then they need to make LGBTQ rights central to their policies and practices. Instead of sponsoring Pride and selling their products, they could use the opportunity to simply give to Pride and make sure that any Pride-themed merchandise/products/services gave the proceeds back to local queer-run organizations.
Organizations that are for us and by us should be offered free tabling and advertising space at Pride events and be the only organizations allowed to march in parades, alongside other community members.
Megan shares her vision for the future, “As a queer business owner, I love to see brands that genuinely want to give back to our community! However, I think it's important for businesses to be transparent and consistent with their support. I would love to see businesses donating a portion of their sales to LGBTQ+ non-profits all year round, sponsoring our community events, and giving scholarships to queer students, among other things. If you want us to show up for your product or service, you have to truly show up for us.”
It is long past time to reclaim Pride for what it is- a protest and activism launching point. We welcome individuals and organizations that live their allyship actively but Pride isn’t for sale and it is time to stand by that.
Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them or she/her) is an internationally recognized consultant, survivor, researcher, seminarian, and author of the book Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Dr. McGuire is a certified full-spectrum doula, professional teacher, a certified sexual health educator, and a vinyasa yoga instructor. Their experience includes both public and private sectors, middle schools, high schools, and university settings.
They currently are earning their Masters of Divinity at Earlham Seminary where they are studying the intersections of Judaism, trauma-informed care, and restorative-justice in faith settings. Dr. McGuire lives in the United States, where they work as an adjunct professor at Widener University and consultant at The National Center for Equity and Agency.