Rainbow Capitalism During Pride Month

Even if you’re straight, you probably know that June is Pride Month. Rainbow products are everywhere in stores and Facebook events for Pride are popping up on a daily basis. But one of the biggest reasons Pride is so well-known is because of a little thing called rainbow capitalism.

A fabulously accurate meme from Twitter. Original creator unknown .

A fabulously accurate meme from Twitter. Original creator unknown.

Rainbow capitalism, also called pink capitalism, is when businesses and brands create products with rainbow packaging or the specifically incorporate queerness into their marketing (like changing their logo to rainbow-colored in June) in order to capitalize off queer people and leverage their purchasing power. It has become extremely popular over the last few years since the United States legalized gay marriage to jump on the trend of allyship, but is really only seen in May and June around Pride celebrations. It’s like when you walk into Target the day after Halloween and Christmas stuff is already up.

Rainbow capitalism thrives because we do live in a capitalist society, as well as a society that is increasingly interested in social justice. Consumers like to show they care by sporting t-shirts, stickers and other merchandise that proclaim their values for all to see. While on the surface, the United States seems to be a more accepting place for queer people, the most palatable version of queerness in our country is a cisgender, white gay man.

But every June, when companies change their profile pictures to a rainbow version of their logo, stores bring out all their t-shirts perfectly created to wear to a Pride parade, and vodka companies slap a rainbow on their bottle labels, greed is masquerading as allyship.

A lot of brands that sell rainbow Pride merch do not donate to queer organizations, and only show their support for the community when it’s Pride season. If you want queer merch in a time like October, the people who are selling it year-round are the artists on Etsy, Society6, and more who are actually queer.

Queer fashion blogger Brianne Huntsman recently did a roundup of shirts that plus-sized people can wear to Pride, and she could only find two designs that supported a queer organization with their profits. One of the brands, Asos, does donate a full 100% of profits from this shirt to GLAAD. However, many companies either don’t publicize the amount (if any) they donate to queer organizations when selling LGBTQ+ merchandise. Primark recently sold queer merchandise in Northern Ireland for Pride celebrations, but only 20% of their sales to queer organizations and kept the other 80%. And for a store where the clothing is extremely cheap (and poorly made), that’s not much.

That’s another issue with Pride merch: donating “a portion of sales” from an item could be 50 cents, but still give a brand the ability to say it is donating to a queer organization. And for almost all of these brands, the only time they are donating some of millions of dollars they make is in June, when it’s Pride time. They are only walking the walk when it’s relevant to market trends they can capitalize on, and the rest of the year, they aren’t doing a thing, aside from maybe a few social media posts on days that have trending hashtags.

This is how capitalism works, it’s not news. But it’s especially frustrating to see during Pride, a celebration that originated during the Stonewall Riots. Pride was started by activists who were protesting the police, and most of the activists were people of color and/or transgender. The first Pride parade was planned by a bisexual woman, Brenda Howard, on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 1970 in New York City. Queer allyship was not a popular position to hold at that time - and wouldn’t be until decades later, after the country ignored the AIDS epidemic and hundreds of thousands of queer people died because of it.

June was officially acknowledged as Pride Month in 1999, when President Clinton issued a proclamation that June was Gay and Lesbian Pride Month. George W. Bush did not continue that tradition (shocker). Barack Obama declared June LGBT Pride Month for all eight years of his administration, and also opened a Stonewall National Monument on June 24, 2016 in the area around where Stonewall Inn once stood. It was the first LGBT national park site in the United States.

That’s my brief USA Gay History 101. There’s so much more to discuss when it comes to Pride and how it grew, but right now, Pride feels like it’s mostly about capitalism and straight allies who want to party and aren’t actual allies year-round, just like the brands I mentioned. I can guarantee you that no straight cis girls looking to wear rainbow tutus and get drunk in a park were showing up to Pride demonstrations in 1985. Until the 20-teens, going to a protest was only something you did when you were directly impacted by an issue in day-to-day life, not a Instagram-worthy moment and a chance to flex your sign-making skills.

Want to know how to be the right kind of ally during Pride and not feed into rainbow capitalism? Here are some ways to do that:

  • Ask yourself the best way to show you’re an ally. Is it buying a rainbow tank top and going to Pride, or is it donating to an organization like The Trevor Project? And also ask yourself, “Is this celebration for me?” If you’re not a member of the LGBTQ+ community or going with someone who is to support them, maybe you should skip it.

  • Matador Network has a great article on things straight allies need to understand before going to Pride, so definitely read that. I also wrote a post on Medium about the questions straight people need to ask themselves before going to Pride events.

  • Look into the companies you’re supporting and see what their track record is on LGBTQ+ issues. Do they donate? What are their workplace policies at a corporate level? What are their other ethics? This is not just for Pride, but year-round. Yes, I am judging you for still going to Chik-Fil-A. You can get better fried chicken in so many other places that don’t call being bigoted a “higher calling.” The power of purchasing is one of the strongest powers the average American can wield.

  • Ask your queer friends how they feel and what they would like to see from you as an ally. Listen to them and defer to them, because they are members of the community you want to support. They know best.

  • Tell companies that they need to be more inclusive. If a brand posts a shirt on Instagram for Pride and doesn’t mention donating to a queer organization, comment on the photo and ask. Don’t let people get away with rainbow capitalism, call them out!

  • Don’t go to gay bars during Pride. Just don’t. They are some of the few places for queer people to be safe, and, to be frank, straight cis people are not wanted. As Matador Network mentioned in the above article, “Pride should first and foremost be a safe space for LGBT people.”

A lot of websites have already done great roundups of Pride merch that gives back, like this one from Mic and this one from Nylon. A great barometer I go by is donation amount - if it’s a major brand and the donation is less than 50%, it’s not enough. Like Disney, who is only donating 10% of their Pride collection. You are Disney, you have more money than anyone ever needs. 10% is nothing compared to the wealth your company has. /end_rant

Some Pride displays at a Target in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Photos by    @punkrockzo on Twitter.

Some Pride displays at a Target in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Photos by @punkrockzo on Twitter.

Another barometer that matters to me is brand ethics. Target is donating to GLSEN this month, which is awesome, but I’d bet your bottom dollar that the Pride shirts its selling are made in sweatshops or factories where the workers have minimal rights and abysmal pay. The CEO of Urban Outfitters (and Anthropologie and Free People) has donated to anti-gay politicians, and the company is known for ripping off small artists.

On the other hand, there are brands like Kenneth Cole, which has been supporting AIDS research for decades. The brand’s current Pride collection is donating profits to the United Nations Foundation in support of UN Free & Equal, which is a global program of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to promote the fair treatment and equal rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

Capitalism is complicated and we can never be perfect with our actions. But we can try and we can educate ourselves, and that’s all I’m asking when it comes to Pride merch.