It's Officially July. Which Corporations Will Still Give a Shit About Pride?
Charlie Poulson / WNW Member
Dust off that residual glitter you’ll be finding for the next 8 months in crevices you didn’t even know existed, and treat yourself to a 24-hour disco nap—you made it through another Pride season.
Started as a riot by trans women of color and sex workers 50-years ago, Pride is now a Hot Mess Express™ corporate-sponsored event in nearly every major city across the world. Companies paint their logos rainbow across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for a month—boasting about how accepting they are and sauntering through Pride parades catapulting rainbow-logoed koozies, t-shirts, and all kinds of unnecessarily branded crap into crowds of bystanders. Then as soon as they appeared, they disappear. Complete radio silence for the other 11 months of the year.
This phenomenon of brands capitalizing on the Queer movement for the sole purpose of making money is often referred to as rainbow capitalism. Sometimes it's called pink capitalism, which stems from Pinkwashing, a term coined by Breast Cancer Action to identify companies that claimed to support women with breast cancer while profiting from their illness.1 A quick disclaimer: For this article and IRL, the term Queer is a community-accepted, all-encompassing identifier of the LGBTQ+ community and culture.
Now, I know what you're thinking. "Charlie, not all corporations do this, and visibility is important," to which I'd agree. I remember vividly the first time I ever saw transgender anything in the pride section of a major retailer and shed a few tears because I didn't think I'd live to see the day when mass appeal cared about people like me. Note, this is probably (definitely) amplified because I grew up in the Midwest and transitioned at a time when the only popular culture references of trans people I had were Rocky Horror Picture Show and Jerry Springer—so seeing even a smidgeon of myself reflected in anything mainstream was something of a pipe dream.
Some corporations are genuinely impressive at celebrating and progressing diversity. But for the most part, corporations are massively tone deaf when it comes to engaging in Pride and will continue to be so until someone comes along to help them develop a better relationship and boundaries with Queer culture. What a coincidence. I'm a queer-identifying entrepreneur and brand expert, so let's get into a more realistic and ethical approach to Pride.
First, we should connect the dots as to how we got here.
Dot 1: American Airlines saw its earnings from LGBT people rise from $20 million in 1994 to $193.5 million in 1999, after the formation of a team devoted to gay and lesbian marketing.2 Their original investment in gay and lesbian-focused marketing was $300k 3, so we don't need to do the math to see that was a smart business move. Other corporations started catching on and creating their renditions of queer-focused marketing maneuvers.
Dot 2: 7 out of 10 Millennials actively consider company values when making a purchase.4 We're not just eating avocado toast and ruining everything for you; we're thinking critically about what matters most to us and voting with our debt-filled wallets, okay?
Dot 3: In 2016, the collective buying power of the Queer community was estimated to be nearing $1 Trillion.5 Putting my data scientist hat on, I’m gonna go ahead and say that by now we’ve hit at least $1 Trillion or above in collective buying power.
OF COURSE, COMPANIES WANT A SIP OF THIS TEA FOR PRIDE.
Here's my proposal: Corporations are welcome to engage with Queer culture, as long as they respect and abide by our boundaries and rules. These boundaries are not exhaustive but serve as a starting point to a healthier relationship with culture and money.
A corporation must be self-aware of its contributions to the systemic oppression of the Queer community all year round. If their actions are harmful towards the Queer community, no matter the size, they must hire Queer folks to help them work towards healthy practices that squash and rectify the systemic oppression.
Pride is like the celebration of all the hard work put into dismantling multiple oppressive systems and putting up with political bullshit and erasure all year. You can't show up to the party and eat the cake if you had no part in baking it. Or even worse, if you actively tried to thwart the cake from being made at all and still showed up to the party as if nothing had happened — like these perfectly ranked HRC Equality Index companies that donated $1 Million or more to anti-gay politicians in the last two years.
Job security, inclusive health insurance, fair compensation, and affordable and safe housing are just a few things that a non-Queer person might take for granted. It's crucial to hire Queer folks to identify these inclusivity holes in the boat. Our identity inevitably informs our invaluable talents, which cannot be fully learned or empathized without first-hand experience.
Imagine if a bank offered financial programs that weren't predatory and uplifted Queer folks where systemic oppression puts them at a disadvantage? Imagine if a national retailer showcased Queer-owned fashion brands instead of making crap t-shirts? Imagine if literally any corporation sponsored a Queer organization or business to showcase or march at Pride WITHOUT putting the corporation's logo on anything? These are just a handful of ways the power of corporations could positively uplift the Queer community in a healthy, symbiotic relationship.
Corporations cannot exploit Queer culture for their financial gain.
Partnerships between large corporations and Queer organizations are essential for progress. Often we see corporations donating a fractional percentage of their profits to a mainstream Queer organization—which is all good intentions. But imagine, what if a global corporation gave 100% of their profit on a particular Pride product to a lesser-known, local grassroots Queer organization? That money could go substantially further.
Corporations that have massive marketing budgets essentially create massive soapboxes for themselves. When Pride season comes around, instead of watching queer culture from the soapbox and trying to mimic us to fit in, corporations need to take a step down from the soapbox, hand over the microphone and let a collection of diverse and Queer voices step up on the soapbox and speak—and then fairly compensate them for their time, experience, and stories. As the wise Uncle Ben once said, “With great power, there must also come—great responsibility!”
Corporations must recognize that the power imbalance between corporations and Queer culture is real, and that the shortage of Queer talent worth hiring is a flagrant misconception.
When I tell folks that I intentionally curate Queer creative teams for our projects at Americano, I always get confused looks of disbelief. “What? Do they exist? But are they any good?” This last question always blows my mind and sets me off into straight-on dad mode to fire off all of the amazing talented Queers that make higher quality products than the equivalent big name brands. I’m here to tell you, yes we exist—we always have, and yes, we’re damn good.
Part of knowing how to ethically engage with Queer culture as a brand is recognizing that the power imbalance between corporations and Queer culture stems from a rooted misconception that Queer talent either doesn’t exist or isn’t good enough.
A fair and healthy supply chain is vital all year round—who are you inviting into the room to pitch? If there isn't much diversity in the meeting rooms, who can you invite to the table? Not to uphold the stereotype that all Queer people know each other, but we are very well-connected, and for good reasons. The name of the game for Queer culture for centuries has always been survival, which is a skill; therefore, we're all connected by nominal degrees of separation whether we realize it or not. If you're looking for a queer-centric team for something outside of my expertise, you can reach out to me, and I'll personally help your search. I’m tired of the Queer culture we’ve created through centuries of oppression being exploited. I want my Queer community to be hired and given the platforms their talents so deserve. "I couldn't find someone" is no longer an excuse to be selectively empathetic in 2019. We're here, queer, and ready to work.
2 Arndt, Michael (24 May 2000). "United Tries for Gay-Friendly Skies". BusinessWeek.
Charlie Poulson is a graphic designer and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. He’s the Founder & Director of Design at Americano.