Pride and Profit?
by Mary Provencal-Fogarty
This piece was originally written in early May. Upon review, it is still being published, because we believe it’s commentary is still relevant and powerful.
As May turned to June, it’s likely that the feed on your social media accounts shifted as people around the country celebrated Pride Month. Members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies honor the history of LGBTQ+ rights, and addressed the issues that have yet to be solved. Celebrations usually culminate in a Pride Parade through nearly every large city in the US. In the past few years, however, the face of Pride has shifted to be far more commercial. Every brand from Colgate to Vans seems to release some new Pride-related product, or unveil a tagline for the month. Pride marches themselves have grown tremendously, and in large part thanks to corporate sponsors like T.D. Bank and Budweiser. This shift has been met by many different reactions within the LGBTQ+ community because it begs the question of the meaning of Pride now that the celebrations are primarily funded by corporations. Is it a sign of success, or are LGBTQ+ communities being taken advantage of?
The many nuances of the situation certainly make it a hard question to answer. On the one hand, Pride has been able to grow tremendously because of the influx of money from corporations. These parades are only getting more expensive—as they grow in size, they must also allocate more resources to security, sound systems, post-Pride events like concerts and parties, and more. Additionally, companies would not invest in Pride without a guarantee of making a profit. As the LGBTQ+ community grows, so does the nationwide pressure to support LGBTQ+ issues. This situation has created a reliable consumer base that is excited to buy from companies showing their support, nullifying whatever opposition they meet throughout the country. Thus, both logistically and symbolically in their mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ+ issues, corporate sponsors can represent a very positive step forward for Pride and the LGBTQ+ community in general.
However, while this type of support can be interpreted as proof that queer communities have “made it,” it is also important to acknowledge that this representation comes only when there is little risk involved. When (and where) LGBTQ+ issues are controversial, companies are mostly quiet. What this communicates to LGBTQ+ communities is that corporation support is conditional. So while we may celebrate the growth made possible by these companies, they certainly don’t deserve applause for doing anything brave. Moreover, cherry-picking when and where to express support permits companies to make money off of a glittery rainbow narrative that unfortunately leaves many behind. It commodifies queerness at the expense of both legitimate change and those who are most underrepresented in society and LGBTQ+ media, whether because of their income, race, or religion. Where support is most directly needed is where it is most controversial, and where it is most often absent. Thus, when companies wait to cash in on LGBTQ+ issues until it is mainstream and acceptable, activists are usually not amused.
One could make the argument that when companies use Pride as a venue for advertisements, it undermines the purpose of the celebration. Pride is celebrated in June to commemorate the Stonewall Riot, a protest that took place in 1969 when police raided a gay club in New York City. It catalyzes on gay rights in the United States, and the annual Pride events that followed honor the LGBTQ+ community’s radical roots. Pride is intended to be a protest, yet now is often celebrated as day parade or a street fair. Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating LGBTQ+ achievements and Pride. Queer people deserve a space to have fun and enjoy themselves. However, it is important that we do not let surface-level excitements distract us from the steps that still have to be taken to advance the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
Luckily, some cities are learning how to navigate this somewhat tricky issue. For example, New York City Pride organizers filter potential sponsors by considering their rating by the Human Rights Campaign,. This processes evaluates a company’s policies and reputations as they relate to LGBTQ+ issues. If a company rates low, their sponsorship is denied. This is definitely the way to go. A business with a history of LGBTQ+ discrimination certainly shouldn’t be allowed to profit for a month by faking support. In this way, New York City can reap the same benefits as other Pride events do for accepting sponsorships, but by doing so with clear standards.
The goal of any Pride march is to foster an environment that elevates the queer community and their issues. For this to be possible, financial contributions are becoming more and more necessary. It is an important to acknowledge this necessity, while also remembering that there is much more work to do that won’t be done by rainbow-decorated ad campaigns. Instead, as history demonstrates, the future we want will be achieved through more people-centered, grassroots movements that confront controversy.