How Pride And Big Business Should Work Together

The role of brands and corporate interests in the LGBTQIA+ movement is a divisive ongoing debate, but here's a suggestion on how to ‘do business’ with business without selling out.
Tristan Fewings via Getty Images

Alarming as it may be, it’s now June! Where did the first five months of the year go? However, as if to mitigate the trauma of being almost half-way through 2019, June also brings with it that annual celebration of all things diverse and optimistic; that’s right, it’s Pride season again!

The arrival of the month of the year now allocated (in a rather odd societal trait about which you’ll have to ask a sociologist for an explanation) for celebrating all things LGBTQIA+ brings with it joy, positivity, and some kick-ass parties but it also comes with some difficult and unresolved issues.

One such topic which continues to cause division in LGBTQIA+ circles is the extent to which big brands, business, and corporate interests belong in the movement and what role, if any, they ought to play. The divide caused by this ongoing debate, like many in modern culture, is deep and shows little sign of healing any time soon.

On one side, more radical and left-leaning activists have accused brands such as Primark, Nike, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola of attempting to ‘pinkwash’ their record of silence in the past and of naked and hypocritical profiteering now that the LGBTQIA+ Pride movement has gained enough mass, momentum, and power to be a viable outlet for advertising, branding, and positive PR. ‘Where were you when we needed you?’, these activists quite rightly ask.

This argument is both emotionally appealing and carries some significant weight. In particular, it is impossible to not be moved when the militant wing of what used to be called the gay liberation movement points out that the freedoms enjoyed by so many today were not gifted from corporate or mainstream political interests but were won through riots, spearheaded by trans women of colour, like Marsha P. Johnson, and countless others who were unable to hide themselves away as others had the luxury of doing, throwing bricks and turning over police cars. “The first pride”, they helpfully remind us all, “was a riot”.

However, the worlds of 1969 which saw the riots at Stonewall and of 1970 which saw the original protest march are vastly different to the world of 2019.

So much progress has been made in the fight for equality and the mechanisms through which that fight can be continued and won are dramatically different. Put simply, the dominance of brands, commerce, advertising, social media, combined with a general tilt towards materialism in 2019 means that the tactics needed for any movement to succeed need to stay current and must include, as dirty as it may sound, ‘doing business’ with business.

After all, it doesn’t matter in practical terms if you view the acquisition of power as an end in itself or as a means to an end (that is a moral debate for another blog post); what will maintain the upward swing in the quality of day-to-day life for LGBTQIA+ people is having both hands firmly on the generator of power and, in our society, that means big business and powerful brands.

However, do not imagine for a minute that I advocate simply allowing corporate giants to use the rainbow flag and LGBQIA+ symbols and slogans (and gain the massive PR boost they come with thanks to the advocates who went before) with impunity or without obligation.

For a mutually beneficial relationship to work, what is needed is a concrete understanding that any firm that gives to anti-gay causes, treats trans employees poorly, endorses politicians with poor records on liberation, or commits any other infraction, no matter how small, loses its support and can never win it back – it needs to be a strict one chance system with big penalties for even the simplest transgression.

However, if this policy, implemented and enforced by the LGBTQIA+ community exclusively, is followed then the potential benefits, both for sexual and gender minorities in terms of visibility and for compliant businesses in terms of goodwill, of partnership are huge.

There are those in the community who will understandably baulk at this suggestion. That’s fine and admirable to an extent – impossibly high standards are, of course, still standards – and they will accuse those who agree with me of ‘selling-out’ or betraying the movement; as mentioned above, the divide may be unbridgeable.

However, I would ask them to consider the impact on an LGBTQIA+ teen of buying a coffee or a burger in June and seeing its wrapper covered in rainbow print and, smiling, thinking to themselves that they belong in public; distinct in their own right, part of a loving family of identities, and very much a valued part of the wider world. To me, that’s real power and would be the 2019 way of honouring those bricks thrown by those brave and wonderful individuals in 1969.