It’s Not All Rainbows: LGBTQ+ Brand Allyship

As companies wrap up another Pride season by parking their parade floats away and reverting their social media logos back to their regular-scheduled branding, it is important to remind ourselves that Pride month did not start as a corporate feeding ground. Pride bears deep grassroots activism history so, naturally, many LGBTQ+ folk feel a lot of anger and scepticism towards shallow corporate Pride participation. In fact, many cities are now organizing independent, non-corporate marches such as Queer Liberation March or Alternative Pride to remind paraders that Pride is about more than just parties and rainbow t-shirts.

History of Pride Month

Pride Month was born out of a series of uprisings. The 1950s and 1960s saw the Los Angeles Cooper Do-Nuts raid, the riot at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria, and the final catalyst, the Stonewall Riots. After police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in June 1969, New York City’s LGBTQ+ community (particularly BIPOC trans & queer activists) banded together to continue those acts of resistance. They organized a march down Christopher Street to Central Park which embraced the theme ‘Gay Pride’— a strong contrast to the prevailing attitude of shame. Since then, numerous cities have proudly marched down their main streets and today we see Pride festivities being celebrated annually in June from around the world from Rio de Janeiro to Seoul.

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

Vying for that ‘pink money’

Every June, like clockwork, corporations raise their rainbow flags touting LGBTQ+ allyship. As companies raise those Pride flags, many consumers raise their eyebrows, questioning the tsunami of company statements and commitments. The act of branding a company image with rainbow colours and statements of support in order to earn consumer praise from LGBTQ+ folk — while putting in minimum effort — is known as rainbow-washing. In some cases, organisations, corporations, or governments publicly tout pro-LGBTQ+ politics as a way to distract from harmful actions toward the same LGBTQ+ communities they purport to support.

This leads to companies profiteering from LGBTQ+ products in search of getting their hands in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Why are they doing this? What’s in that pot of gold? According to LGBT Capital, the global LGBT adult community had a combined buying power of 3.9 million USD and YouGov America found that 71% of gay and lesbian individuals and 53% of bisexual people are more likely to do business with a company that is LGBT-friendly. That is a shiny new market for companies to tap into.

Brands haven’t always jumped at the chance to ask their design agency for a temporary rainbow logo. The corporate world has collectively come a long way since Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out where sponsors pulled ads from her TV show. On the surface, this sounds all well and good but cynicism is rapidly growing and while companies are vying for that ‘pink money,’ LGBTQ+ consumers and allies are just not buying it anymore. So, is your company investing into LGBTQ+ communities? Or are you just hopping on a colourful bandwagon?

On the surface, this sounds all well and good but cynicism is rapidly growing and while companies are vying for that ‘pink money,’ LGBTQ+ consumers and allies are just not buying it anymore.

Getting Caught Rainbow-Handed

Let’s examine some companies who are perpetuating ‘rainbow capitalism.’

  • In San Francisco, local Pride organizers were enraged that the event was partially funded by Google, despite the company’s refusal to tackle homophobic harassment on its YouTube platform.
  • On June 1 2018, AT&T announced that it will donate $1 million to The Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth, which is awesome! But what they failed to mention is they donated $2,755,000 to 193 politicians with anti-gay stances between 2017–2018.
  • UEFA had a chaotic Pride month, to say the least. They broadcasted — from their Pride flag draped Twitter profile — that football is “everyone’s game.” However, UEFA officials then launched an investigation into German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for wearing a rainbow armband during one of their games. That was met with an outpour of public criticism and UEFA finally accepted the armband, on the terms that it is a symbol of diversity and a ‘good cause’, not a political one. Later, they refused a request from the Mayor of Munich to light up the Allianz Stadium in rainbow colours for Germany’s match against Hungary stating that it was too political considering Hungary’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues.
  • Bud Light also hopped on the bandwagon and made a rainbow-coloured bottle to celebrate price. However, The Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of the US gay rights movement, poured drinks made by Anheuser-Busch such as Bud Light down the drain after discovering they made corporate donations to conservative lawmakers who have backed bills targeting transgender rights.

… Unfortunately, the list goes on.

Image Credit: AdWeek / Anheuser-Busch Bev

More harm than good

Behind the online facade of rainbow flags, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is exploding around the world. In the U.S. an estimated 250 anti-LGBTQ+ state legislative bills have been proposed since the start of 2021, and at least 17 bills have been signed into law. Hungary passed a law last month that limits the teaching of homosexuality and transgender issues in schools. Georgian capital, Tbilisi's March for Dignity event was forced to cancel after an anti-LGBTQ+ mob violently attacked protestors. Oftentimes, in the sea of rainbow flags and dance parties, our society forgets that there is still a lot of work to be done to advance LGBTQ+ rights.

Below are five reasons why rainbow-washing does much more harm than good:

  1. Harmful because it can be intentionally distracting; a way to acknowledge that the ethical thing to do these days is support queer people without actually giving any tangible support. Rainbow-washed campaigns and products can also detract from actual queer creatives and entrepreneurs.
  2. Harmful because companies (and governments) can assume that ‘support’ equals a one-time statement or post, or an annual month-long logo change, without extending that support over time or across the entire company practices
  3. Harmful because it gives the false notion that all queer people care about is ‘messages of support’ or ‘being seen’. Visibility politics often does not go far enough to enact/help enact actual structural/tangible change. Companies jumping on this bandwagon tend to water down the importance of support for queer people, and the reality of the amount of violence and discrimination that is faced by queer people everyday
  4. Harmful because LGBTQ+ can be lumped together as an all-encompassing identity category, when oftentimes many of the plights faced by people in these communities are incredibly different: Companies are often safe spaces for gay cisgender white men, but racism, sexism and transphobia still permeate the work culture and the general orientation of the company. Black trans women/trans women of colour face heightened amounts of violence, and ‘pro-LGBTQ+’ statements often don’t get at the root social cause of this issue, or do much in the way of helping it whatsoever
  5. It is especially harmful when profiteering to profiteer because queerness becomes ‘okay’ only under the framework of capitalist consumption and accumulation of corporate wealth: it gives the impression that the most ‘important’ kind of queer people are queer people with money to buy these products, and that money is the only way to ‘support’ this cause.

How can we can do better?

How do queer folk want you to engage? How can companies avoid cosplaying support and truly advance LGBTQ+ equality? Here are some ideas to start:

Understand where your company stands as an ally

  • You can see more info on The Human Rights Campaign and see how different companies score on the Corporate Equality Index. This metric scores companies on their LGBTQ policies like workplace protections, inclusive benefits and corporate social responsibility.

Stop equating social media posts with meaningful action

  • Take a long hard look at your company structure and understand where you may be undermining the rights of the queer community.
  • Make sure that the statements and commitments you make create an impact beyond your feed and explain how you are measuring that impact. Hold yourself accountable!

Create safe spaces and opportunities for your LGBTQ+ staff

  • Reconsider your benefits packages and include benefits specifically for queer folk. Look at Folx for example.
  • Facilitate discussions how you as a business leader can create safer spaces for folks, beyond having gender-neutral bathrooms.

Look into your hiring practices

  • Do you have a non-discrimination statement? Are you posting on job sites that are more inclusive? How are you attracting and retaining queer talent?

Analyse what politics and legislation you are supporting

  • When you make a corporate donation to a politician, ask yourself what their policies are and where they stand on LGBTQ+ issues.

Because brand allyship needs to be for the people, not the profit.

The protestors who marched down Christopher Street in June 1970 didn’T march to see a rainbow LinkedIn banner or multi-coloured packaging, they protested to see an advancement of LGBTQ+ rights. Although many companies have genuinely helped grassroots LGBTQ+ organizations flourish, we still witness a storm of companies getting caught rainbow-handed every month in June. So, before you prepare a colourful marketing campaign for next year’s Pride, think about your internal policies and have those conversations with your employees and stakeholders. Because brand allyship needs to be for the people, not the profit.

Have thoughts or questions? We don’t have to end the conversation here! Join our Business of Purpose community and engage in these types of conversations daily.

Written by Izzy Ahrbeck and Elliott Tilleczek. Edited by Erick Smet.

Elliott Tilleczek (they/them) is a Phd candidate at the University of Toronto, in the Anthropology and Sexual Diversity Studies departments. Their research asks questions about queer activism as it operates across social media platforms. Elliott’s academic project informs their artistic practice as a portrait photographer and their podcast work with Toronto’s Do You Queer What I Queer?

Further reading:

The Complete History of Pride

Pride History and Photos

Rainbow Washing Is A Thing, Here’s Why It Needs To Stop

The Pride Flag Has a Representation Problem — The Atlantic