June is Pride Month, a month where those in the LGBT+ community can reflect on our history, acknowledge the achievements of our community past and present, and bring about greater change globally. It’s also a month where companies of all sorts feel the need to stick rainbow colours on their products in supposed ‘solidarity’, and show off their great allyship.
This year, Pride paraphernalia kicked off with Disney launching their new Mickey Mouse rainbow ears. Titled ‘Mickey Mouse Rainbow Love’, they came out in May and retail at $17 (USD). Nike also released their LGBT+ history themed shoes as part of their BeTrue campaign, with a portion of the sales are going to non-profits that support LGBTQIA+ athletes. Most recently, H&M have a collection of various clothing and accessories, with a percentage of the profits going to United Nations Free and Equal. 2017 Pride saw many companies from tech to sporting brands come out with varying items of clothing, accessories or even emojis, to celebrate pride. Puma’s $95 (USD) Clyde Pride sneakers “designed to represent all that you stand for”, didn’t have any percentage of the profit go to LGBTQIA+ or human rights organisations or charities. And whilst I might be signalling out Puma and Disney, don’t be mistaken into thinking countless other companies such as Gucci, and Facebook aren’t also getting in on the ‘gay trend’.
So, why is the commercialisation of Pride a problem? On the basic level, it isn’t. Many would say it’s great that businesses are showing their support for the community and LGBT+ rights. It’s the commercialisation of an event that started off as a riot and a protest of the systematic oppression and discrimination of the LGBT+ community, that I take issue with. Pride started after the Stonewall Riots on June 27th, 1969, which saw violence break out after the NYPD invaded the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village NYC. The riots lasted for several days and included activists such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. It heralded he start of the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States, and subsequently worldwide. The first Pride March occurred the following year in NYC to commemorate the one year anniversary of Stonewall, and have taken place ever since.
I acknowledge that there are companies doing great things for the LGBTQIA+ community, with certain brands giving a great portion of their proceeds from their Pride Products to LGBTQIA+ organisations. Levi’s is an example of a company that have been working with LGBTQIA+ organisations such as the Harvey Milk Foundation and Stonewall Community Foundation for years, and were the first company to give to the AIDs crisis back in 1982. Last year 100% of the proceeds from their “Fight Stigma” line went to the Harvey Milk and Stonewall Community Foundations. You also have companies such as Lush who have dedicated themselves to equality, with their 2017 Valentines Campaign #BetterTogether seeking to normalise same-gender relationships. They also brought out a line in February titled “Trans Rights are Human Rights”, with all the proceeds going to trans organisations in the United States and Canada.
Companies can be supportive of and champion LGBTQIA+ rights, this isn’t the issue. The problem arises when it starts to feel less like support and more like pandering. Disney’s ‘Mickey Mouse Rainbow Love’ ears, hits a sore spot because as a company Disney has adamantly refused to have any main LGBTQIA+ representation in its films. Disney came under fire when the news of them having a gay character in the form of Lefou from the Beauty and the Beast Live Action remake, and all that was given was a subtle, blink and you’ll miss it scene. Disney has too much profit on the line to have a main LGBTQIA+ character or relationship in their films, deciding the risk is too great. It doesn’t sit well with me that a multi-billion-dollar company will sell Pride themed hats, yet not risk putting a gay character in their films for fear of losing money.
The commercialisation of Pride doesn’t just stop at companies trying to cash in on products and broaden their advertising market for the month. The involvement of big companies and organisations in the Pride marches themselves has also grown in the last few decades. In 2016 NYC Pride made $1.7 million (USD) from sponsorship deals alone, with Walmart being one of the major sponsors for the march. Walmart, a company that has been involved in countless racial discrimination suits. London Pride 2016 was sponsored by arms dealer BAE System, and involved various stunts the Royal Air Force. The sponsorship and involvement of corporations that profit off war and human suffering caused major backlash from anti-military groups, with the slogan ‘No Pride in War’. London Pride has also had sponsors such as Starbucks, Citibank and Barclays. The police, military or any other organisation that relies on and has a history of institutional violence against the LGBTQIA+ community and other minority don’t belong at Pride.
I understand that Pride is a celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community and our history, and that Pride month should be a time to show support and commitment to LGBTQIA+ rights. But Pride is more than that, it’s about remembering those who came before, about acknowledging the activism, the dedication and the lives that have fought for equality, as well as recognising that there’s more to do. Simply going to Pride is an act of resistance regardless of where you’re from. Pride continues to highlight the very real threat many LGBTQIA+ people continue to face. Despite being nations with a history of institutionalised homophobia, Jamaica has held Pride Marches in outward acts of defiance and resistance in the face of the murder of Dexter Pottinger, the Jamaican gay activist and designer who was dubbed ‘the face of Pride’, and Ugandans have marched whilst homosexuality is still illegal despite it no longer carrying a life sentence. As such, I find it hard to be enthusiastic and supportive of products designed by companies who only seek to profit off and gain social brownie points from Pride, especially ones whose track records on equality and human rights leave a lot to be desired.
Commercialisation in any activist organisation or movement should be criticised and picked apart. The LGBTQIA+ community has always been involved and supported multiple social rights movement such as Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights, or anti-war movements. As a community, we should strive to be working with organisations and groups that are dedicated to activist movements and human rights. I’m not going to dictate how you should best celebrate Pride, it is whatever you make it. But Pride and the community has a history that we should respect and we should work on creating a present and future we can be proud of.
Libby Robbins Bevis