Pride for sale
As more corporations celebrate LGBTQ people each June, pride and profit are mixed — and so are the consequences
The end of this month marks 50 years since New York police raided the Stonewall Inn gay bar, prompting patrons and LGBTQ residents to fight back in a series of riots that ultimately kicked off what was then called the gay liberation movement. A year later, marches to commemorate the riots and celebrate the identities of the agitators inaugurated the annual festivities that became known as "gay pride." Half a century on, as Pride has evolved into a party-focused, heavily branded affair, the celebration sometimes seems more retail than riot. Rainbow merchandise abounds, and companies often boast the splashiest floats in the parade. For some in the community, that's a sign of mainstream acceptance. For others, it's a betrayal of the movement's radical roots. However revelers feel about the relationship, Pride celebrations and the corporations that sponsor — and profit off them — are at this point deeply intertwined, with far-reaching consequences. Five decades after New Yorkers had to fight to keep a single gay bar open, it's time to ask: What happens when Pride is for sale?
When I came out of the closet in Oklahoma in 2012, the Oklahoma City Pride Parade seemed like the pinnacle of gay culture. My first time attending that spring saw drag queens in undecorated truck beds screaming at us to get to shelter ahead of an impending tornado. Sure, it was a little rough around the edges. But it was democratic in that it was free for the entire community and the tornado was coming for us all.
Over time, however, and since moving to New York, I’ve noticed a trend: The more corporate entities enter Pride, the more expensive celebrating it becomes. That means that more people, especially those from vulnerable communities, are excluded.
Every year, debate erupts anew over the corporatization of Pride. It’s become its own tradition, in a way. That debate tends to center the battle over the soul of Pride: Should it be a protest, or a party? Should we really let a weapons manufacturer slap a rainbow over their logo and march in the parade? We question whether it’s ethical, and we wonder what the criteria ought to be for corporate allyship.
But that element of the conversation is just the rainbow veneer on the Wells Fargo float. Beneath that, the intrusion of businesses into our annual events has recontextualized what celebrating Pride means even within the community. Pride is becoming a more expensive affair across the board, and the folks who need it most are getting priced out.
In 2016, a Pride festival in Los Angeles that at first promised inclusivity for women and seniors shocked one attendee with the elimination of its free ticket option. It was revealed that a day ticket would be $35. The story is much the same for New York. This year, PrideFest VIP tickets will run you $50, though the parade is still free. NYC Pride, meanwhile, offers T-shirts at a cool $55 and a hoodie at $90. Don’t get caught without an overpriced Pride-branded beer in your hand, either! Merchandise at Pride isn’t new, necessarily, but it is the byproduct of Pride growing into a more commercial space where being nickel-and-dimed is the norm rather than the exception.
These events tell a story about where Pride is and who can and can’t go. It’s a story that seems to take as its narrative center the myth of LGBTQ affluence: The notion that LGBTQ people — and gay men specifically — have a lot of money to spend on Pride festivities.
This is true for a few gay men, but it’s a myth for most. A 2016 report from the Williams Institute noted that LGBTQ people face “a risk of being poor that is at best equal” to non-LGBTQ people and “at worst, much higher.” It’s not even true for most cisgender gay men. As The Post reported, gay men, especially gay men of color, hit a glass ceiling when it comes to upper management positions.
The statistics only get more dire the more we look at race and gender identity within the LGBTQ community. But that is perhaps the gist of the problem: Corporations, by their nature, want to make money, so they center the affluent minority of LGBTQ people, who skew white, gay and male. No matter where Pride proceeds go, and even if paid events are mostly by and for LGBTQ people, they are inherently exclusionary, and the people most in need of resources are the ones who get left at the gate.
I’ve been to a few of these parties, and I’ve enjoyed myself. But nothing has come close to the community I felt at Oklahoma City’s parade, seeking shelter together from that twister. Back then, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to attend a fancy Pride party. So as the celebration marches onward to ticketed festivities, it’s worth asking: Who can afford to be proud?
John Paul Brammer is the writer of the advice column and forthcoming book “¡Hola Papi!”
Ever since the Stonewall riots of 1969 marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, the LGBTQ community has been dynamic and rapidly evolving. And while the intervening decades have seen major legal advancements in protections of LGBTQ people and same-sex couples, the historic transformation of this community's place in society has been led not by government or politicians, but instead by corporations that have embraced and supported their own LGBTQ employees, reached out to earn business and loyalty from LGBTQ consumers and through advertising, helped normalize LGBTQ people and LGBTQ families for mass audiences.
When we launched our company, Community Marketing & Insights, in 1992, the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of Georgia’s sodomy law just six years before; 14 states had laws like these on the books in 2003, when the court reversed itself. Being gay often meant being harassed, arrested and losing jobs and family. Love between people of the same gender was often clandestine. At best, LGBTQ people might creatively omit references to their sexual orientations and gender identities. At worst, this secrecy might contribute to compromised job performance, discrimination, emotional stress and tragically, sometimes suicide. The rise of HIV and AIDS only contributed to this isolation.
While many of these challenges remain, of course, a transformation has taken place on a macro scale that had never been witnessed before in American history.
And corporations have often led the way.
The Village Voice might have been an outlier when it began offering domestic partner benefits to its employees in 1981, but by 1994, the New York Times reported that the number of such corporate programs had exploded. It would take another decade for Massachusetts to become the first state to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Today, corporate leaders are now explicitly recruiting LGBTQ employees with equal human resources protections (including sexual orientation and gender identity), targeted benefits and employee resource groups that empower their LGBTQ staff. By contrast, the current administration tries to ban transgender people from serving in the military and has argued that civil rights law does not ban discrimination against LGBTQ people.
By now, the impact of television shows such as “Ellen,” “Will and Grace” and later, “Glee,” all produced and distributed by major entertainment companies, is well known. But it’s also true that brands such as Absolut Vodka and Subaru made subtle nods to the LGBT market in the 1980s and 1990s. In subsequent years, same-sex couples were featured in bold marriage equality support messaging. And they are now seen, often as families with children, in national commercials from Target, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, Honey Maid, Campbell’s, Apple and many more. The political and societal whiplash is hard to fathom.
All the while, companies and ads such as these have better acknowledged the diversity within the LGBTQ community, beyond the stock-photo young, shirtless white men of the 1990s. Over the past two decades, CMI research has monitored changing terminology: Gay morphed into “gay and lesbian” in the late 1990s; then to GLBT, in a move to include bisexual and transgender community members that still prioritized gay men; to LGBT; and to LGBTQ and beyond.
The terminology that marketers use to address the community reflects the evolution of that acknowledgment. Especially over the past few years, CMI clients have told us that they want to expand beyond “gay” or “gay and lesbian” to fully mapping out the motivations, trends and opportunities among bisexual, transgender and gender-fluid Americans, as well as to learn more about LGBTQ African Americans, Hispanic and other sub-segments of the LGBTQ population.
This intense corporate interest in LGBTQ consumers makes sense. Our most recent LGBTQ Community Survey found that 76 percent of respondents said that companies that support LGBTQ equality will get more of their business this year. And LGBTQ consumers are exceptionally brand-loyal and influential with friends and family well beyond their inner circle.
It’s true that companies couldn’t make same-sex marriage legal, and they can’t provide protections in workplaces other than their own. The government and politicians matter. But whether out of self-interest or goodwill, corporations have often been there for LGBTQ communities first.
Thomas Roth is the founder of Community Marketing & Insights, and David Paisley is the firm’s senior research director.
As the mountains of rainbow shirts, shorts and shimmery trimmings have piled up, the message to LGBTQ communities this and every June of late is clear: We want to help you celebrate your identities — and we want you to return the favor by buying our products.
But a critical contradiction attends brands’ marketing of Pride apparel. The global garment industry is defined by exploitative labor conditions that render workers — particularly queer workers — vulnerable to abuse. For all the alleged solidarity that brands telegraph to their queer consumers, it is rarely extended to queer workers in the factories where apparel is sewn.
A recent report by the Worker Rights Consortium on its investigation of a Salvadoran factory owned by the U.S. apparel brand League Collegiate Wear details intense hostility toward queer workers, manifested in acts of public humiliation and retaliatory dismissal. Factory managers called queer workers “deviants.” Two workers perceived as LGBTQ were fired after a manager claimed to have received a “vision” that the two were disrupting production because they were “the devil.” Another worker, who is openly gay and was also discriminatorily fired, reported taunts, catcalls and at least one physical confrontation.
These stories exist throughout global apparel supply chains, where plenty of brands that carry Pride apparel benefit from worker vulnerability. Most workers endure low wages and long hours, often without protest, because the fear of retaliation limits workers’ capacity to speak up and demand better treatment. But wherever workers in general are mistreated, homophobia and transphobia further isolate queer workers and heighten their disposability, making it particularly dangerous for them to challenge exploitative conditions.
It’s a nightmarish intersection. It’s also proof that queer solidarity is labor solidarity and that there can be no real Pride without respect for the right to organize unions that protect queer workers.
With robust and independent unions, workers can collectively push back against management bigotry to protect queer workers — exceptionally vulnerable as individuals — against retaliation. Through bargaining, unions can also win benefits for queer workers, including health plans that cover gender confirmation services and access to HIV treatment.
And though not guaranteed to eliminate entrenched prejudice, the experience of organizing a union and fighting for a contract can also build solidarity among workers and develop trust across differences. The benefits of independent, LGBTQ-friendly unions extend to factories without any openly queer workers, too; unions play an important role in reducing workplace precarity, which can create the security necessary for workers to come out.
Nevertheless, brands’ demands for cheap garments and ever-quicker delivery times — such as just-in-time production of apparel for Pride month — give factory owners overwhelming incentive to quash workers’ efforts to organize. And they get away with it. U.S. brands rarely enforce their own human rights standards in their global supply chains, despite protections for union rights in their labor codes.
So before tossing the glittery rainbow tank top in your cart to wear to the next parade, try to look past the sequins. Underneath, the repression of the people it’s supposed to celebrate might be woven right in.
Vincent DeLaurentis is a program associate specializing in labor rights at the Worker Rights Consortium and a queer member of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union.
“Trans people are dying to live,” Indya Moore told a weary crowd gathered at the memorial service for Layleen Polanco on June 10. Polanco, a bright-eyed transgender woman and member of the House of Xtravaganza, a creative collective and surrogate family, was found dead in her Rikers Island cell on June 7. She was 27 years old and had been jailed for two months because she was unable to pay a $500 bail after her arrest on misdemeanor charges. (Her family has called for an investigation into her death.)
Contrast Polanco’s death with the garish rainbow decals that adorn police vehicles each June and the “pride patches” that were added to San Francisco police officers’ uniforms this year. Given the legion of companies wading into the celebration year after year, the ultimate consequence of corporatizing LGBTQ affirmation seemed inevitable: Pride itself has become a brand. It’s a powerful one — one all sorts of organizations are eager to associate themselves with. And it’s particularly disturbing to see police departments try to capitalize on that brand to boost their reputations, especially given what they do to transgender people the rest of the year.
A 2015 survey of 27,715 transgender people found that 58 percent reportedly suffered mistreatment at the hands of police — ranging from being repeatedly referred to by the wrong gender to being physically or sexually assaulted. Fifty-seven percent said that they were not comfortable approaching the police for help.
There are good reasons for this mistrust. Because transgender people are regularly pushed out of school and job opportunities by discrimination, many of them enter the criminal-justice system for poverty-related crimes such as sex work and burglary. A 2011 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force suggested that 16 percent of transgender people have been incarcerated at some point, a figure that includes 47 percent of black transgender people.
Police departments harass and “profile” transgender people under laws banning loitering and prostitution, including a New York anti-loitering bill dubbed by activists as the “Walking While Trans” ban. Activists report that police in New York state have arrested transgender women for as little as waving, “wearing a skirt” or “standing somewhere other than a bus stop or taxi stand.” A transgender activist from New York narrowly avoided arrest for “Walking While Trans” after returning from the State Capitol for a Lobby Day.
Stories such as these were the very catalyst for the Stonewall riots 50 years ago, when people including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy — transgender activists who also engaged in sex work to survive — banded together to fight the criminalization and policing of the LGBTQ community. They stood up to police officers who harassed LGBTQ people for sport, using their hands, fists and bricks.
It’s jarring enough that commemorations of this uprising have so often been turned into slick, corporate events or opportunities for brands to sell everything from vodka to T-shirts emblazoned with rainbow polo ponies. Putting LGBTQ officers forward as the face of police departments by having them march in Pride parades in uniform doesn’t actually change what their departments do to transgender people. Painting squad cars and corrections vehicles in rainbow colors, or even apologizing for the conduct of the people who raided the Stonewall Inn, while participating in the criminalization and harassment of LGBTQ communities makes a macabre spectacle out of Pride and the legacy of the Stonewall pioneers.
What LGBTQ people need on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall are safe schools, jobs, housing and the freedom to live and walk while trans. When police officers help secure these things for the transgender community, perhaps they will earn their rainbow branding.
Chinyere Ezie is a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
About this project
Editing by Drew Goins and Alyssa Rosenberg. Video by Joshua Carroll, Danielle Kunitz, Kate Woodsome and Joy Sharon Yi. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Copy editing by Lydia Rebac. Design and development by Chris Rukan.