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Opinion This Pride Month, I’m embracing ‘rainbow capitalism’

(Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)
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Another Pride season is upon us, and with it come the hundreds of companies eager to show how supportive they are of the queer community. I walked into my local Target last week and was assaulted by all the rainbows. Rainbow shirts and jackets, books, accessories and home décor. There was rainbow pet clothing. It was a lot to take in for a man who was there to buy toilet paper and gum.

As a gay man, I’m a bit ashamed to say that I don’t remember when the whole rainbow thing got started. I don’t remember when the flag was chosen, nor do I recall when people stared displaying it as a symbol of allyship. It just appeared all of a sudden, and I was told that I’m supposed to identify with it.

I have never bought anything decorated with rainbows. My disposition doesn’t allow for it.

But Target is certainly not the only outfit to sell rainbow-colored Pride merchandise. Even giants such as J.C. Penney and Kohl’s have gotten in on the act. This leads some to take offense. I mentioned the dazzling display of Target Pride merch to a younger friend after my visit, and she rolled her eyes. “They only want our money,” she said. “They have no real interest in the queer community. I’m so tired of corporate queer-for-profit nonsense.”

And this is where she and I don’t completely agree.

My first Pride parade was back in the early 1990s, and there wasn’t a rainbow or corporate sponsor in sight. It was a rainy and miserable day in Pittsburgh, and I was terrified to participate. Up until that point, I wasn’t fully “out” and had decided to march in the parade as a first step toward becoming so. My group was small; there was no place to hide. I didn’t want to do it. And it turned out there was reason to be afraid.

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Our march took place in the downtown area on a Saturday afternoon. The people on the sidewalks were not kind. They heckled and yelled slurs. They pointed and laughed. One woman shook a Bible at me. I recall no altercations that day, but there easily could have been. People were allowed, even encouraged, to be openly hostile to queer people.

My young friend says she has no use for Pride gatherings today. “It’s overrun with straight people with their kids, and it’s basically just a joke,” she told me.

I understand what she’s saying. But my younger friend was fortunate enough to come out and immediately find community. After some difficulty, her parents have grown to accept their daughter and her partner. While fantastic for her, this is also the weakness of her argument. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.

Besides, does she not see the wave of anti-LGBTQ sentiment and lawmaking washing over the country? Right now, we should be welcoming the support of however many straight people and companies want to give it — and however they want to give it. I understand that there are some in the queer community who believe the rainbow-ification of the movement has declawed it. But it’s not a zero-sum game. For every rainbow keychain, someone is out there fighting the good fight.

In my youth, I could not have imagined a store selling merchandise celebrating what I had been led to believe was the biggest shame of my life. I wonder how a 13-year-old me would have reacted had I seen how positively normal it is to be gay — so normal that a department store is selling T-shirts about it. I wonder if those of us who marched in that parade would have held our heads up higher simply in the knowledge that we were not, as the hecklers said, sick and depraved.

I know queer people who are more “woke” will disagree. But if you never see yourself represented, you are most likely to believe what others say about you. Representation matters even if it comes in the form of a rainbow shirt on a dog. Somewhere that dog shirt is helping someone.

So, although I won’t buy rainbow merchandise, I’m glad it’s there assaulting my eyes in Target. Yes, it’s capitalism at work, and it’s soulless. But it’s there. I remember what it was like to feel totally alone. Some other kid might see it and realize they aren’t alone. And realize they are among others, many others. And that, somewhere, they can find acceptance.