Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality and the social media frenzy it wrought gave U.S. corporations a chance to show their true colors. For many of them, it was a whole rainbow’s worth.
Ever since there’s been a defined concept of a gay community, there have been companies eager to solicit its business. And unlike other demographics, like ethnic groups and age groups, which can be too diverse to pin down with one-note messaging, the gays have gifted the private sector with an easy-to-recognize symbol and a single easy-to-adopt narrative: equality.
The deluge of rainbow-adjusted logos and sponsored hashtags might seem like a win-win. Corporations positioned themselves as modern entities on the right side of history and netted free advertising as giddy social media users funneled their blissful impulses through the share button; queers got affirmation and a visibility boost from businesses with formidable political and economic clout.
But the commercialization of gay rights poses a legitimate danger to a movement that values all its members, especially those at the furthest margins who stand to gain the least from this whole marriage business. Corporations often engage in a practice known as “pinkwashing,” using progressive stances on gay issues to distract liberal-minded gays and allies from human rights offenses, anti-labor policies and actions that harm women and people of color. And despite the gay-friendly faces of these companies, some of them are actively undermining the causes they claim to support.
Target, a prominent sponsor of the 2010 Twin Cities Pride Festival, gave $150,000 to MN Forward to help elect anti-gay gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. In April, with great PR fanfare, Eli Lilly’s CEO signed a letter asking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to rescind a so-called “religious freedom” bill that permitted discrimination based on sexual orientation. Turns out, the company had previously donated more than $60,000 to the anti-gay politician’s campaigns. Mars only scored a 60 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index rubric for how fairly companies treat their gay employees, but that didn’t stop Snickers from tweeting out a photo of a rainbow-wrapped candy bar after the Supreme Court verdict last Friday.
When we accept these corporations’ professions of queer-positivity at face value without interrogating their practices, what stipulations come with it? Coors, which is owned by a family that directs its profits toward a number of right-wing candidates and causes, has also sponsored events for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Coors’ donation to the latter assures that a major mouthpiece of queer America won’t denounce the former. Drink up and shut up, gays!
It’s no wonder that companies are speaking up on the easiest, happiest gay issue, the one that can be spun in terms of love. The other injustices queers face are complicated and profoundly unsexy: In 31 states, where many of these purportedly gay-friendly companies operate, it’s still perfectly legal to fire an employee for being gay and/or transgender. In 37, property-owners can legally deny housing applications for the same reason. All over the country, transgender people are being routinely murdered, their killers getting off on the “trans panic” defense, and trans people of color have an unemployment rate up to four times that of the general population. These matters are far more essential to the survival and well being of LGBTQ people than marriage. But since they can’t be invoked by a heart-shaped strawberry floating in a bowl of cornflakes, they’re far less likely to cross the keyboard of the Kellogg’s social media manager.
Of course, I’d rather have corporations slapping rainbows on their logos and joining the celebration on my Facebook feed than actively opposing gay rights in the manner of Chick-fil-A and Barilla (which has made some steps to improve its record). And at a time when plenty of U.S. residents still believe that queer sexuality is a deviance that can and should be unlearned, it’s commendable that companies would make a public stand on the right side, forgoing potential business from anti-gay communities and favors from regressive politicians.
The danger comes when sharing these photos and tweets makes people feel like they’ve done their good deed for the day, when all they’ve done is given a multibillion-dollar corporation, whose record on gay rights might not be particularly sterling, a round of free advertising. The purpose of gay-targeted marketing is not just to sell to the gays; it’s to persuade the public that these companies are benevolent actors joining the fight for queer liberation when, in many cases, all they’ve done is dispatch a graphic designer to spend 20 minutes making a gay image for Instagram. We’re congratulating the wrong people — instead of applauding corporations for piling on to profit from an important step forward for gay rights, we should be spending our time and our retweets amplifying the stories of those people and activist groups who made it happen in the first place.
At this crucial moment, when we’ve won on the issue that so many mainstream gay organizations made their main agenda, the movement is at risk of losing its verve. For a certain class of privileged queers for whom sexuality was their only nexus of oppression, marriage was the only obstacle left on the books. Now that that’s out of the way, and the Chick-fil-As of the world are being beaten back by a quick-changing tide of public opinion, they might not see anything left to fight for. Rather than demanding more and better from business leaders with each victory, some queers and straight allies will become content adding ever more companies to the list of those that support — often through rhetoric rather than money — gay rights. Commercialization threatens to divert the movement’s energies from issues of real consequence, lulling us into a complacent rainbow haze, duped into thinking that we’ve achieved true equality now that Lockheed Martin’s claimed a spot in the Pride parade.
The onslaught of brands getting on board with gay marriage wasn’t the first case of corporations exploiting an emotional victory over oppression for profit, and now that marriage equality is the law of the land, more businesses are bound to recognize the potential target market we offer. When #LoveWins, #LoveSells — but it’s our prerogative not to buy it.