June. Colourful, exuberant, prideful June. In the weeks leading up to the sixth month of the Roman Calendar, which has now gained notoriety as Pride Month, we all begin receiving notifications for competitions, gatherings and rainbow palette products. From fashion and apparel to articles and meet and greets, suddenly everything lights up in hues. This isn’t without good reason, for it is significant of the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. Pride month was originally conceptualized to bring the issues of the Queer community to the forefront in a cis-heteronormative world and raise awareness for the same. As the fight for decriminalization, destigmatization and rights for gay marriage (same-sex relationships are still criminalised in more than 70 nations) is still going on in many parts of the world, the pride month is a surreal reminder of how far we have come and how long a way left to go (in more than half of the world’s countries LGBT people are not protected against workplace discrimination). But if one were completely unaware of current discourse, simply looking at the advertisements and targeted campaigns would be enough to make one believe that we live in a world completely ridden free of trans and homophobia.
This debate is exactly what forms the premise of the pros and cons of Rainbow Capitalism. Rainbow capitalism, also known as pinkwashing refers to the prevalence of pride merch, tourism and fashion brands, specifically in the Pride Month of June when rainbows are seen everywhere with taglines speaking of “love is love”, “out and proud” and many more advertising campaigns everywhere. This prompts the question: is this support genuine, or simply just another consumer campaign? As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos writes, does “brand support for LGBTQ issues have any real impact, or is it just, well, branding?”
On one hand, the practice of showcasing pride symbols by companies and media is a positive step as it fills the dire gap of positive Queer representation. It makes many feel validated and can be instrumental in starting conversations around gender and sexuality and combating the taboo at its core. The efforts of queer students and allies around the world are given the limelight when acknowledged by institutions of eminence. The national and international reach of MNCs accords to the issue, the attention it rightly deserves.
Simultaneously, questions are raised about the real reason that corporate institutions are engaging in allyship. Are they well-wishing allies or are they merely fiscally motivated? Would they still continue with these campaigns if it did not bring about any monetary gains? With pride parades, queer reels and the evolution of queer fashion, are corporate institutions furthering the cause by putting up rainbow banners or is it a mere stint? If they are truly committed to the cause, are they only pandering to the queer and woke sections of society by hoisting vibgyor flags or are they putting in real effort to prevent the marginalisation of LGBTQ+ folks by going beyond what the law compels them to do in creating safe workspaces for them, where they are not only included but can also flourish?
For those still in the closet and facing discrimination from family and peers alike, seeing a rainbow flag, a queer character or any other symbol makes a world of difference. To those questioning their sexuality and gender identity, seeing people who are out and proud in positions of power gives them the strength they need to come out and the assurance that there is a niche even for them in society. With queer characters getting positive representation and not just being used for ridicule, people who aren’t a part of the community are also becoming allies. For many in the queer community, the way they dress is indicative of their personality and an expression of their identity. Many celebrities (case in point, Harry Styles) have posed in gender-fluid clothing to deviate from and discourage gender norms. In this way, the activism of Pride also intersects with the larger gamut of issues surrounding gender and its dichotomous perception in society.
By painting all their products in rainbow hues during Pride Month, these big corporations are only targeting those queer folks and allies who are privileged enough to afford them (many queer people experience hiring discrimination in terms of employment). This excludes queer people who may be vulnerable due to their race or caste and is akin to wokefishing because allyship isn’t allyship if it is selective to financially or socially upward classes and doesn’t take into consideration the many intersecting aspects of identity. Waving a six coloured flag isn’t aimed at bringing real change in civil society if it marginalises the most vulnerable.
Keeping all this in mind, many innovative individuals have found a middle path to visibly continue with queer activism in the public sphere without falling prey to commodification and homocapitalism. This is being actualised in many ways around the world, with men wearing clothing considered to be “traditionally feminine”, university students and youths starting queer collectives, crafting affordable pride merch for oneself from the available resources (whether it is sewing together leftover pieces of cloth from the tailor shop to make a rainbow flag or painting old brooches in rainbow shades), offering pro bono legal and counselling services to LGBTQ+ persons, stating one’s pronouns on social media (and even formal events) and by simply being good allies (actively challenging one’s own personal biases and social conditioning and taking a stand against bullying in schools and colleges). The debate surrounding rainbow capitalism is multifaceted thereby making it extremely difficult to reach a definite black and white conclusion. Since the fad of capitalism is here to stay, maybe we should shift our discursive focus from whether it is right or wrong to how can we make it right, if it is indeed a manifestation based solely on corrupt motivations. For it would be a grave injustice if we were to discard pride activism because of the inherent commodification of any ideology or socio-political movement in a predominantly capitalist world.
Johnston, Anna. “Wokeness as Capital”, LSE Blogs. Last modified September 3rd, 2019. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/researchingsociology/2019/09/03/wokeness-as-capital/
Abad-Santos, Alex. “How LGBTQ Pride Month became a branded holiday”, Vox.com. Last modified June 25th, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/6/25/17476850/pride-month-lgbtq-corporate-explained
Zapulla, Antonio. “The simple reason why so many businesses support LGBT rights”, World Economic Forum. Last modified January 14th, 2017. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/why-so-many-businesses-support-lgbt-rights/
Singh, Kashish. “Rainbow Capitalism: What Is It, Why Is It Problematic?”, Medium.com. Last modified August 17th, 2019. https://medium.com/@kashishsingh2002/rainbow-capitalism-what-is-it-why-is-it-problematic-6b917ce78979