A hand holding a loudhailer sending out all the colours of the Pride flags
Opinion

Have brands learned their lesson about Pride (or do they just not want to be told off on Twitter)?

The usual “put rainbows on everything” approach from brands feels quite absent from Pride this year. Sophie Wilkinson asks whether this means they’re learning, or is it something more sinister?

I miss the LGBT. No, not the community; rather, the M&S lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato sandwich. Launched in June 2019, it was like a fresher, less salty BLT, incredibly easy to gulp down on the go. Harder to swallow, though, is that this, the symbolic apex of corporate piggybacking of Pride, a perfect demonstration of how far brands had gone in their quest for the pink pound, was only around for a month. Even though – as I’m rudely reminded every cold, dark mid-February when my toes freeze to the bone – LGBTQ+ people exist all year round.

Pride is meant to commemorate the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Starting on 28 June and lasting for five nights, LGBTQ+ New Yorkers stood up to the police, who had made a habit of raiding gay bars and arresting punters. The uprising became a launchpad for America’s gay rights movement. Now, lucky us, LGBTQ+ people are a defined and targeted market for advertisers, with legions of friends and allies desperate to flag their support. Brands see our potential buying power (we don’t typically tend to have children, and the white gay men among us don’t always do too badly, income-wise) and want a slice.

meme

So, each June we’re usually faced with all-rainbow-everything: bagels, sequin pants, cocktails, logos, drag brunches for hen parties and face glitter crayons for people who otherwise claim to be adults. A meme sums it up: behind a terrified man is a whizzing tornado, brimming with shoddily copy-pasted logos of all the brands to have rainbow-ed their logos in time for Pride. However, while homophobes see this meme as symbolic of the LGBTQ+ community pushing a so-called agenda, we’ve long grown tired of the monetisation of our identities.

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Promoting LGBTQ+ visibility isn’t always unhelpful. A little rainbow flag dangling out of a pub or bar helps signal it as a safe space. As a lesbian, it’s comforting to know there are places where I can – mostly – be free to be me without homophobic remarks or aggressive leers. But this year, visibility is low, with Pride tie-ins feeling thin on the ground. Sure, I’ve been overtaken by a rainbow Zipcar and I’ve been encouraged, just yards from an 11th century castle, to take up a photo opportunity on a wooden swing adorned with rainbow balloons. But apart from these and a few rainbow logos, the Pride month tornado is now just a light breeze.

What’s changed? Perhaps brands have realised that the cynicism of these tokenistic gestures is almost as blatant as the garishness of the rainbow. After all, what’s the point in flying the flag if, in practical terms, all it means is big banks’ underpaid call centre workers trying to upsell me rotten schemes won’t automatically call me “sir” when they hear my deep voice? What use is a double-decker bus wrapped in a giant rainbow logo if nothing is being done to ensure the safety of its LGBTQ+ passengers?

It could be that these brands are wising up to the fact they’ve never done enough for a community that they’re asking a lot from – not only do they want our money, they also want our social activism! Or perhaps it’s just not worth the hassle of getting called out in articles like this for getting it wrong. Though rainbow flags, correctly applied, can help make me feel acknowledged and accepted, I’ve never been convinced that ephemeral tat is going to encourage homophobes to like me. Because brands can tell me they’re making my life as a lesbian that much easier with these symbols or they can put their money where their mouth is

And sadly, that’s the thing truly missing this year. At least when brands were aiming for our pockets, they gave a little bit to LGBTQ+ services and charities too. That M&S sandwich raised £15,000!

You see, though it’s illegal to discriminate  against LGBTQ+ people at work, it still happens. While it’s illegal to commit hate crimes, hate crimes against the community are rising. It’s not legal to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in the NHS, yet bizarre rules mean that lesbian couples, despite tending to have two wombs between them, have to leap more hurdles than straight female peers to gain access to IVF treatment. 

While the government has promised to ban conversion therapy, it needs to adequately explain why it won’t extend this to trans conversion therapy. It also needs to ensure trans people’s health and wellbeing is improved while also doing a hell of a lot more to support women who still suffer in a sexist society. Social media companies, which profit from the engagement generated by every argument and trolling session, see those showing nuance and tolerance silenced in favour of unbridled mud-slinging and pile-ons. Rather than just popping a flag into marketing material for four weeks and watching the fight commence, Big Tech could do well to apply its smarts to calming what has become a festering pit.

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Because really, what’s the purpose of a flag made for and by people, when those waving it with the most gusto are often corporations that are willing to treat a hefty branch of human rights as little more than a marketing opportunity? During a cost of living crisis that will certainly see LGBTQ+ Britons affected in unique ways – a quarter of homeless youth are LGBTQ+; LGBTQ+ people can generally expect to earn less than their straight, childless counterparts – maybe the solution is to cut out the middle-man and for LGBTQ+ people and our allies to donate what we can straight to those charities and services.

We need action, not symbols. To set society on the path to true LGBTQ+ equality, attempts at achieving it need a touch more integrity than a sloppy guac sandwich.

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