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Pride rainbow merchandise is everywhere, but who gets the pot of gold?

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Lillian Suwanrumpha/Getty</span>
Photograph: Lillian Suwanrumpha/Getty

From Listerine mouthwash to Victoria Beckham T-shirts, every June sees a growing number of brands launch rainbow-themed merchandise to celebrate Pride month.

This year, celebrations and parades across the world have moved online to Zoom, TikTok and YouTube. But criticism for “rainbow capitalism”, in which corporations are accused of profiting socially and financially by selling LGBTQ+-themed products, has never been louder.

“Just because a company slapped on a rainbow doesn’t mean they support the LGBTQ+ community,” tweeted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Thursday, following a surge of social media users vocally attacking brands for selling crass, rainbow-themed goods but doing little to give back to LGBTQ+ communities.

Chris Stedman, author of digital anthropology book IRL (in real life), went viral online after singling out US store Target for its “ugly as sin” attempt to bandwagon on Pride month. Speaking to the Observer, he said: “The reason this stuff often feels like such a violation to many of us is that the language these brands are slapping on to mugs emerged in spaces we built for ourselves because we weren’t welcome elsewhere.”

Often, the collections feel inauthentic and appropriated, robbing the community of their agency, he said. “Our in-group language and imagery evolved as a way for us to care for ourselves. So to have it used by brands that have little to no stake in our wellbeing feels like it cheapens and ultimately ‘defangs’ the language that we have used to empower ourselves. They think, ‘hey, we can just slap some rainbows on this and call it a day’. It’s dehumanising.”

On TikTok, critique was even blunter. “All of the major corporations only care about us two months a year. It’s straight fashion [with] rainbows on it, I’ll pass,” wrote one user, mocking rainbow-designed T-shirts featuring slogans “Come to the gay side, we have rainbows” and “I can’t even think straight” from Walmart. Another wrote: “Don’t buy any Pride stuff from a big box store. They don’t care about us except in June. They want our money. They don’t help us.”

Writer and producer Fran Tirado, who has worked on LGBTQ+ strategy at Netflix, Out and Vice, says that while advocating for queer and trans communities has become a corporate norm, it’s often just lip service. “All companies are doing it so much every June that now brands are called out when they don’t do something for Pride. Understanding that, why have corporations not really changed their strategy at all when it comes to Pride?” he said. “They’ve been doing the same thing for decades. The way companies conceive Pride campaigns is such a failure of the imagination.”

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell described the rainbow capitalism row as damaging to LGBTQ+ communities. “Sometimes it feels like a box-ticking PR exercise to make the company look good and win over LGBTQ+ consumers. It is very off-putting and damaging. Many of us feel exploited.” Speaking to the Observer, Tatchell added that if Pride merchandise is to be made, LGBTQ+ creatives should be designing it. “They know the community,” he said, “what works and what is appropriate.”

Most critics call for consistency from brands. Matthew Breen, an LGBTQ+ media and advocacy consultant, believes the integrity of a company comes to light after Pride month. “Brands view Pride as a time to change their logos to rainbows, sell merch and convey a message of inclusion and an embrace of LGBTQ+ communities and customers,” he said. “But, as queer people, we can’t turn off our LGBTQ+ status when the logos go back to normal, so it’s important we examine whether brands support us year round.”

The issues of corporate accountability in fashion came into focus following the murder of George Floyd last year. Many companies were called out for performative “black square” posts on Instagram that were not accompanied by systemic changes in the structures of their businesses. There’s a link to the expectations around Pride month.

“With issues around how fashion engages with social justice, there needs to be a much deeper engagement than an Instagram post of their Pride collection,” said Dr Ben Barry, an activist and professor of fashion, gender and sexuality at Ryerson University in Toronto. “How is that organisation changing their workplace culture to include LGBTQ+ folks in a real way?”

The question of who profits from rainbow capitalism is a sticky one. Labels such as Balenciaga, which is donating 15% from the collection to LGBTQ+ charity the Trevor Project, and Calvin Klein, which has pledged an undisclosed sum to charities, including The Trevor Project and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, have signalled some meaningful commitment. But Breen says it is too shallow: “Companies should be allocating a much larger share of profits on that Pride merchandise to LGBTQ+ causes – why not 100%? If a company puts a flag on a collection, it shouldn’t be 10% going back, it should be the whole thing going back to the community.”

Related: Original rainbow Pride flag returns to its San Francisco home after 43 years

To engage with the community sincerely and advocate for LBGTQ+ rights, say Pride supporters, there is an onus on brands to put their money where their merch is, donate to LBGTQ+ causes year round and invest in company structures to maintain equality and integrity for sexual minorities.

“It’s about a 12-month process of implementing change, not just a month,” said Barry. He believes that real change could occur with a total rethinking of what Pride month means in public spaces. “It’s reframing how we celebrate Pride, beyond a Pride collection: here’s the work we’ll do and how we will commit to system transformation.”

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