Rainbow washing + the exploitation of the LGBTQ+ community by major corporations
15th June 2021
We live in an age of “woke culture” and virtue hustling. In order to remain relevant and maintain image, companies engage in green-washing to portray environmental responsibility, “femvertising” to show progression in women’s rights, pink-washing to raise awareness for breast cancer, among other similar stunts. Now, for the month of June, we will be inundated with rainbow flags and Pride slogans in a feeble attempt by corporations to show they are LGBTQ+ friendly.
Pride is a vibrant celebration of sexual diversity and acceptance. Marking the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the Pride festival is simultaneously a ceremony of LGBTQ+ liberation, and a push for further reform and highlight inequalities globally. Towns and cities internationally mark this month by displaying rainbow-patterned Pride flags across the streets and filling storefronts with flashy colours. But what are these displays actually doing? What are these companies doing to enact real change within minority communities?
Just like everything else that is good and pure in this world, the Pride festivities have been tarnished by corporate efforts to execute their own agenda and appeal to the huge market of consumers who support LGBTQ+-friendly businesses. Pink money – the purchasing power of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies – has an estimated value of $3.7 trillion, and these gluttonous organisations cannot afford to ignore this growing market. So, in their meagre efforts to appeal to this market, they plaster rainbow flags and cringey slogans across their existing products in an attempt to seem “woke” and socially aware.
In more cases than not, corporate Pride is only surface-level, and this façade of inclusivity and awareness has absolutely no backbone to it. A leading example of this is Gilead, which sponsors Pride parades worldwide, including in New York, LA, and even closer to home in Cork.
“Gilead is the pharmaceutical company behind Truvada for PrEP – a medication taken daily to drastically reduce the spread of HIV during sex; but while the HIV epidemic disproportionately affects men within the LGBTQ+ community, these treatments are inaccessible to many due to their extortionate prices.”
In the US, Truvada typically costs $1,600-2,000 per month for those not lucky enough to have health insurance. Although generic versions of Truvada have been on sale elsewhere in the world, up until September 2020, Gilead held a patent in the US which prevented the entry of generic brands into the market. The blatant hypocrisy of their actions (mainly their sponsorship of Pride) would be almost comical if their actions weren’t preventing people from accessing lifesaving medication.
Another offender of pitiful gestures devoid of any substance would be PINK, a division of Victoria’s Secret. During Pride Month 2019, PINK tweeted that they are “proud to celebrate our LGBTQ associates & customers that make an impact in their communities”, alongside a reimaged rainbow logo. Twitter users quickly remembered the comments made by Victoria’s Secret’s chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, surrounding their purposeful exclusion of transgender models from the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Victoria’s Secret have since hired transgender models, and Razek has also since resigned, but there is no denying the thoughtlessness of this statement.
In its defence, corporate Pride has its benefits, such as increasing visibility and giving marginalised groups a sense of welcome and belonging. This visibility is invaluable when it comes to teaching children about inclusivity – an example of this being LEGO’s “Everyone is Awesome” set, designed by Matthew Ashton, who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community himself.
Although these companies mean well in their actions, some of these weak statements do very little to help the LGBTQ+ community. There is a fundamental risk to the Pride movement if companies continue to show their support through marketing efforts, but fail to follow through on substantial actions. This kind of rainbow-pandering creates a cultural blind spot, in which we, as consumers and as human beings, are given the illusion of progress, and are led to believe that the world is a more accepting and equal place than it is in reality. Pride Month is not an annual party that corporations can cash in on. Brands should support the LGBTQ+ community authentically, legitimately, and – most importantly – all year round.