Whose pride is it? Rainbow washing and corporate exploitation of LGBTQIA+ Pride

Corporates tweak and adjust brand campaigns to cater to the LGBTQIA+ community every June, during Pride Month. But where does one draw the line between authentic allyship and marketing gimmick?

Participants hold placards during the Pride march and festival in Quezon City, Philippines, on Saturday, June 24. (photo: Lisa Marie David/Getty Images)
Participants hold placards during the Pride march and festival in Quezon City, Philippines, on Saturday, June 24. (photo: Lisa Marie David/Getty Images)

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

Ever since she started gaining popularity on Twitter, transgender singer-songwriter and author Zoey Allen has been approached by several brands for endorsements—often largely because of her gender identity, allowing the brand to showcase its allyship with the LGBTQIA+ communities. “I have also taken some of these deals,” Allen told National Herald, “but largely I avoid interacting with big banner brands as they are inherently exploitative.”  

Reflecting the diverse spectrum of human sexuality and gender, celebrating the fluidity of the human condition and the ‘pride’ of authentic self-expression, the rainbow flag, simply known as the pride flag, emerged in the 1970s, and has since served as an emblem of queer identity and solidarity.

Following the Stonewall riots of 18 June to 3 July 1969,  the watershed series of protests where queer people fought against the violent state machinery and demanded that their rights be institutionalised, which transformed the queer rights movement — June is now globally observed as the Month of Pride, commemorating the LGBTQIA+ struggle and celebrating the community. 

54 years later, Pride Month has entered the corporate pipeline, relegating itself to an ‘event’ with immense scope for commodification and monetisation. 

As soon as the clock strikes June, every year brands give themselves a rainbow makeover — plastering Pride colours all over their logos, and their social media icons, adapting their branding to queer-affirmative tone and visual language, incorporating jingles and puns with queer lingo, and even hiring queer models for the month.

Subsequently, as June ends, after amassing huge profits from said campaigns, corporates entirely dial back on the explosion of Pride branding. According to a Forbes report, in 2019, LGBTQIA+ adults held a combined buying power of  $3.7 trillion. What a BBC report describes as the ‘Pink Pound’, this profit is solely banked on a queer-affirmative advertisement, the product is bought by 90 per cent of the queer people that come across the ad. 

Termed ‘rainbow washing’, the practice of using rainbow-themed symbolism in branding, advertising, merchandising or social media, ostensibly to support the community in June, without any veritable support for the community beyond the superficialities, has come under significant scrutiny over the recent past. 

“The infiltration of brands has proved to have a watering down effect on Pride as a stand-alone event to amply queer voices and continue to demand equal rights. These brands have reduced Pride to merely a marketing gimmick, straying away from the real meaning of Pride to push disingenuous campaigns and products,” Manabi Bandyopadhyay, the first openly transgender professor and college principal from West Bengal, told National Herald.

“Merchandising Pride is an awkward story of monetising off our struggles. However, it is not a singular story. Pride affirmative merchandise bear a short-term utility which is over-amplified because corporate institutions remain anxious about asking fundamental questions or demanding fundamental changes — that truly affects the community,” Vaivab Das, coordinator of Indradhanu, the Queer Collective of IIT Delhi told National Herald.

While companies attempt to sell themselves as “inclusive and progressive”, ground reality belies the tall talk. Tanmay Sen (name changed for safety), staff at beauty-giant Sephora, historically known to be ‘inclusive’ and actively promotes LGBTQIA+ faces with their products, reveals the company’s inaction for their protection. “I am regularly humiliated by customers, and seen as ‘different’, they don’t take me seriously and move over to the straight-passing staff. When I take it up with management, there is no response and instead, they have repeatedly asked me to ‘act normal’ in front of customers.” Sephora is also known to have neglected targeted hate toward the pro-queer founder of Huda Beauty while the ‘Pride Makeup 2023’ collection was advertised.

Akin to Sen, inclusion at workplaces that boast inclusivity remains an impossible dream for the community. According to a study conducted by the Human Rights Commission in 2018, 96 per cent of trans persons are denied jobs and 92 per cent are denied participation in any economic activity. Only 48 per cent of companies globally provide a standalone global policy with specific reference to the queer community.

More recently, a 2022 study conducted by HR consulting firm Randstad India revealed that 53 per cent of Indian companies do not employ people from the LGBTQIA+ community — it further revealed that only 9.5 per cent of the surveyed organisations have made extremely significant efforts to be LGBTQ+ inclusive.

“Institutions in positions of power remain complicit in not doing the hard work of changing social attitude or doing the work of acceptance. The allyship comes with conditions attached. A pride flag on your bag does not get us a seat in a college or a desk at an office or dignity in public,” says Das. “It is a vicious cycle of using us for their own vested interests but ultimately continuing to discriminate against us in the public forum,” concurs Bandyopadhyay.

At the extreme end of rainbow washing are multinational corporations that launch huge Pride campaigns but have been repeatedly exposed for their anti-queer policies and associations. Recently, the beverage giant Starbucks came under fire for banning Pride decorations across its stores in the United States. Scores of workers have posted proof of harassment and discrimination by the corporation. More than 3,000 workers in over 150 stores in the US have now decided to quit their jobs.

Denying all allegations levelled by the Starbucks Workers Union, the company continues to posture itself as an ally. According to a Data For Progress study in 2022, reveals that Starbucks, alongside several other corporations in the US, which attempt to appear as allies, have in fact donated $1,604,440 to anti-LGBTQ campaigns and to powerful politicians who are openly anti-queer. Among the top donators are Toyota, Amazon, Disney, and AT&T — all of which have launched Pride campaigns and adjusted their branding to include the rainbow this year in June.

Talking about the Starbucks row, Allen says: “On one hand I believe any chance for positive representation is great, but companies need to actively show change and development. They need to have more inclusive policies, less fear of what minority prejudiced groups will say, and show support all year round. I believe owning up to errors in the past and again actively making the right changes to their public profiles and workplaces can make a huge difference. Those with these huge platforms can influence those who simply follow the masses due to a lack of education, and if they constantly bow down to phobia, others will think this is how we should all be. I call this the ‘Business of Pride’ — this is what all big corporations are jumping on.” Allen also runs an inclusive small-business called Kelzo Jewellery.

Seemingly, at the other end of the overcrowded half of brands exploiting pride for profit, a saree brand called Suta exists as an isolated exception. In addition to diversifying their in-house staff with several people from within the queer community,  the brand has been actively donating surplus from their Pride campaigns to non-profit organisations and LGBTQIA+ support groups such as the Humsafar Trust. 

Suta’s ‘Pride Collection’ sarees are best-sellers across the year and not just in June, say the founders Sujata Biswas and Taniya Biswas. Featuring drag artists Sushant Divgikar, Ashish Dey, Zeesh and others, their recent campaign aims to “platform people from within the community, to highlight their authentic voice.”

“We conduct round-the-year activities for the LGBTQIA+ community, we also constantly revamp and refresh our company policies to ensure it is inclusive and diverse. We constantly invite people from the community to model for Suta, not just June,”  the founders told National Herald.

“However, we do think that the conversation is a lot more alive in June since it is Pride month, but we are not in the business of dropping the ball once June is gone, we want June to be a conversation starter and continue to have these conversations always. It could come across as rainbow washing, which is why it is essential for companies to integrate their concepts of marketing and advertisement to fit Pride into their internal policy,” they added. “Pride is a celebration of self-expression, we want to partake in the celebration.”

However, in the age of content-driven interaction and activism, well-known brands have the power to push certain narratives, shape public opinion, and create momentum around social issues. Their allyship has largely proven performative as their ‘celebration’ is limited to 30 days, and the glaring loopholes within their core policies are in stark contrast to their Instagram posts on Pride Month. The question remains: Should a community become a brand’s marketing accessory under the garb of allyship? 

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