LGBTQ+ community reflects on rainbow capitalism a month after Pride celebrations


Riley Reed

DePaul student Riley Reed taking part in pro-LGBTQ+ protest. Photo courtesy of Riley Reed

As the clock struck midnight, countless rainbow-themed storefronts, commercials and merchandise quickly faded away on July 1. Despite an entire month commemorating the struggles and pride of the LGBTQ+ community, discrimination and stereotyping continue at the hands of public officials and corporations. Many queer individuals are critical of corporations monetizing Pride month and queer aesthetics, otherwise known as rainbow capitalism

Pride month began in 1970 as a series of marches commemorating the Stonewall Riots — when queer patrons of New York City’s Stonewall Inn fought against harassment and violence inflicted by police. Subsequent Pride marches across the world have helped further LGBTQ+ activism.

“It’s one of the rare opportunities for queer people [to] gather, celebrate and exist without fear of persecution,” Adam Rhodes, president of Chicago’s Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists, wrote in an email to The DePaulia. “It’s also incredibly important to recognize the Stonewall Riots and the still recent history of queer liberation in this country, which Pride commemorates every year.”

According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, queer people are nearly four times more likely to experience violence than those with straight, cisgender identities. However, the statistics don’t stop there. Black trans women and gender non-conforming people of color are at an even higher risk of facing gender-based violence. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 31 transgender or gender non-conforming people were killed by violent means in 2021 thus far, the majority of whom were Black and Latinx transgender women.

As Pride month and the fight for queer rights becomes more mainstream, corporations capitalize off the celebratory month in an effort to appeal to the LGBTQ+ community — a lucrative pool of consumers with LGBTQ+ shoppers going on 10 percent more shopping trips and spending seven percent more than non-LGBTQ+ households.

“We lose a bit of our agency and ownership of Pride, I think,” Rhodes wrote. “I think when people see Pride as a space for everyone — cops, corporations and cishets included — then we lose the spirit of Pride as a space for queer people to celebrate ourselves.”

According to Rhodes, the corporate influence on Pride is not all bad news as it helps drive awareness, but this brings issues like tokenization. 

“On one hand, I think [corporate involvement] has definitely increased consciousness and awareness of queer issues, but often these influences water down the reality of being queer away from the truth that it is an ongoing fight to be free and be equal in this country,” Rhodes wrote.

“These influences also ignore the fact that many of these [businesses] do little to support queer workers outside of tokenizing for Pride,” they added. “So while the influences do some social good, it’s just not enough for me.”

Riley Reed, the LGBTQ+ senator for DePaul’s Student Government Association, agrees with Rhodes and questions if genuine effort is being made by corporations.

“It makes me feel very uncomfortable as an activist and queer person,” Reed wrote in an email to The DePaulia. “It feels overbearing and performative. Corporations aren’t even trying to care about people and they use the queer community to profit, there’s no actual effort to help.”

Queer activists, like Reed, believe that individuals benefiting from these corporate campaigns do not align with what Pride month was intended to celebrate.

“They are trying to make [being queer] more widely acceptable, but personally — and I know other activists feel that — that is just an effort to pander to straight people, not many queer people actually like the corporate involvement in Pride,” Reed wrote. “It is just another way to profit off of a community which corporations have been doing for years.”

Pride is not only for the out and proud queer population but also celebrates closeted members of the community. Reed believes that at a surface level, these campaigns may help closeted individuals build the courage to publicly embrace their sexuality; however, corporate campaigns may also have negative repercussions.

“I think on the other hand it’s really flashy and turns a lot of queer folks away, and could even be overwhelming for people in the closet,” Reed said. “When I was closeted in earlier years of my life, it personally didn’t mean much to me that corporations were doing anything — activist groups and the people in my life accepting it mattered more to me.

While many companies claim to support the queer community, their political involvement and financial investments indicate otherwise. AT&T, FedEx, General Electric, Pfizer, UPS and Verizon, for instance, have ​​claimed to support LGBTQ+ equality, yet have given significant financial contributions to Congress members who are openly homophobic.

According to Valerie Vargas, AT&T’s senior vice president for advertising, the company has an “authentic understanding of the [queer] community” and has a “vested interest in their success.”

“…We believe the LGBTQ community has become more loyal to our brand,” Vargas added. 

AT&T contributed $2,755,000 to 193 anti-gay politicians from 2017 to 2018. AT&T is one of many corporations that prides itself on being inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community, yet supports politicians who undermine those same values.

Like AT&T, Pfizer responded to criticisms concerning their financial donations to anti-gay politicians despite their stated allyship with LGBTQ+ values. 

Sharon Castillo, Pfizer’s senior director of media relations, said “the decision to contribute to these elected officials was made based on their support of the biopharmaceutical industry and policies that protect innovation incentives and patients’ access to medicines and vaccines. In no way does our support translate into an endorsement of their position on any social issue.”

Such justifications did little to alleviate criticisms from queer individuals. Activist Ann Northrop critiqued some corporations’ roles in Pride celebrations.

“They’re there to market to what they perceive as an affluent gay community,” Northrop said. “And then they turn around the next day and spend all their money buying Republican right-wing politicians, who they need to pass whatever regulations they care about.”

“And those Republican politicians are taking away all our rights, putting really virulently anti-gay judges on the federal benches … So why are we handing over the Pride parade to these people?” Northrop added. 

Ron Culp, public relations consultant and instructor at DePaul University, said advertising for profit might not be the sole purpose of these campaigns, but rather a recruiting tactic. 

“Many companies actually create Pride-themed PR and ad campaigns as a recruiting and retention tool, not just to sell products,” Culp wrote in an email to The DePaulia. “This is especially the situation with technology, financial and consumer companies that face intense recruitment and retention challenges.”

Despite these recruiting and retention efforts, in recent years, 22 percent of LGBTQ+ Americans reported unequal pay or promotions compared to their straight and/or cisgender peers. Workplace discrimination doesn’t stop at pay but dives into workplace culture as 53 percent of LGBTQ+ workers reported hearing jokes about queer people at work and 10 percent of queer workers quit their jobs because the workplace culture wasn’t accepting of them. On top of that, 59 percent of non-queer identifying employees say it is unprofessional to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace. With this in mind, the best campaigns, according to Culp, are those with authenticity, such as Microsoft’s campaign.

Culp said in addition to employee relations, brand loyalty also plays a role in the strategy behind these campaigns.

“Brand loyalty is essential for any company or brand that has a competitor — in other words, almost all of them,” Culp wrote. “Marketing data confirms that consumers are significantly more loyal to brands that support their beliefs and values. Companies viewed as authentic and living their values gain loyal customers who keep coming back to buy their products.”

Chick-fil-A is an example of LGBTQ+ relations having an impact on brand loyalty. Chick-fil-A is renowned for their chicken sandwiches, but no matter how good they are, some queer individuals and allies refuse to support the establishment due to the company donating to and supporting anti-LGBTQ+ organizations. 

Chick-fil-A has cut back on donating to these controversial organizations but activists say that isn’t enough. 

According to Drew Anderson, director of campaigns and rapid response for GLAAD, “Chick-fil-A investors, employees and customers can greet [Chick-fil-A’s claims for improvement] with cautious optimism, but should remember that similar press statements were previously proven to be empty.” 

“In addition to refraining from financially supporting anti-LGBTQ organizations, Chick-fil-A still lacks policies to ensure safe workplaces for LGBTQ employees and should unequivocally speak out against the anti-LGBTQ reputation that their brand represents,” Anderson added

LGBTQ+ members are finding ways to actively resist capitalism and celebrate what it means to be queer in genuine ways. 

“I attended the Queer Liberation March the first year it was organized in New York and that’s been the best Pride, one that has felt the most authentic, in years,” Rhodes wrote. “It’s important to push back on the corporatization of Pride and find other ways to celebrate Pride [than] those business-focused celebrations.”