By Rory McKeon
June is one of my favourite months of the year. The days are longer, the weather is warmer, the sky is bluer, and everyone’s out celebrating together. Heavy coats and woolly gloves are subbed in for shorts and vests, layer after layer after layer stripped off to have as much skin exposed as possible to lap up the sunshine – taps aff, if you will. It’s the start of summer, the season of beaches, barbecues and beers in the park, and as such it’s a joyous time of year. This is doubly so if you’re queer, since 1st June marks the start of a month-long celebration of gender non-conformity, freedom of sexuality and safe visibility for marginalised communities – Pride Month. And though COVID-19 may have done away with Pride festivals the world over, the spirit of the season has stayed strong, and it’s nigh on impossible to go about your daily life at the moment without seeing rainbows on websites, in supermarkets and in shop windows.
However, Pride Month isn’t without its downsides. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great time of year, and I will happily take every opportunity I can get to celebrate queerness in all its forms. But it’s typically only within these thirty days that non-queer folk become particularly outspoken about their allyship, or their tolerance, of queer people, and this is even more true of companies and corporations. Corporate Pride has always been somewhat of a joke in the queer community – it’s the punchline to a sad capitalist setup that we have to pretend to laugh at, one that we hear more and more frequently as Pride becomes more mainstream (and more profitable). And considering the history of Pride – considering the fact that the first Pride parade was a protest, that it began in response and in direct opposition to the cisheteronormative world of discriminatory laws and corporate capitalism – it’s somewhat unnerving to see these same corporations selling something that is supposedly so integral to our identity, community and history.
This isn’t a new development, and I’m by no means the first to critique it. This corporate appropriation of Pride and queerness for personal profit is found in all walks of life, from media companies like Disney including queer characters in the background of scenes as ‘representation’, to fast fashion companies releasing Pride collections. Generally speaking, this phenomenon has several different names: pinkwashing, for one; homocapitalism, for another. But there’s one that I feel encapsulates the issue best: rainbow capitalism.
Take, for example, my recent visit to a café in London. It’s one that I used to work at, a popular Danish chain with a typically upper-middle class clientele. It was a nice place to work – the cakes were delicious, displayed openly in the window to entice passers-by – and I enjoyed my time there. I’d say it was fairly queer friendly in my experience, with a few of my colleagues also identifying somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I remember there was one time I had to explain to some of my straight male colleagues why they couldn’t say the word ‘f*ggot’, but other than that, it was dandy. The company itself wasn’t openly allied with the queer community, but most companies usually aren’t until 1st June, and I wasn’t discriminated against, so I took that as a win. Generally, it was pretty good.
I went in recently to say hello to my former colleagues and do a bit of personal work, and as usual perused the cakes in the window before entering. In the display, alongside the cream cakes and pastries, I saw the brownies that they’ve always sold. They’re a favourite of mine and I was surprised to see them in the window since they’re usually stored elsewhere. The reason for this was clear: on top of each was a swirl of chocolate icing and, balanced precariously on top, a chocolate rainbow heart.
Don’t get me wrong, part of me was happy to see them – who doesn’t like representation these days? – and it’s good that the café is visibly supportive of Pride Month. But the sight of these Pride brownies made me roll my eyes. Having not encountered any overt queer allyship working there over the course of a year, it felt a bit performative. And while they may have changed their ethos since I worked there, I wasn’t entirely convinced. It also felt somewhat lazy: the company brings out entirely new products for Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Christmas, Hallowe’en and other special occasions, but all they could muster for Pride Month was a chocolate heart on top of their pre-existing brownies? Go on, girl, give us nothing.
What I found particularly strange was the lack of information available about the campaign. Scouring both the website and the chain’s social media, I couldn’t find anything about it. No posts, no photos, nothing. This was already a few days into June, so the fact that there was so little publicity about the campaign confused me. Maybe their social media marketing wasn’t the best, maybe they didn’t update their website very often. I think both of these may be true, but regardless it didn’t quite sit right with me. Surely if you’re selling products that are supposed to be in support of a marginalised community, you would want your publicity to be loud and proud for the sake of allyship (or for the sake of profit)? Instead, it felt like it was almost being swept under the rug, popping a rainbow on a cake and calling it a day without an announcement or any other effort.
I’m not often a Karen, but I reluctantly accepted the moniker this once by emailing the company and asking about the Pride brownies. I emphasised how I thought it was great that they were selling them (mainly for etiquette’s sake) before asking questions I hadn’t been able to find answers to: were the brownies just for Pride Month? Were they raising money to be donated to queer charities, or was the money generated being pocketed by the chain? And what did they do outside of 1st-30th June to help queer people and to be good allies? I kept it brief, wanting to see how they’d respond, and waited patiently for a reply.
When it came, it was fairly ambiguous. Supposedly, the main campaign the company was planning was intended to coincide with London Pride, postponed until September this year due to the pandemic. For this launch, they were ‘having discussions with a number of LGBTQ+ charities in order to commence a partnership in September’, which would then become part of an ‘ongoing cultural and brand initiative’. Which is great! Until you realise it’s a roundabout way of saying that all the money raised by the brownies in June is profit for the company. And while they apparently have a ‘number of affiliations with other charities/organisations which (they) support throughout the year’, the email I received neglected to specify which charities/organisations they were exactly, and I haven’t been able to find any other information online. Make of that what you will.
This may not seem like a big deal. And in all honestly, to a certain extent I would agree – there’s lots more important things going on in the world than one café chain putting rainbows on their brownies. But for me, this is indicative of a wider problem. It’s easy enough to put rainbows on a product as a symbol of Pride, but rainbows don’t change anything. Rainbows don’t dispel homophobia by themselves. If these companies maintained their rainbow solidarity year-round, what would the reaction be? Would they be willingly accepted by the cishetero community, and by these companies, or would they be questioned and stigmatised, accused of shoving the queer agenda down peoples’ throats? Call me cynical, but corporate rainbows feel more like capitalisation than allyship, a matter of ticking a box to both fulfil their quota of political correctness and to make a pretty pink penny on the side. This may not be true of every company that supports Pride, but it’s certainly true of a great deal of them. This façade of tolerance is no longer enough: if a corporation isn’t pulling their weight to be a good ally outside of June, if the profits raised from these products doesn’t directly help queer people in need, if they are not willing to support those that this visibility could in turn harm, then how Proud can they be?
This is why rainbow capitalism is so pertinent a term. The central issue here, I believe, is the mainstream conflation of the rainbow with queerness. Granted, the rainbow flag is something that resonates with gay people worldwide, and I don’t mean to downplay its association with queer liberation which dates back to the late seventies. But now, the LGBTQ+ community has moved beyond associating with the six-stripe flag, with new flags representing queer people of colour, trans people and, more recently, intersex people. This hyperfixation on the basic rainbow feels outdated, out of touch, an attempt to represent the LGB, but not the T or the Q+. In my mind, the rainbow that we see in Pride Month now represents the cishetero idea of gay people, a community that loves to party and have fun and go to parades and have lots of sex with people of the same gender and love bright colours and glitter. Which isn’t necessarily untrue. But we’re also a community that has increasingly high suicide rates, that want conversion therapy to be banned, that want easy access to gender-affirming hormones and surgery, that are disproportionately likely to become homeless, that need more nuanced and diverse representation in media and in real life. The list goes on. Pride is a time for all queer people to celebrate how far we’ve come, but it’s also a time to remember how far we have yet to go, particularly for certain groups within our community. When the rainbow as a symbol takes the place of and supersedes queer people, it is taken so far away from its original meaning that it no longer means anything at all.
Rainbow hearts on chocolate brownies don’t really mean anything in isolation. It’s good visibility, and it clearly shows that the company has thought about Pride to some degree – it’s a sign of solidarity and support, if nothing else. But I’m still yet to see how far this solidarity and support goes. While writing this article, I went back to the café’s Instagram to check if anything had been posted and was pleasantly surprised to see that there was in fact a post announcing (in brief) the arrival of the Pride brownies, published a few days after I had emailed. I was less pleasantly surprised to see one commenter raising similar issues that I had initially contacted the company about, to which they had responded with a verbatim extract from the email I had received. Who doesn’t love copy and paste these days?
Maybe by September they’ll have found a charity to be affiliated with, maybe their full campaign will be better. Personally, I’m not holding out hope. Either way, when the clocks struck midnight on June 30th, and before the twelfth chime had even faded away, rainbow logos reverted to monochrome, bunting and window displays were taken down, and unsold Pride merchandise was discarded, almost as if they hadn’t existed at all. In other words, life returned to normal for the cishet world.
No matter. For queer people, Pride continues year-round, and we will continue to strive for better regardless of whether we can eat rainbow confectionary while we do it or not. And either way, at least we can safely say that on 1st June 2022, the rainbows will be back. I don’t know about you, but I, for one, can’t wait to see the exact same displays, products and logos, the exact same brownies that we see every single year make their long-awaited comebacks.