PRIDE SEASON 2023: Beware of Rainbow Washers!
As we prepare to celebrate Pride Season, it is critical to step up and remind ourselves why these dates and events exist in the first place. Now, more than ever, we need to remember why these Pride events were created: to celebrate, amplify, and bring visibility to a community that for too long was hidden and shunned from public view. Remember, the first official Pride events were marches in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles on June 28, 1970 to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising’s first anniversary. They were protest marches to remember that fateful event and demonstrate for equal rights, representation, and visibility.
Over the years, these events morphed and grew as the community and society changed and modernized. The events in the 80s were protest marches and events to raise awareness, money and support to attack the AIDS epidemic. The 90s continued that trend, adding elements of visibility and representation in the music and entertainment industries, epitomized by the 1997 Ellen episode and Time magazine cover. The late 90s and early 2000s events emphasized the “coming out” message and need to be visible and vocal in our work and home lives. The middle 2000s were really about the geographic growth of these events across the country, the world, and the calendar, as events started popping up in July, August, and into the Fall. There was almost a traveling calendar of Pride events around the world that our community could follow and plan their visits around.
In 2008 and until 2015, the events started to take on more of an equality and essential human rights lens. As always, there were rainbows, parades, music, and dancing, but the message became more about the right to marry and equity representation, the drive for medical benefits for same sex partners, and protections in the workplace. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton. The Supreme Court constitutionally protected to the Right To Marry in 2015 and the Respect for Marriage Act, signed by President Joe Biden in 2022 ,solidified protections nationally. The Pride Events in recent years were celebratory in the face of these acts and also took on more political sentiments with the disintegration of political civility that began as the country headed into the 2016 election cycle.
With the growth in the number of, the quality of, and the diverse attendees at Pride events, we observed the increase in corporate interest and support. Early on, the sponsors of Pride marches, parades, and parties were usually local bars, restaurants, and merchants committed to the community and owned by community members. There was a charming, organic, and homemade quality to the marketing, the floats, and the publicity. As the events grew in popularity and visibility, larger brands and players came to the table, especially from the spirits industry, travel, insurance and financial services. I want to believe that early sponsors were truly committed to the cause and elevating and celebrating Queerness, but as a marketer I understand the strategy. Savvy marketers at smart companies saw an opportunity to engage with a community with higher than average disposable income, a love of travel and adventure, and a desire to support brands that supported them. We were also quick to boycott any companies we felt were not supportive of our community or actually dangerous or dismissive of our needs (i.e. Coors beer).
I believe in conscious capitalism and corporate support completely. In fact, part of my career encompasses encouraging companies and celebrities to engage in these type of ventures. The key to me, however, is authenticity and connection to the story. When I start to see Pride windows of merchandise in malls, random retailers, and drugstore aisles, it began to concern me. It appears to cheapen the impact and it certainly does not advance our story. I would rather companies make donations to local organizers in recognition of Pride events. Do not misunderstand authentic product, events, and souvenirs are critical. I just want it to feel real.
That is my caution to corporations and consumers in this space and community. Please do not Rainbow Wash or Pink Wash. What do I mean with this statement?
I believe that companies have a moral and ethical responsibility to creative a safe and inclusive workplace for their LGBTQ+ employees, vendors, and partners. This is imperative year-round, not just during PRIDE season. I also believe that companies can choose to market, support, partner with, and donate to Queer causes and local events as they wish. Where I caution everyone is watching for companies that ONLY do this for Pride season. True support and allyship is not as simple as slapping a rainbow or ribbon on your product and saying “look at me and how supportive we are.” I am much more interested by and invested in companies and products that demonstrate long-term and sustained commitment to our community. I call companies and marketing campaigns that seem to sprout up for Pride only the “Rainbow Washers” or “Pink Washers”. They are trying to take the equity from and appearance of support for the Queer community by washing their company or product in temporary allyship.
With today’s 24-hour news cycle and unlimited social media reach, a company has to be truly committed to the cause and truly careful in their approach. Cautionary tales abound, but one of the most recent egregious examples is the Bud Light fiasco with Trans actor and advocate, Dylan Mulvaney. I am not going to review the entire incident here, but suffice to say, the campaign and gesture was obviously not genuine and fully thought through. Marketing executives lost their jobs. The communities on both sides of the issue ( vocal anti - trans rights groups and pro trans-rights advocates) are both mad at the company, for obviously different reasons. Anheuser-Busch’s underlying lack of long-term support for Trans rights and issues are evident. It was a painful and unnecessary incident that sadly perfectly illustrates my caution.
If a company wants to support Pride season with a special products or a sponsorship, I welcome them with open arms and an open mind. I ask our community of consumers, especially the Queer community to consider the following as they are looking at the next advertisement or special t-shirt or alcohol promotion. I ask you to evaluate a company’s year round commitment to our community. It is easy enough to investigate now, especially for publicly traded companies and companies with DEI statements.
Consider the following:
Does the company promote queer employee safety in the workplace and mental health resources?
Does the company promote and enable the use of gender neutral pronouns? What about restroom facilities?
Does the company have a public and explicit anti-bias statement that fully encompasses the queer community?
Does the company offer medical, dental, life insurance, and retirement savings benefits to ALL employees, regardless of race, gender, and identity?
Is there queer representation at all levels of management and leadership at the company?
I am not here to shame any company or appear ungrateful for past support. I am simply asking consumers to think of Pride partnerships, activations, product, and events as part of a bigger story. Remember, they are a celebration of our shared heritage and history, and of where we are today. Yet, there is still so much to do……… so many people and rights to protect. We need help.
If we can find authentic and sustaining partners, I say Hell Yes!! I just do not know want any company to wash themselves in our journey for gains that are not shared with our community. Live and lead with authenticity.
Happy Pride 2023!!