Dear Corporations: Rainbow Washing Doesn't Hide Your Discrimination

While June 2021 is the 52nd anniversary of the protests against police sanctioning the ability for gay and trans individuals to convene at the Stonewall Inn, much of the history of this story and its revolutionaries are overlooked. With recent federal protection for same-sex marriage being signed into law under the Obama administration, the expansion of Pride has allowed individuals gatherings and celebration of their gender identities and sexual orientations. These community celebrations are loud and proud because queer folks were forced to hide their joy and love for so long. However, while the first Pride was a riot, these days, Pride often is presented as a giant, rainbow-washed party – and one that motivates companies to, for thirty days, financially benefit from taking advantage of an audience that only seeks to be accepted. 

Between multi-billion megacorporations sponsoring big-city pride events, endless rainbow merchandise for individuals to adorn to show their pride, and companies across the globe changing their social media to have rainbow profile photos (unless it’s a Middle East or Asian page because that wouldn’t be good for profits), the race to capitalize on the “rainbow” begins as soon as the month does. Growing commercialization of LGBTQIA+ identities sells, as companies make the month of June a time to celebrate a marginalized and overlooked community. Large corporations like H&M, Disney, and Walmart market rainbow clothing and branded pride gear. Big media conglomerates like AT&T make pledges to donate to pro-LGBTQIA+ causes. But this rainbow-washing as an attempt to promote how much an organization stands for diversity is misguided at best and explicitly harmful to LGBTQIA+ individuals at worst.

Not only is the irony rich that as soon as the month ends these items are put on clearance or taken off shelves, but it’s also contradictory to the ethics the month stands for: individuality, refusing to assimilate to the “norms” of culture, and resisting oppressive systems. While corporations that sponsor Pride events or produce Pride merch pretend they are standing for gender and sexual equity, the ethics these companies engage in the other 11 months of the year swing in the opposite direction. In the last two years, H&M fell under fire with evidence of gender-based violence and financial abuse funding their operations, as well as depriving workers of breaks and fair wages and sweeping sexual assault allegations under the rug. Amazon, Walmart, and AT&T have each donated millions of dollars to anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians voting against legislation like the Equality Act. Disney has been called out multiple times for censoring queer content, especially in countries like China and Russia, and they were served a lawsuit this year on June 1 – the same day they launched their Pride collection – for discriminating against and denying promotions to a gay VP at the company.

Even supposedly socially responsible companies that sponsor Pride events follow suit. The biopharmaceutical company Pfizer, lauded in 2020 for developing and distributing vaccinations for the COVID-19 virus, has been a continued sponsor of NYC Pride for years. While their financial support may appear in good faith, it’s a perfect example of where company ethics begin and end. The Human Rights Campaign reported in 2019 that Pfizer made donations summing $959,263 to 52 politicians supporting anti-gay and anti-trans bills in Congress.

Almost 60% of American consumers want companies they purchase from to have stances on racial discrimination and social justice issues. It’s no longer acceptable to make one #BlackLiveMatter tweet or to post an image of the rainbow flag for June as more consumers research before they buy. However, the response from larger corporations show that they clearly value profit over social responsibility – even if that makes them less appealing to some consumers. It’s much easier to grandstand and promote their support of social justice issues while those issues are being spotlighted, something we saw during the summer of 2020 as companies backed the BLM movement in the moment but haven’t shown a commitment to diversity in the long run. For example, L’Oreal spoke out against the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, but fired activist Munroe Bergdorf for speaking out about racism and white supremacy in 2017. In the same way, companies profit off the commodification of the queer community every June, and then turn their backs on us come July 1st.

The reality is that only a few companies stray from rainbow-washing purely for profit’s sake. Nike is one of the few multi-national companies that show a genuine commitment to LGBTQIA+ rights, with their ads growing much more inclusive of the spectrum of identities their athletes encompass and providing a much-needed spotlight on LGBTQIA+ identities over the last decade – and not just when June rolls around. 

Despite the increasing awareness and fight for equity over the last several years, only 21 states and the District of Colombia have passed anti-discrimination laws to protect our LGBTQIA+ community from wrongful termination or harassment in the workplace. Without federal law or oversight, there is often minimal recourse or willingness to take action against incidents that upend the livelihood of workers nationwide. 

That’s why it’s becoming increasingly clear that multinational corporations with the platform, reach, and funds to do so MUST take a stance against discrimination, and not just when there’s a spotlight on an issue during Pride month or Black History month. It’s time that these corporations speak up year round and hold themselves and their financial partners accountable. This includes making representative boards of supervisors, creating a safe working environment for all employees, and showing a genuine dedication to diversity. Rainbow merchandise may seem appealing as consumers wear items to show pride in their own identities, but when these products are produced by companies showing this acceptance purely for profit (as well as capitalizing off an emblem without giving back to the community they’re claiming to honor), the power behind the message is utterly lost. 

One incredibly simple way that brands can prove their commitment to the queer community and to diversity year-round is to invest in year round DEI work. Pittsburgh-based marketing agency Carney, in their popular daily marketing newsletter The Daily Carnage, surveyed their audience of marketers on whether their company supports or has a year-round LGBTQIA+ advocacy campaign. Only 7% of respondents answered “Yes,” with over 70% answering a definitive “No.” These numbers show that while we may have made progress from the mass death and violence the queer community has suffered in decades past, we still have a long way to go.

Alignment with values that aim to uplift, protect, and platform queer and BBIPOC individuals is essential for businesses of every size. In an age where these identities are gaining a social spotlight, our thoughts and prayers for their safety and success are not enough. It’s time our words match actions and everyone is held accountable for upholding those ethics. It’s not about having only the faces of higher-ups change but allowing these voices to saturate the sphere of business on every level. Creating equitable spaces to encourage hiring processes to find unique and diverse voices to represent the mission of organizations enriches them, rather than creating a new obstacle for them to overcome. 

Small businesses shifting to adopt these practices are a step in the right direction, but aren’t the only way to find true representation and equity in the workplace. It’s time that mission statements of “diversity” aren’t summarized by having one training a year or just showing up when it’s easy to. That’s why it’s vital to hire queer people, and work with queer-owned and operated businesses like ESY Creative. This Pride month, it’s vital that companies commit to diversity in sexuality and gender, and continue to pursue a year-long commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion that highlights the voices overlooked when it’s no longer “convenient.”