A word on pride, identity exploration and rainbow capitalism

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 12:15pm

Let’s start this gig off by stating the obvious: The meaning of Pride Month has changed, or at least expanded, drastically.

This short bit of gay dribble is not a sound-off about how Adidas shouldn’t be releasing a collection of rainbow colored sneakers that may or may not stand to benefit the community it seeks to represent in any way whatsoever. There are reasons why they should, there are reasons why they shouldn’t, there are things they could do to make it feel less exploitative and they’re going to release them anyway. Its existence serves better as a barometer of Pride and its relationship to mass commercialization than a lightning rod for social critique because, to be honest, there are too many of those to keep track.

There is press circulating the dauntingly fast-paced, streetwear and sneaker-focused section of the internet detailing their choice to support LGBTQ+ athletes (the other being to quietly cut ties for a made-up reason and hope nobody notices). Articles covering it describe the move as an obvious one, but in effect congratulate them for doing so. We as consumers are unlikely to see, let alone pay any real attention to, the seemingly obligatory and phoned-in statements given by mega-corporations during the month of June. Yet, they manage to communicate something beyond their own sentiments performed in the name of self-interest — they represent the ill-matched marriage between social progressivism and our current market.

It’s fascinating and soul-gouging to observe how companies posture themselves, intentionally or not, as morally-upright champions of discredited identities and communities. It’s also very easy to look in the rearview mirror, think about icons of queer liberation like Crystal LaBeija or Martha P. Johnson, and wonder if all their strife amounted to highly profitable identity badges and not much else.

There are a lot of articles detailing exactly how rainbow capitalism works, how it spits on what the first pride parades set out to do. Detailing how vitally important it is to support queer creators, companies that actually support the community through and through and to be able to discern them from hollow attempts at a cash grab via color gradient. If you’re reading this one, odds are you’re already aware of this concern (and if not, feel free to click on some highlighted words and get yourself up to speed). The truth is that there is very little to say that hasn’t already been said in this way, and Pride Month continues to be treated as an injection of capital during a time of the year when sales are normally down.

Markets prey on the marginalized, and it’s bigger than pride packs or tank tops that say Make America Gay Again on them. It’s bigger than the consumer that buys those products (really, buy the shoes if you like them, you’re not going to be sentenced to eternal damnation over a pair of Continental 80s). It’s bigger than the companies that provide those products, too — even the ones coming from the most genuine place and providing the greatest amount of support are operating in an unethical market that rewards all entities that adhere to a fashionable, adulterated and constantly shifting morality.

When I say that markets prey on the marginalized, I am talking about groups that have explicitly been labeled  with non-normative identities and have been explicitly excluded from financially beneficial opportunities as a result of them. A person operating in the market with a discredited identity is punished both for the identity itself and for being in a class of people that are assumed to be poor. Upward mobility as a member of these groups has become possible in recent years as a result of real progress, and taking pleasure in the ability to succeed as a societally discredited person as a result of it comes at a cost. Pride parades were instruments of that social progress — they still are — but the market caught wind of that mobility and brought in food trucks, hotel packaging, clothing and other products that create a barrier to entry for many that have yet to be allowed access to those financially beneficial opportunities.

Celebrating an identity can cost a lot of money, especially when the exploration of it lies at the cross-section of fluid paradigms like gender and sexuality. The silver lining is that the market is actually forwarding queer politics in a way. Our current financial system functions to generate new demographics and then create subsections (and, thereby, entire markets) within them. Those complaining of the addition of ‘every letter of the alphabet’ to the LGBTQ+ community and openly yearning for the days when a man was a man and a woman was a woman are inadvertently making their imagined opponent’s case for them: The proliferation of queered markets runs in direct opposition to normative institutions. It makes the vastness and universal applicability of gender and sexual exploration glaringly clear.

There is no ground zero or state of normal from which a person deviates, and even though Pride Month has become a vehicle for exploitation, it’s also brought us to the tipping point of identitarian subjugation. Capitalist markets are not exactly generators of social equality and there is certainly a lot of work to be done, but the sheer profitability of universal queerness seems to be creating some good. It’s hard to tell if we’re moving in the right direction, whether companies are facilitating queer erasure, or if there’s anything that can actually be revised from an economic perspective. At the end of the day, all you can do is support the creators and organizations that you connect with, eat some multicolored Oreos and call your damn representatives.