Op-ed: Pride isn’t a brand

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 - 5:53pm

It’s officially June, which means two things: The Peony Garden in Nichols Arboretum is due to bloom any day, and it’s time to celebrate Pride. LGBTQ+ Pride month has gone through many evolutions since its origins in New York in 1970, where the first Pride was held to commemorate a year since the Stonewall riots. The Stonewall riots are a historical moment often credited as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, and were bravely led by transgender women of color, including famous activists such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The impact of these women and other gay rights activists was the harnessing of LGBTQ+ individuals’ political power, which translated into the creation of LGBTQ+ Pride month. 

Pride began as a political demonstration, where the voices of the LGBTQ+ community demanded equal rights and protections. Pride still serves as a crucial political tool, pushing the importance of LGBTQ+ freedoms and safety — and this is especially salient when acknowledging the tangible barriers still stand in front of LGBTQ+ Americans. Political and social threats still exist. An individual can still be fired in 26 states because of sexual orientation or gender identity. According to 2017 FBI hate crime statistics, a surge in hate crimes has disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ individuals, and even more so those with intersectional marginalized identities. These issues are deserving of political attention and advocacy, but gradually this political focus of Pride has expanded into what it is widely viewed as today: a celebration.

This isn’t a plea to turn every visible moment as an LGBTQ+ individual into a rally cry against oppression. Pride can and should be used to celebrate queer life. Pride can and should be enjoyable. It exemplifies the importance and impact of LGBTQ+ people across the spectrum, and brings the community together in a way that allows individuals to praise their own and each other’s identities. What Pride shouldn’t be promoting, however, is the commercialization of these identities to benefit corporations and promote half-baked awareness of the issues.

Something that I’ve learned in my time as a Communications Studies major is that any aspect of your identity can and will be utilized as a market. During Pride, the LGBTQ+ community becomes easy to tap, with newseeds and storefronts flooded with rainbow flags, while marketers clearly know that the community’s buying power has exceeded $1 trillion

At first glance, the idea of brands incorporating products that support LGBTQ+ visibility into their lines is commendable. Oftentimes, these products come with some social benefit. For example, H&M’s Pride collection “Stay True, Stay You” donates 10 percent of the global sales price to the work of the United Nations’ Free & Equal campaign. Again, this is seemingly mutually beneficial: I get a cool new rainbow bodysuit while simultaneously donating to a significant cause. But the implications of this type of consumerism get a bit dicey when considering that H&M has several high-volume factories in China, a country with historic anti-LGBTQ legislation (despite very recent promises to the United Nations to address LGBTQ+ rights). This type of commercial social blindness is consistently seen throughout Pride, like when the biggest sponsors of city-wide Pride events are contributing greatly to issues such as income inequality, an issue affecting marginalized (especially those that are intersectional) identities at disproportionate rates. With the growth of positive sentiment regarding the LGBTQ+ community, brands frequently attempt to jump into these celebrations to make a profit with little found interest in the actual issues.

Wearing or purchasing Pride merchandise from a big corporation is not something to be intrinsically ashamed of. Sometimes, corporations have a piece of clothing that you feel represents your version of Pride, and it’s okay to indulge that purchase.  The issue arises when Pride becomes a market competition for who can earn the most LGBTQ+ dollars without consistently supporting the community. Consumers need to hold companies accountable for their political and monetary actions, and the impact of these decisions on the LGBTQ+ community. While Pride should be a time to celebrate, the political origins of the holiday and the ongoing needs of the community should remain at the forefront of one’s thoughts. Now, go buy a rainbow t-shirt from a local LGBTQ+ supporting business, and happy Pride.

Erin White can be reached at ekwhite@umich.edu.