Rainbow-washing: the corporatisation of queer representation

An examination of corporate interests and their effects on LGBT individuals, both helpful and harmful

In recent years, there has been an increase in content and products presented by corporations targeting the LGBT community. Brands like H&M, Nike, Converse, Primark, Urban Outfitters, and more, all produce and widely advertise their “Pride collections” from the end of May into July. There are a huge variety of symbols, words, phrases, and important figures that are of huge significance for both LGBT individuals and the community to which they belong.

The most prominent, of course, is the six colour rainbow. The original design of the Rainbow flag had eight colours, two were taken off due to the difficulty of finding fabric in pink and turquoise. Now, with the rainbow’s widespread use from pet accessories to designer clothing, it has become synonymous with queer representation and Pride.

This use of LGBT community symbols by corporations, even if they are altered from the original in order to create products that allow people to express themselves and represent their community, is not necessarily a bad thing on surface level. The vast availability of clothing and accessories at the end of May allows for many who may not be comfortable ordering online or want a cheaper option to get something easily from stores where they already shop. At the very least, widespread commercialisation does create greater awareness.

“Without these things, the bombardment of rainbows and “love” based phrases appear more like ‘rainbow-washing’.”

Many companies partner with queer organisations and non-profits to donate a portion of the earnings. Primark, for example, worked with Stonewall UK to create their line of Pride related products. Similarly, H&M donated 10% of the profits from their collection to UN Free & Equal, the United Nations Human Rights Office campaign. Converse partnered with Miley Cyrus as a designer, and sent all net proceeds to LGBT youth organisations across the globe, including RainbowYOUTH, Minus18, and It Gets Better Project.

However, there are some symbols and words that have been reclaimed by the community that many believe should not be used outside of this faction, no matter how good the intention. The word “queer” is one such term that is quite rarely used in the United States, but is more widely used in Ireland and the UK.

Another symbol that is considered more radical and divisive is the pink triangle. While Hitler was in power, he had an inverted pink triangle sewn onto the prison uniforms of homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps. In the 1990s, ACT UP, an anti-AIDS protest group reclaimed the symbol by flipping it over and harnessing it as a symbol of resistance. Nike used the pink triangle on its sneakers for their Pride collection this year, a decision that received backlash and criticism. With the triangle’s painful history, first used in death camps and again during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, many in the community believe it should not be used for commercial profit, even if some or all proceeds are going to a non-profit organisation.

“Essentially, this use of the rainbow is frustrating to the community for a plethora of reasons, namely the feeling of exploitation that it accompanies.”

Another issue caused by the corporatisation of queer representation is the lack of year-round awareness that many companies show in hiring practices, charity work or community support. Without these things, the bombardment of rainbows and “love” based phrases appear more like “rainbow-washing”. In an interview with Wired Magazine, the writer, Justice Namaste, said: “Rainbow-washing allows people, governments, and corporations that don’t do tangible work to support LGBTQ+ communities at any other time during the year to slap a rainbow on top of something in the month of June and call it allyship.”

Essentially, this use of the rainbow is frustrating to the community for a plethora of reasons, namely the feeling of exploitation that it accompanies. If money and support is only given one month of the year, how much can it really help? The use of queer symbols by corporations also means that independent, and most likely LGBT, artists and designers will likely make fewer sales, earning less as a result. Instead, it is corporations, not members of the LGBT community, who will see the largest profits.

Having said that, on a social front however, sponsorships by corporates help create a sense of acceptability and equality at the workplace, which is still lacking in several organisations. Celebrating Pride month collectively and funding projects that empower the LGBT community, these companies influence social change on a large scale and at a faster rate than what might happen organically.

“We as consumers should be able to know who and what corporations are supporting with their money and political clout.”

The use of the rainbow and other symbols by corporations on products within special collections during Pride Month is a divisive issue within the community, and will be discussed and debated for a long time to come. As LGBT representation expands in television, movies and music, companies will continue to expand their use of symbols of identity in their products. Does the increased awareness and publicity count for something? We as consumers should be able to know who and what corporations are supporting with their money and political clout. Are they fighting the good fight, or are they just out to line their own pockets?