A Rainbow Cog in the Capitalist Machine?

Sam Maguire assesses the ways a hyper-commercialised Pride alienates the LGBTQ+ community

At the risk of sounding terribly homophobic, it seems like Pride is being shoved down Dublin’s throat. The skies of the inner city are filled with pride flags waving from the roofs of political buildings, banks, brunch restaurants and shops. The souvenir chain Carrols has banners in the window urging customers to #shopwithpride, on the taxi booking app Free Now, the miniature cars are painted with rainbows. Perhaps the most egregious of all is the Irish dental brand Spotlight’s electric rainbow toothbrush, complete with the settings: ‘Yaas’ and ‘Werk’.

“As a queer person, it’s hard to look at this corporate ‘pride’ and not feel a profound sense of emptiness and alienation.”

As a queer person, it’s hard to look at this corporate ‘pride’ and not feel a profound sense of emptiness and alienation, alienation which leads me to wonder- who is this all for? Do I live in a myopic bubble of queer people who scoff at such desperate and obvious marketing ploys?  Or perhaps all gays are simply one LinkedIn hire away from full-frontal heteronormativity? Pride, which was at one time a radical movement for queer liberation has been co-opted by corporations eager to get some of that sweet pink money.

This amount of pandering seems dreamt up by a team of the most cynical of heterosexual millennials.  The Penney’s Pride collection being a selection of rainbow t-shirts with aubergine and peach emojis sewn on plunges to such new depths of tastelessness that it’s not even camp.

Personal taste aside, it is not a new phenomenon that the tides of capital move in accordance with the social movements of the day. In 2001, trans revolutionary Sylvia Rivera spoke of ‘normal homosexuals’; white, cisgender, gay men and women who favour assimilation into the capitalist class over a fight for the rights of those who do not have the option to assimilate. On the passing of the Gay Rights Bill, she said:

“Every time that that bill came up for a vote, I said, “I hope it doesn’t pass,” because of what they did to me. As badly as I knew this community needed that bill, I didn’t feel it was justified for them to have it on my sweat and tears, or from my back.”

Rivera was booed at the rallies she spoke at in the 80’s for not aligning herself or her politics with white, corporate America. The mainstream gay rights movement at the time (which, it should be noted, her, Marsha P. Johnson and other activists at STAR arguably formed) was so desperate to assimilate themselves into burgeoning Neoliberal America, that the radical roots of queer liberation were instantly forgotten.

Rivera feared that the passing of the bill would be seen as a celebratory conclusion to the fight for liberation, when what it really consisted of was an encroachment of liberal, free-market values into spaces which were created to uphold and liberate the marginal identities of queer people. Pinkwashing is defined on the blog Decolonise Palestine as ‘when a state or organization appeals to LGBTQ+ rights in order to deflect attention from its harmful practices’, one big pride flag to cover up continued injustices.

While corporations and nefarious arms of the state capitalising on Pride has been a rising trend over the decades, what seems more pronounced to me this year is the use of radical language and signifiers in support of that which is anything but. It seems that online rhetoric about the origins of Pride and the queer liberation movement has strengthened these ‘enemies’ and provided them with new methods by which to ensnare us.

This year it has become common to see the updated ‘Progress Pride Flag’, the original rainbow with a triangle added in acknowledgement of BIPOC and trans people, in front of corporate offices. The fancy soap brand Aesop set up a library full of radical queer and trans literature in New York City this month. One can pick up a free copy of Angela Y. Davis’ Women, Race and Class from the same people who brought you €30 hand soap in Brown Thomas – ‘on the nose’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. The Aramark corporation who run catering in direct provision centres recently tweeted that they recognise ‘the role our LGBTQ+ chefs play in bringing communities closer together’, a sentiment which seems ghoulish in its insensitivity when one remembers Sylva Tukula, a trans woman who was buried at an all-male direct provision centre in Galway in 2018.  Her family were not informed.

“Can the injustices faced by marginalised groups be cured by a hyper-fixation on identity? Or does that simply play further into the hands of capital?”

Capitalism is a crafty beast. In absence of a marketable, heterogenous demographic they create smaller, fringe ones to peddle the same products to. Now Pride month and capitalism are seemingly so intertwined, it begs the question of where one ends and the other begins. Can the injustices faced by marginalised groups be cured by a hyper-fixation on identity? Or does that simply play further into the hands of capital?

Although the language of Pride month campaigns has shifted through the years, using vocabulary coined years ago by leftist academia and activists, its methods are as insidious as ever – appropriating language originally created in the hope of emancipation and so profiting off genuine struggles. These developments sadly come as no surprise when one considers the individualising forces at play under late-stage capitalism. To come out has become more about aligning oneself with a set of strict monikers of identity, rather than an alignment with a community or joint struggle. The representation afforded by Pride flags in such prominent places sadly does not come with any material improvements for queer people or their communities, only empty gestures and signals of virtue.

This I think, is at the root of mine and so many other queer people’s feelings of alienation whenever pride month rolls around. The rainbows descend on places of commerce like an Absolut vodka scented air strike and then, come July 1st, are swept quickly away in preparation for the next corporate holiday.

For those whom I love, and who love me, Pride is not an isolated month or an adjective to describe how one shops. It is a continued struggle in the face of a society that has always been at odds with true liberation.