Fifty years on from the first parades, we still see echoes of their ardent call to liberation in Prides across the world. One example is “Garvotsav” (‘‘A Festival to be Proud of”) in the small Union Territory of Chandigarh, India— a non-commercial LGBTQ+ community-run event run since 2013. Having fought vocally for amendment of the British Penal Code Section 377 to decriminalize homosexuality in 2018, Garvotsav continues to grow from dozens to hundreds of visitors from around India and the world.
They spread a loud and colourful message — that in the loved ones we hold close, and the open spaces where we organise, a world where we don’t need to sell our community out for approval is possible.
A compelling call to action like this often attracts the eye of global media, followed shortly by promises of exponentially greater “visibility” and funding than any individual can achieve alone. But is the lens for that visibility, and the accompanying restriction on self-expression and protest, worth the significant cost of attracting company sponsorship to a community’s liberation?
“Corporate Pride” is broadly understood as the adoption of pro-LGBTQ+ symbols by small and multi-national businesses, seeking to ensure their products, services and working cultures occupy space in the collective consciousness of the queer community.
The majority of Pride budgets put their money exactly where their mouth is — and precisely no further. Piecemeal funds are usually invested in targeted PR campaigns for brand palatability first, not queer acceptance. Not only are these contracts overwhelmingly held by firms who under-hire and underpay queer creatives, they are hypocritically coached for “authentic” amplification by large social media corporations such as Twitter. These organisations routinely fail to protect their most vulnerable LGBTQ+ users — with globally lethal consequences.
Several companies throw good money after bad at the production of branded merchandising. They co-opt queer narratives, decouple them from open talk of how sex, gender and sexuality affirmingly play out in our daily lives, and spit-polish minoritised tokens to take the backseat to large company logos (or worse, to insignia of other active oppressors such as policing bodies). Public organisations are no exception to this. The National Health Service (NHS) was widely criticised for its appropriation of the Evelina Children’s Hospital’s LGBT+ NHS merchandise, to make the Pride flag synonymous with a whole body where only 2.7% of staff feel comfortable being out as “LGB+” and 27.5% don’t feel comfortable enough to share. Other social media initiatives to highlight “Diversity, Equality and Inclusion” are equally not driven by enthusiasm but are instead limited by a countdown of 30 days. This is a hollow recruitment strategy that changes its stripes to monochrome and normalises recurring invasion of business agendas in exclusively community organised spaces, to the exclusion of the community themselves.
Time and again, companies invested in winning the PR race during Pride fail to implement tangible LGBTQ+ affirmation, and most importantly fail to see the importance of doing so without a profitable quid pro quo. However, Pride has always meant something different to this within communities around the world. Even the first American parades in the 1970s all had a unifying theme. Chicago and New York did not need Google floats and AirBnB balloons; they led their marches under the banner of “Liberation Day”.
This was not an accident.
A rallying call for a vociferous protest, it was also a promise to the LGBTQ+ community. For a march, a month or even a lifetime, where everyone could express themselves freely. Where “No dress or age regulations shall be made” and no one had to be “queer enough” or proud of being inadequately “cis/het passing” by anyone else’s standards. This was meant to be a space to live freely by their own desires and hopes. Importantly, at a time when Pride was not something you could passively bask in knowing that companies paid for your search engine optimisation, liberation was something ahead of us, to shout about and be actively worked towards.
So in the last 50 years, how have companies in the west gone from eschewing Pride to engineering a chokehold on what it means to be LGBTQ+?
“These organisations routinely fail to protect their most vulnerable LGBTQ+ users – with globally lethal consequences.”
Ultimately, corporate pride has evolved as a prime example of social “solutioneering” by private entities — to provide the answer to what they see as a problem, without understanding its depth and scope. As support for homosexuality slowly grows, businesses experience cognitive dissonance in finding queerness undesirable, while knowing opting out of pink-washed Pride events would be a significant problem. A loss of an LGBTQ+ market share harnessing $917 million and counting in the US since 2017, and a larger White cisgendered and heterosexual market, who won’t let the awkward call for queer liberation get in the way of a good party.
Peeking under the 6 stripes of the rainbow for a month, businesses see the complex history of intersectional LGBTQ+ communities as inconvenient. Expressions of sex, gender and sexuality on platforms and in offices are censored as problematic, and questions about their authenticity a direct contest to their bottom line. They erase histories of temper and temper future outlooks in the name of “thinking of the children”. They unapologetically cause inter-generational friction in queer communities, pitting those who lived their whole life to enjoy it being uncensored against those whose lived experience of queerness is entirely warped by pastel-coloured censorship on whether kink, asexuals, bisexuals, nonbinary people or any collective minorities are queer enough to deserve to belong in the community.
Business monopolies on LGBTQ+ discourse have become a particular threat in a pandemic. The exchange of cross-generational stories of struggle and sex away from the Internet’s content filters and predatory data collection strategies has now been impossible for almost two years, and our non-alcoholic, all-inclusive spaces are further priced out of our cities by other corporate interests. Companies have taken this time of isolation to accelerate their efficiency at policing what constitutes permissible non-assimilation to a white cissexist heteropatriarchy. Further, banning any notion of self-fulfilment or labour through personal sexuality, they obliterate swathes of living queer histories for the sake of making the rainbow a part of their imagery.
Corporate pride is a low-poly rendering of what it means to be out as an LGBTQ+ person in high definition. It continues to leech on queer communities by telling us there’s “no kink at pride”, while restraining us in something bland and profitable by design — by hiding any part of Pride they can’t sell as joyful, optimistic and parental-guidance approved. After all, no corporation is a “net neutral” profiteer from appropriating Pride. It remains an ever-present threat of violence — even without an explicitly queerphobic agenda, it will put profit ahead of any attempts to mitigate harm to LGBTQ+ people.
Perhaps the only thing corporate pride is good for is a warning to work against any entity that tries to turn all the colours of the flag and community into a monolith. If we want to survive as a community, the violations of corporatism on queerness remind us as collectives and individuals to never have our edges sanded down. They remind us to never stop embracing those we love and our whole selves in public if we want to; to never stop being as exuberant and angry as we like.
It is time for a loud Pride like this to emerge worldwide and stop waiting to be quietly acceptable for corporate sponsorship. It is time to refuse to be paraded by companies to sell “queerness” as something between an unforgivable slur and decontextualised heterosexual-friendly entertainment, so we can continue liberating every queer person who protests with us instead.