What is rainbow capitalism, and what’s so bad about it?

In my mind, there is no arguing with the necessity of pride month. But, as with most awareness days or months aimed towards groups who have been discriminated against – from black history month to international women’s day – there are always people claiming otherwise. You’ll hear such ignorance as “you already have equality, what more do you want?”, “you don’t have to shove it in our faces”, or the usual gem, “where’s my straight pride parade?”

These represent three key themes of opposition to gay pride from people outside the queer community, all insidious in their own unique way. The first would be the denial of prejudices, ignoring that there is a problem and therefore allowing it to persist. Typically this is routed in the fact that someone outside of a discriminated group will not personally experience discrimination, and so with limited exposure to it they presume that it doesn’t exist anymore; because it occurs less often in public, where they can witness it.

The second is a kind of thinly veiled prejudice, mistaking passiveness towards what occurs in someone’s own home for acceptance. True acceptance would be indifference to gay relationships no matter whether they’re on a private or public stage, not acting as though same-sex couples behaving publicly as couples do is ‘forcing’ their ‘lifestyle’ upon you.

The third is a phenomenon called “what-about-me”-ism. It’s rooted in discomfort that arises when confronted with your own privileged position, feeling that it’s unfair that marginalised identities should be ‘celebrated’ when their own identity goes simply unacknowledged. They fail to see how it is necessary to elevate a group who have previously been shunned and abused by society at large, primarily by the straight, white men who made the laws. It makes them feel left out, perhaps, despite them belonging to a socially accepted group who would have actively benefitted from queer persecution if they were born fifty years ago. To these people, ‘gay pride’ is almost considered equivalent to ‘straight shame’, and this can breed bitterness.

Discrimination, too, is not only a thing of the past. A 2018 study into British social attitudes found that only 66% of the public think that lesbian and gay sexual relationships are ‘not wrong at all’, while 10% felt that they are ‘always wrong’. A total of 33% – nearly a third of the British public – felt that same-sex relationships could be wrong to some extent.

Some might point out that 66% is a massive number compared to 20 years ago, which would be correct. There has been a consistent improvement in attitudes, for the better. In 1977, only 56% of people surveyed in the US felt that gay and lesbian people should have the same job opportunities as straight people, rising to 93% by 2019. In 1977, 77% of people surveyed felt that gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to adopt kids, this has also now dropped – to 23%. From the perspective of improvement, statistics always seem brighter and more positive, but on their own, these figures make for grim reading. 7% of people surveyed in the last three years are still actively opposed to something as essential as equal employment for LGBTQ+ people, and 23% would oppose a child in need of a loving home being adopted by a same-sex couple. And where there are views like this in society, there are actions and behaviours – both implicit and explicit – making the lives of queer people who live openly much more difficult.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when discussing issues facing the LGBTQ+ community today. Home office statistics show a worrying trend of hate crimes in the UK against LGBTQ+ people more than doubling in four years, reaching a staggering total of 17,134 crimes in 2021. Although, this number is likely much higher. The charity Stonewall report that more than 2 in 5 transgender people in the UK have been the victim of a hate crime, although 4 in 5 hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people go unreported to the police.

One such hate crime which has unfortunately received little to no media coverage is that of devoted NHS Doctor Gary Jenkins, who was tragically murdered in July of 2021 in a targeted homophobic attack. It is no surprise when acts like this can be committed in modern Britain, that 58% of gay and bisexual men do not feel comfortable holding their partner’s hand in public, and 29% of LGBTQ+ people avoid specific streets and areas as they feel they are not safe for them because of their identity.

The UK may be more tolerant than some other nations, but we shouldn’t have to settle just because it has been worse in the past, or because our queer friends across the globe in countries with strict anti-gay legislation are objectively suffering more. We can help them, while also helping create a Britain where queerness is not trivialised and disregarded.

Gay pride started out as a riot opposing police brutality in queer spaces and should be considered a necessary social and political movement to this day. Over time, it evolved to push for tolerance of the queer community by parading an extravagant display of everything ‘gay’ that society shunned, out on the streets for all to see. The fight for tolerance has since morphed into a fight for acceptance, now that the law somewhat protects LGBTQ+ identities. But there is still much to fight for, and even when we one day arrive in a safer society for queer people, there will be much to celebrate. Pride is about showing people who dislike the community that we are here to stay regardless of what they think; that we are here, we have always been here and we will always be here. That in spite of their best efforts, we have survived and we are thriving. We’ve had to fight very hard to get to a place where we can celebrate our identities in public, and we won’t tone it down for anyone’s comfort.

However, no matter how ‘extra’ they can be, pride festivities still hold this profound meaning. So how did we end up in a place where pride is sometimes more associated with a branding change on some M&Ms than it is with actual issues facing the community? A place where some queer people themselves are dubbing the occasion annoying?

‘Rainbow capitalism’ is a pretty new term – a recent phenomenon, with its rise and its fall both occurring in just the last decade. It is the incorporation of LGBTQ+ identities and their symbols into capitalist and consumerist organisations, typically companies and businesses, to appear supportive of the movement and to sell merchandise marketed towards the queer community and allies. Think for example of companies applying a rainbow filter to their Twitter profile picture for the month of June, of supermarkets selling rainbow-striped clothing ranges, (which seem to pop out of existence on July 1st like some kind of ‘Schrodingers Sweatshirt’) or even apps like Uber making all of their maps turn rainbow coloured during pride month.

On the surface, this seems positive. It’s a move towards normalising being queer or trans in a society that often treats these identities like dirty words, or harbours the views discussed previously. But at what point does the involvement of mega corporations into pride month become redundant? When does it become virtue signalling, as opposed to being genuinely progressive? Excessive displays of positivity and acceptance are preferable to excessive negativity, of course, but this is not a high benchmark to strive for. LGBTQ+ people deserve to know that they are accepted and safe in their communities as a fundamental human right. They shouldn’t have to feel grateful just because there are rainbow flags up in a few nearby businesses, since someone at a head office hundreds of miles away told them to put them up so they don’t get into a homophobia scandal. It reads as over-compensation, or simply as boundless praise seeking.

In some communities in the UK, blatantly open homophobic views would now be considered discriminatory and wrong, at best ‘inflammatory’, and so they typically aren’t expressed openly in many spaces to avoid a so-called “political debate”. (In my experience, this is how some people will refer to it if you disagree passionately with their narrow-minded worldview). But that doesn’t mean they don’t still exist and that pride isn’t still necessary.

Pride in the sense of ‘rainbow capitalism’ has become a problem for numerous different reasons, just a few of which I have outlined.

  1. Performative allyship. This is the exploitation of marginalised communities for profit by publicly feigning allyship, without doing any of the work which would constitute a true, meaningful ally. There’s a certain irony to companies using ‘pride’ to make money, while simultaneously giving none of their profit to organisations that actually support the true meaning of pride. The proceeds from pride merchandise could be donated towards lobbying governments, funding educational campaigns, supporting LGBTQ+ charities, helplines and shelters. Instead, many will pocket all of the proceeds and somehow believe that simply marketing these items – often with artwork or slogans stolen from small queer-owned businesses or creators – is doing enough good.
  2. Pandering. Queer people often don’t want to be told we’re ‘brave’ and ‘fabulous’ for the simple fact that we are queer. We just want to be treated normally, like our sexual orientation does not matter any more than that of a straight person. That is not to say that it isn’t often a brave decision to come out, because it certainly is in a world where doing so can create opposition and adversity, but this should not be heralded as an expectation. Not everyone wants to ‘come out’, and some simply do not feel the need to. If your colleague casually refers to meeting his boyfriend after work and your response is something in the vein of “wow that’s so amazing! I really think you guys are so brave” as opposed to “cool, hope you have a nice evening”, you should ask yourself why. Pride is a time to celebrate queer identities, but in day-to-day life not all queer people want to feel like a spectacle, or to be placed on a pedestal, just because they are queer. This is reductionist, and can be perceived as pandering. Rainbow capitalism only encourages this kind of behaviour, with messaging that seems to urge people to come out of the closet and assume a stereotyped version of queerness which doesn’t ultimately celebrate diversity. The implication that opting out of rainbow accessories from Asda for the month of June means you aren’t proud of who you are, is insulting, and unhelpful to the real pursuit of diversity.
  3. Stereotyping. Following that last note, rainbow capitalism also typically reinforces stereotypes of excessive flamboyance which can be weaponised against queer folk in day-to-day life. If someone’s only exposure to the gay community is the garishly colourful aisle of pride merch at their supermarket, and the pre-conceived notions they grew up with, these things can combine to create a warped mental image of what a queer person looks like. This is not to say that flamboyance is in any way a negative trait to be associated with, but when a highly masculine-presenting man who enjoys male-centric activities and doesn’t typically divulge his sexuality, comes out as bisexual or gay to his friends, it may be very upsetting for him to find that he is now being seen differently. He might be told he doesn’t ‘look’ gay, and that this unsettles his friends. He might suddenly receive feminine nicknames and jokes at his expense, or be bought rainbow-themed novelty gifts which he’s expected to wear for their amusement despite them not at all aligning with his personal style. His female friends might suddenly want to talk ‘tea’ with him, refer to him like ‘one of the girls’ and try to discuss Drag Race with him. Somehow, his masc identity conflicts with his gay identity in their minds, and this is a fundamental problem with typically femme LGBTQ+ imagery. It not only excludes those who are not femme aligned, but also cultivates stereotypes that simply don’t apply to all or even most people in the LGBTQ+ community.
  4. Creating false safe spaces. The rainbow flag has traditionally symbolised a space that is gay-friendly or trans-friendly, ensuring that queer people have places to go where they don’t run the risk of having their day ruined by homophobia or transphobia. Where the staff will treat them as equals to everyone else. Where they can use the bathroom aligning with their identity, and where they can meet other people in the LGBTQ+ community too. Putting this flag everywhere – in businesses and corporations that cannot guarantee the views of their employees and customers align with the values of pride – can take away the meaning of the flag as signposting for a safe haven. Just because Asda has put a pride range in their stores and slapped a few rainbows on their advertising, doesn’t mean that the local homophobes who have always shopped at Asda are going to stop going, nor that they will automatically stop harassing same-sex couples just trying to go about their day to day business.
  5. Trivialising an important historical and social issue. Unfortunately, the conversion of pride month into a product to be marketed and sold has only served to restrict the necessary flow of information about the true meaning of pride, and the barriers facing the LGBTQ+ community. Talking about a murdered gay man does not sell T-Shirts, like talking about a famous drag queen does. While it is incredibly important to celebrate the achievements of successful queer people and support them in rising past the glass ceiling and into mainstream pop culture, it is even more important to remember those who lost their lives to earn them the right to be out and proud. Or, who died as a direct result of expressing their gay pride. Rainbows everywhere can actually distract from this important and necessary conversation, making the debate around queer rights more palatable for big corporations who would potentially lose money if they had to make any truly meaningful change.

However, there are some benefits to so-called rainbow capitalism; some of which have been mentioned. For example, the increasing normalisation of queerness as a result of exposure to queer culture and marketing. Furthermore, for people in more rural or conservative communities who perhaps don’t have access to LGBTQ+ owned shops and spaces, seeing LGBTQ+ representation in a shop they already visit may be incredibly validating as opposed to pandering. There are two sides to every coin, but we should all be in agreement that preserving the true meaning behind pride is invaluable.

Prioritise pride, not profit. Gay liberation, not consumerism.

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