London Pride: Commercialised

Reflecting on the attempt to exploit the pink pound

This year London Pride coincided with the day England beat Sweden in the quarter finals of the World Cup. The pubs of Soho filled with two types of people: the England fan and the LGBT individual, many of whom were in fact the very same person. The mutually exclusive relationship that has been presented in the past is increasingly withering away. At least for a day, football fans were no longer afraid to be gay and gay people were no longer afraid to be football fans.

But this happy scene hides a more sinister truth. On a day to day basis outside of the accepting enclave of Soho, these individuals must hide parts of their identity. As a football fan, a man would be frowned upon walking into the Emirates in the arms of another man. Fans are forced to return back to the closet and agents advise players to remain in the closet.

Beyond the sad reality of the sporting industry, there was a more pressing and visible issue during Pride: its commercialisation.

Every restaurant and shop along the route of the Pride parade had clad their exterior with the rainbow Pride flag. Aware of the spending power of the LGBTQ+ community, these companies were understandably keen to get behind the idea of Pride. But this was not evidence of support for the legitimate concerns of LGBTQ+ individuals, but instead was an attempt to extract as many pink pounds as possible.

Companies care only notionally about LGBTQ+ equality and are happy to support it when it is likely to benefit them. Although the shops of Regent Street were covered with rainbows, as soon as one gets the train to Romford, Redbridge or Richmond the scene changes. Shops are no longer donning the rainbow. This is because it is not the cool (or commercially sensible) thing to do.

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These scenes show the way in which capitalism attempts to exploit and commercialise Pride.

If shops such as Starbucks and Nandos wanted to make a difference they would fly rainbow flags from their restaurants in countries where being gay is illegal. I doubt there is a pride flag flying proudly from a Starbucks coffee shop in Saudi Arabia, or from a Nandos in Dubai. This is because to do so would be commercial suicide. They would almost immediately be shut down by the police authorities. Even if they weren’t, certain customers might think twice before buying a Starbucks frappe or a half chicken medium.

Pride should not be railroaded by these companies trying to make a quick buck from the prejudices and discrimination that LGBTQ+ people have faced for centuries. Instead, if these companies want to make a genuine difference they should advocate for LGBTQ+ rights not only in the UK (where admittedly we still have a long way to come), but in those countries and communities where homosexuality is seen as a crime worthy of death.

As such, if these companies do decide to raise a flag, a massive responsibility falls upon them not only to advocate for LGBTQ+ individuals globally but also to ensure equality for LGBTQ+ individuals employed within their organisation. There is a rainbow ceiling that exists in many corporate environments, with LGBTQ+ individuals continuing to face barriers to executive and senior roles. Companies have a responsibility to ensure that LGBTQ+ individuals within the organisation can progress as their heterosexual counterparts can, whether or not they are flying the pride flag.

With this commercialisation of Pride lies another issue. Pride clothing ranges are produced in countries where being gay is illegal. The BBC, for instance, revealed that H&M produced its Pride range in Turkey, China, and Bangladesh: three countries where it is illegal to be gay. A male factory worker, employed by H&M, might produce a ‘love is love’ t-shirt, but he still could not return home to another man without fear. For that factory worker, his love of another man would be devalued, demeaned, and viewed worthy of death.

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Yes, companies such as H&M may be creating employment in these regions. But, in making these Pride ranges, they have charged themselves with an additional goal – promoting LGBTQ+ equality and rights. Through producing Pride shirts in countries where it is illegal to be gay, they are rubbing salt in the wounds of LGBTQ+ individuals.

If these companies want to make a real difference, inconspicuously producing Pride clothing in these countries is not the way to go about it. They should be providing ‘safe spaces’ at work for LGBTQ+ individuals, boycotting the government and threatening divestment from these countries. As multinationals, these companies have immeasurable power on the world stage. This is particularly true when their annual revenue is greater than the GDP of some countries where it is illegal to be gay.

These companies have an opportunity to champion a change and as customers, it is our right to ask for this change. We shouldn’t accept empty rhetoric and tokenism for the sake of making money. We should demand real tangible change, and if this doesn’t happen, Pride should be reclaimed from the overbearing corporate presence that pervades the event.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with the broad thrust of this article and am glad to see someone else calling out the pinkwashing of capitalism (which to be fair I want gone), but I do have to quibble with some of the details a bit (as the errors undermine an otherwise good article). While very homophobic and heavily restrictive of freedom of expression (China in particular, perhaps unsuprisingly), it isn’t illegal to have same-sex intercourse in either Turkey or China according to Wikipedia (Turkey in fact legalised it all the way back in 1858 while still the Ottoman Empire); though there exist no anti-discrimination laws in either country. Both also legally allow you to change your gender, but that’s more or less it.

    Homosexuality most certainly is illegal in Bangladesh with a penalty of up to life or up to 10 years hard labour and a fine on top, but it doesn’t carry a death sentence as the article seems to imply. That said, death threats have been made against LGBTI+ activists and I would be astonished if there haven’t been large numbers of homophobically motivated murders.

    With regard social attitudes, I think that Bangladesh is very homophobic. An ILGA report from 2017 suggests that 49% of Bangladeshis, think that people who are in same-sex relationships should be charged as criminals, while 38% disagreed, so Bangladesh is genuinely very homophobic

    Polling in China is unclear although a poll from 2009 suggests 30% of people in Beijing support same-sex marriage; and a poll from 2017 suggests just over 50% in Hong Kong support it with 70% in favour of an anti-discrimination law. I suspect the conclusion to draw is that the public as a whole just hasn’t thought about the issue.

    Ipsos polling from 2017 in Turkey suggests 27% in favour of same-sex marriage, 19% in favour of some form of legal recognition other that marriage, 25% opposed to any legal recognition and 29% undecided. There is however a law making it illegal for gay men to serve in the military with 96.3% of 1300 officers responding in favour of keeping it that way; although frankly why anyone would want to be part of any state sanctioned killing is beyond me. As a point of historical note, blacks were disproportionally drafted into the US military during the Vietnam War due to systematic racism, so quite why any LGBT+ group would want inclusion into the military puzzles me, but then I just think pro-military views frankly nationalistic and evil and would visibly dodge a draft if the UK introduced it.

    Put it this way, if I was gay I’d be delighted to be told that I could never join an organisation that trains me to kill people and hurts the mental health of those that join on top given that conscientious objection is illegal in Turkey, although this is not to diminish previous reports of “what Human Rights Watch calls humiliating and degrading examinations” to prove homosexuality (which seem from what I can tell to have been scrapped in 2015).

    Also, I think it’s hard to see how a clothing store having turnover larger than that of many countries proves that they can effect large changes in those countries if they don’t have operations there. Supposedly pro-LBGTI banks like Barclays likely could if they divested from places where homosexuality carries a death sentence and refused to process transactions from those countries.

    That said though, as an anti-capitalist, I’m unsure I want private companies being given anywhere near that much power (they should be nationalised or broken up if they get anywhere near that big). If we are to debate putting financial sanctions on say the Saudis (which I support on grounds other than just this) then surely this should surely be done either through our representatives or a referendum, rather than by a totally unaccountable for-profit company? There are also perfectly reasonable arguments against sanctions that need to be engaged with, and massive for-profits shouldn’t be allowed to bypass democracy.

  2. What bizarre tortured logic!

    As a gay man, I’m delighted to see busineses courting my pink pounds. They are in business to make money; they are not in business to bring about social change. I’m glad they are realising that making money from gay people makes better sense than hating gay people. If their HR practices don’t match up with their LGBT+ friendly image they will be caught out, and their business will suffer.

    As for other countries, I’m not sure why you want to rob Turkish workers of jobs. Restricting clothing contacts to particular countries would be a whole new kind of racism.

    • I’m not totally sure if I buy your rebuttal there Andrew. I guess the issue I have with your argument is that a business in say Russia would probably be able to make more money from pleasing social conservatives than it would lose from promoting hate speech against LBGTIQA+ people if it were to do things such as put up signs in the shop window with homophobic messages like “We support traditional Russian values, no peverts allowed” (a statement which about 70%-80% of Russians would agree with). And therein I think lies the problem with allowing or wanting businesses to just chase profit. (By the way, applying your argument to fossil fuel or tobacco companies suggests they should be given free reign to chase profit as there would be quite some social change if we got rid of them or heavily regulated/nationalised them.)

      What I think the bulk of Edward’s critique was about is whether businesses that well, chase profit should be given a prominent place at Pride, when it surely ought to be about the civil rights of LGBTIAQ+ people and not about giving hypocritical businesses free advertising (which results I think in LGBT+ groups being less likely to call them out, particularly after taking their money). Besides I think the main thing Edward wanted to see was better equality and diversity policies from these businesses, especially when they operate in places which are anti-LBGT.

      In regards the questions about calling for an anti-government boycott and threatening divestement, your argument seems to suggest that it would be racist to threaten to divest from say Saudi Arabia over human rights abuses as a method of holding them to account and getting them to respect human dignity. Quite ironically, I feel that your argument if applied consistently means that a boycott of South Africa over apertheid would have been racist.

      In any case, a boycott isn’t intended to be permenant or to harm the workers, but a way of taking a moral stand of refusing to profit from and to draw light to an injustice and to try to pressure an opressor to change their behaviour; not least if you think as I do that the same structures which cause homophobia also indirectly opress workers as well…

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