Every June our social media feed looks like a dizzying assortment of VIBGYOR content. This year too corporations like Walmart and Meta have all announced their pride “campaigns,” and all profile photos have turned rainbow. That is, until the clock strikes 12 on July 1.
June, recognised as Pride month, is a political movement for and by the queer and transgender community. As conversations around the LGBTQ+ community entered the mainstream, the presence of the corporate sector escalated. Today, every company worth its salt “celebrates” pride with product launches and lip-service. Movies and campaigns around LGBTQ+ themes create an idea of progress hardly reflected in contemporary society. The passing of the regressive Trans Act 2019 in India, rejection of the Equality Act in the US and the general rollbacks of protections across nations, all point to the reality on ground. On top of everyday discrimination, 2021 saw the most number of registered murders of transgender people across the world, with a total of 375 deaths.
Corporations yield profits upto $50-100 billion annually during pride month. Though they claim to be allies in our bid for queer liberation, these corporations also fund politicians who pass legislations that shrink spaces for LGBTQ+ people. With visibility, the community has emerged as a unique consumer base, one that corporations don’t shy away from marketing to in the name of support. This concept, called pinkwashing, has in the recent decade effectively taken over the movement in the West.
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After persistent backlash, corporations have adjusted their strategy. This June, AT&T announced their campaign #TurnUpTheLove, and partnered up with the US’s biggest LGBTQ+ non-profit. Similarly, Walmart has come out with merchandise with quirky slogans like “Lez is more”, and “Walmart PRIDE Walmart Proud”. Corporations mentioned here also rank high on the US’ Human Rights Centre’s Corporate Equality Index.
However, in 2021 alone, Walmart donated a million dollars to politicians who have worked actively to roll back LGBTQ+ protections. Similarly, AT&T has funded anti-LGBTQ+ legislators with over a million dollars in the last year. Coming out with pride exclusive scrunchies and T-shirts, vowing to donate part of the profits to LGBTQ+ funds, the intention of capitalising on the inclusivity momentum, seems apparent.
OTT platforms like Netflix and Prime have seen a surge in queer content too. This April, on the heels of losing subscriber count, Netflix fired 150 employees in North America. The majority of the people fired were LGBTQ+ individuals or people of colour. Netflix was disqualified by the HRC this year, following their choice to air Dave Chappelle’s transphobic stand-up special. What’s interesting though, is that the company had a perfect corporate equality score in the five years leading up to 2022. Part of the score is assigned on grounds of having workplace policies for LGBTQ+ employees. How, with those protections in place then, was Netflix able to carry out the firings in the way it did, demands a hard look at the nature of these policies.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter — some reports suggest that they algorithmically tilt the balance in favour of conservative accounts — also announce their support for the community while trolls on the platforms engage in unfettered queerphobia.
Corporations cannot refute that their efforts at inclusion are anything but attempts in maximising profits and capitalising on an expanding consumer base. The conversations sparked by this visibility have value, but not at the cost of lack of protections to the community. In an era of conservatism, these projections of progress are dissonant at best and dishonest at worst.
In India, the LGBTQ+ movement doesn’t have the influence it enjoys in the West. Corporate takeover of an agitation this nascent could be very damaging. With time, the scope for expanding this consumer base to India will only increase. Companies with a presence here, like Amul, UNAIDS have also started announcing campaigns. The trend of pinkwashing is unlikely to recede, even amid the critique it faces. So, holding companies accountable becomes necessary. Any corporation claiming to support LGBTQ+ people must be able to prove its mettle through the policies that limit the arbitrariness in hiring and firing, the nature of anti-discriminatory policies they adopt and their work with the community outside the month of June. Political engagement and investments are crucial to this assessment. Most importantly, though, we must recentre our focus from celebration and discounts to the true meaning of pride — an agitation led by LGBTQ+ people for queer liberation, rooted in civil rights.