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Urban Decay
courtesy of Urban Decay

Should we be annoyed at beauty brands marketing off Pride?

From Marc Jacobs to Milk to Morphe, more beauty brands are jumping on the Pride bandwagon by releasing rainbow-inspired collections and putting out #inclusive marketing campaigns

Every year, in June, rainbow flags begin to appear in major cities. They’re there to mark Pride Month, a month dedicated to remembering the Stonewall Riots, the LGBTQ+ uprising in New York City that took place on the 28th of June, 1969. The riots happened because police were clamping down on homosexuality by targeting Manhattan gay bars – only when the police tried to raid one bar, called The Stonewall Inn, its patrons decided to fight back. Trans people and lesbians threw rocks at the police, sparking a riot that lasted for days. It was the LGBTQ+ community’s message that they would not be suppressed.

Stonewall is why most Pride parades happen around the end of June and beginning of July; in fact, the first Pride events in America started in 1970, on the one year anniversary of Stonewall. Back then, Pride was a protest, a way of remembering the message of the Riots, but over the years, as LGBTQ+ rights in the West have improved, many Prides have begun to resemble something more of a party – and increasingly, brands are seeking to get involved in the action. Some bigger companies will sponsor overall Pride festivities, some will pay for a float in the parade, others will release products, lines or campaigns that in some way link to Pride and its famous rainbow symbol, or to the idea of LGBTQ+ inclusivity more broadly. This year, the latter camp seems to include a record number of beauty brands.

Take for instance beauty retailer Sephora, who recently released the campaign “Identify as We” with a video exclusively starring LGBTQIA+ influencers and activists, such as models Hunter Schafer and Aaron Phillips, writer and public speaker Fatima Jamal, and the brilliant trans writer Kate Bornstein, called “We belong to something beautiful.” Or LVMH-owned beauty brand Make Up For Ever, who have launched a campaign called #AcceptedAnywhere: Own Your Nude, a range of 12 nude lipsticks modelled by young people from the Hetrick-Martin Institute, North America’s longest-running and largest LGBTQIA+ youth organisation.

Then there’s MAC Cosmetic’s #welovepride campaign, a curation of rainbow-focused and glittery products and visuals celebrating Pride. Marc Jacobs has released a new special edition packaging for the lip gloss Enamored (With Pride). Milk has the Wear Your Pride product range. Beauty brand Tarte has teamed up with YouTuber Jessie Paege to create the let it rain-bow eye palette for Pride, while Urban Decay has launched The Sparkle Out Loud Heavy Metal Glitter collection, modelled by same-sex couples. Morphe has the PRIDE Live In Colour collection (#MakeLifeColorful), Anastasia Beverly Hills has dropped a collab with RuPaul’s Drag Race queen Alyssa Edwards (marketed by the PRs as “the palette you need this Pride”) and Sally Hansen is selling the Xtreme Wear Pride Nail Color Collection, a range of rainbow nail polishes.

The list goes on. But how should we feel about all of these beauty brands turning the ethos of Pride into a product or a hashtag – is it a cynical marketing ploy or a real push for change?

To start with, it seems relevant to point out that make-up and queers have a long-standing relationship. When brands like Uber, who have nothing much to do with the queer community, put rainbow flags on their app in a surface level sign of solidarity or support, the connection can feel a little tenuous. When pop stars like Taylor Swift, who have never spoken out about LGBTQ+ rights before suddenly drop a big gay music video, it can feel a bit like queer-baiting. However, make-up helps LGBTQ+ people to pass, allows us to experiment with our gender presentation or else to wear it as war paint. It’s this dynamic that might explain why so many queer people work in the beauty industry, and also why the beauty industry itself is shifting to become more queer, with the rise and rise of gender-neutral make-up brands.

“I don’t need branding to be queer or to be proud, whatever that means, I need brands to use money to fund LGBTQIA+ charities, education, clinics.” Tom Rasmussen

“I’m a drag queen, so make-up has given me, perhaps foremost, a chance to earn a (small) living,” elaborates Tom Rasmussen, drag queen, author and Dazed Beauty Contributing Editor. “I love wearing make-up and a chance to monetise on something that once brought me a lot of trauma feels like a good fuck you,” they continue. “It's always been a powerful tool for me to explore my gender – at different times in my life I’ve worn a full face in the day and barely any for drag, and vice versa. By allowing me to transgress my gender aesthetically, make-up has allowed me to therein consider it intellectually. Also, I do love glitter; life can be pretty drab, especially for LGBTQIA+ people, when it comes to discrimination and violence – make-up won’t solve our problems but it can give us a means of creativity, self-expression and also escape.”

For all of these reasons, Tom says that they don’t have a problem with the basic principle of make-up brands engaging with Pride, after all, it makes a lot more sense than other industries. The problem arises with brands creating Pride collections, explains Tom, when they focus more on the product than they do the principles of Pride: “I couldn’t care less about a brand who does a rainbow palette, or unicorn skincare – is that what thousands of pounds and boards of designers and execs really think Pride is?” they ask. In other words, it can feel a little bit literal – or even eye-roll inducing – to boil LGBTQ+ identities down to a colourway, a motif, or a concept like nude lipsticks... and being who you are.

“I don’t need branding to be queer or to be proud, whatever that means, I need brands to use money to fund LGBTQIA+ charities, education, clinics,” Tom elaborates. “MAC — with the MAC AIDS Fund, which has literally raised $500million for HIV and AIDS related causes – is an example of a brand putting their money where their make-up is,” Tom explains.

Thankfully, this year, many brands have got the memo. $1 from every Sephora Heart Pride item sold will go to LGBTQIA+ organisations. Make Up For Ever is donating $2 from every Artist Nude Creme sale. As well as their long-standing work with the AIDS Fun, MAC sponsor New York Pride. Marc Jacobs is donating 10% of the retail price of each limited-edition Enamored to the charity Sage, which supports LGBTQ+ seniors. Tarte donated $25,000 to The Trevor Project, a crisis intervention organization for the LGBTQ+ community. Urban Decay is donating 100% of profits from one eyeliner to British LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall. Morphe says: “100% of net proceeds from the Pride collection will be donated to The Trevor Project during Pride celebration to help fund 24/7 suicide prevention and crisis intervention services for LGBTQ+ youth.” And finally, Sally Hansen’s collection is a partnership with GLAAD. The brand’s vice president of Global US Marketing, Celia Tombalakian, said: "We are honored to partner with GLAAD on this special collection, to support their important work and to celebrate PRIDE in a colorful, and meaningful way. With this rainbow collection, we offer a way for all to show their PRIDE on their nails.”

The language might be painfully cheesy, but these brand’s donations signal that real change has happened in the beauty industry within just a couple of years – since, say, L'Oréal controversially dropped Dazed Beauty’s LGBTQ+ Editor Munroe Bergdorf as the face of a campaign after she tweeted that all white people are racist (in terms of structural racism, and in response to the Charlottesville rallies) back in 2017. Brands are beginning to recognise that their support cannot be empty – it needs to be backed up with concrete actions, that allyship is not a badge you can simply wear, but it needs to be demonstrated.

“Four trans women of colour have been murdered in the States this Pride month. When this is happening, I feel like I honestly couldn’t give less of a shit about campaigns.” Tom Rasmussen

However, the worry with brands releasing Pride collections is that when Pride month passes, and the attention moves off of the cause, LGBTQIA+ people will continue suffering discrimination and violence, while organisations will still need incoming funding. For these reasons, brands need to focus on better inclusion all year around. “From our hiring practices to in-store programming, we are always striving to cultivate a welcoming environment that lets everyone know that they can participate in beauty and they belong,” says Deborah Yeh, Sephora's CMO, to Allure, acknowledging this – possibly off the back of the brand’s recent racial profiling scandal involving singer SZA. One Sephora initiative to this effect is their Bold Beauty classes: “free 90-minute make-up sessions aiming to serve transgender people and offered all year round, not just in Pride Month.”

Better yet, vegan beauty brand Herbivore Botanicals makes year-round donations to LGBTQ+ charities from the sales of its serum, Prism Exfoliating Glow Potion, $1 to various organisations including the Trans Women of Color Collective, which creates safe spaces for trans and gender non-conforming people of colour. British brand Jecca Blac, meanwhile, began through offering make-up lessons to trans women in a safe space. They hire trans people and recently offered make-up lessons to trans people in London. As Jecca told Dazed Beauty: “We offer make-up lessons, products and support that simply hasn't been done before, such as beard shadow coverage and tips on how to 'feminise the face'. Being inclusive of all make-up wearers is key for us, as is educating the customer and the beauty world about the importance of the LGBT+ community.”

Ultimately then, as long as brands are hiring LGBTQ+ people as well as including us purely in their campaign imagery, as long as they are actually putting the proceeds of their collections into LGBTQ+ causes, and as long as they support these causes beyond Pride month alone, their support feels welcome and authentic. Especially in a climate where life for a lot of LGBTQ+ people still feels miles away from the rainbows and glitter we see in these campaigns. “Four trans women of colour have been murdered in the States this Pride month. When this is happening, I feel like I honestly couldn’t give less of a shit about campaigns,” says Tom. “Whether brands, organisations, individuals, we all need to do better, we need to use our platforms to raise awareness of these issues.”