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Pride London 2019Photo Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Rainbow capitalism is dying – will we miss it when it’s gone?

After a series of unusually successful boycotts from the anti-trans movement, corporate Pride is more muted than ever this year

Pride is more than just a protest or a celebration: it’s also an opportunity for the LGBTQ+ community to come together and laugh at corporations for their cynical attempts at allyship. But this sacred tradition is under threat. Last week, it was reported that Starbucks – a brand that has typically marketed itself as liberal and progressive – is instituting a nationwide ban on Pride-themed merchandise in its stores, citing concerns about right-wing backlash. In comparison to years past, fewer companies have changed their logo to the rainbow flag; queer influencers are booking less work, and Pride events across the US are struggling to secure sponsorship. There have been notably less annoying viral videos: no private equity firms assuring us that we slay the house down every day simply by being our authentic selves; no fast food chains publishing branded videos teaching us how to bottom.

When you’ve spent years rolling your eyes at rainbow capitalism, it’s difficult to know how to feel about its absence: we wished on a monkey’s paw and got what we wanted, but for the worst possible reasons. It would be nice to believe that corporations reined it in this year because they read our excoriating infographics about Pride being a riot and realised, in a moment of epiphany, that consumerism will never be the pathway to true liberation. But what they’re really concerned about is bomb threats, boycotts and harassment campaigns by an increasingly mobilised hard-right. It doesn’t feel like a win.

The rise of the anti-trans panic has changed the risk/benefit calculations which corporations have always made before wading into social issues. Thoughout the 2010s, after gay marriage began to enjoy broad popular support, LGBTQ+ marketing was a safe bet. But the terrain has shifted now that Pride is viewed – by a small but vocal minority – as synonymous with grooming, child abuse and Satanism. It’s part of the same push which has made Stonewall – previously an uncontroversial mainstream charity – close to a bete noire in British public. “While political pressure on corporations in the US, before 2018 or so, was coming primarily from LGBTQ+ rights groups, there is now equal or more pressure being put on large companies by those who support legal restrictions on transgender equality,” Carlos A Bell, author of The Queering of Corporate America: How Big Business Went from LGBT Adversary to Ally, tells Dazed. “Large companies in the US are therefore treading more carefully and generally being less outspoken in criticising anti-LGBTQ+ laws. In my opinion, that is unfortunate, but it does show the limits of relying on corporations to advance progressive causes.”

Two recent campaigns, in particular, have dampened the corporate world’s enthusiasm for Pride. The first was a boycott against Bud Light, which began in April 2023 after Anheuser-Busch (the company which owns the product) did a sponsored TikTok post with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Most consumer boycotts are short-lived: people get bored and move on to the next controversy. But the campaign against Anheuser-Busch was unusually sustained, committed and impactful, partly because the right sensed an opportunity to “send a message” to other companies. After months of plummeting sales, the company’s stock value has yet to recover. This has changed the game: the anti-trans movement has realised that these campaigns can work, and corporations have learned that associating with LGBTQ+ causes can have disastrous consequences.

Buoyed by this victory, the right moved onto Target, a supermarket chain which had released a collection of Pride merchandise, including a number of trans-inclusive items. As with Bud Light, there was a boycott campaign, but this time it was even more aggressive. Anti-trans activists filmed themselves going into stores, harassing employees and ripping down Pride displays. One of the designers involved with the collection, who is trans, was inundated with death threats and online abuse. Citing safety concerns for its staff, Target agreed to remove certain items from the collection, but not before losing billions in market value. 

The people behind these campaigns are not representative of the wider public (according to a recent GLAAD study, 75 per cent of Americans support LGBTQ+ advertising), but they have been able to force major corporations to bend to their will. Similar controversies in the UK have led to similar capitulations: Innocent Smoothies, to give one example among many, was piled on by transphobes after tweeting a series of innocuous insights taken from a training session with a trans charity. Instead of sticking to its guns, it deleted the tweet. According to Devon Esper, a LGBTQ+ marketing expert and the co-author of a report titled Beyond the Rainbow, companies are being forced to take a hard look at how they’re supporting minority groups. Esper insists that the relationship between brands and queer communities can be valuable, but it requires follow-through. “As with any campaign, brands should only do this if they are prepared to defend their decisions and statements and back it with action if they want to reach LGBTQ+ consumers in an authentic way,” Esper tells Dazed. 

While this Pride month has been more muted than usual, it would probably be an exaggeration to suggest this spells the death of rainbow capitalism. For corporations, the ultimate priority will always be increasing profit and maximising value: if there’s money to be made from selling products to LGBTQ+ people and their supporters, they won’t leave it on the table – as long as the risks don’t outweigh the benefits. “Corporations are trying to negotiate a heterogeneous market, and speak to the demands and desires of both of these constituencies,” Professor Roderick Ferguson, an academic at Yale University and the author of One-Dimensional Queer, an influential critique of liberal gay politics, tells Dazed. “That shows us that the corporations aren't really in it because of some ethical or political stance, but because they’re trying to derive as much profit from those markets as they can.” 

On a more long-term scale, corporations can benefit from positioning themselves as ethical and socially responsible. Conservatives often interpret this as a distortion of the free market, but it is still a response to its demands: it’s about drawing investment and maximising growth, just in a slightly roundabout way. Research has shown that there are strong economic benefits to companies adopting LGBTQ+ friendly policies: it helps to attract and retain employees, it typically has a positive effect on financial performance. The right is fond of the catchphrase “go woke, go broke”, but for the most part, the opposite is true. 

“Capital will do and say whatever it can to promote profit, saying one thing to one group and the opposite to another. It has to... cover that up, because it’s not really acceptable to say outright that you don’t care about social justice” – Professor Roderick Ferguson

Rather than completely disappearing, rainbow capitalism is likely to become more polarised. Not every corporation is equally vulnerable to the kinds of anti-trans campaigns we have seen this year. If their target market leans young or progressive, they can benefit from wading into “controversial” social issues. Nike, for instance, factors in the likelihood of alienating certain demographics in order to boost its appeal among others. This gamble has previously paid off: despite widespread uproar from the right, the company’s profits soared after it partnered with Colin Kaepernick, the American football player who spearheaded “taking the knee” in protest against police brutality. Earlier this year in Britain, transphobes tried to launch a boycott campaign against Nike for working with a trans model, but it fizzled out quickly. The anti-trans movement has some power as a consumer group, but it is not all-encompassing. 

But what would we really lose if rainbow capitalism were to disappear? People often complain that corporations profit from LGBTQ+ marketing community while doing nothing for the community, but this isn’t strictly true. It’s important to recognise that corporate allyship has, in fact, been instrumental in advancing a liberal form of gay politics, if only because this tells us something about the limitations of that approach. From the 90s onwards, the US corporate world was way ahead of the government in terms of introducing anti-discrimination policies and recognising gay partnerships, which helped set the stage for the introduction of equal marriage rights. Most of these efforts were driven by the lobbying of internal groups, and can’t easily be dismissed as cynical pandering. Whether or not there was a direct causative relationship, the rise of LGBTQ+ marketing did correspond with increasing societal acceptance towards gay men and lesbians. As part of a broader process, rainbow capitalism helped to make certain demographics within the community (white, professional, middle class, cisgender) seem normal and unthreatening. But the fact that things have got so bad today suggests that it was a reflection, rather than a guarantor, of social tolerance. 

Corporate allyship has always been two-faced, extending a hand of friendship with one hand and stabbing us in the back with the other. The campaign against Anheuser-Busch, for example, is a case of conservative-friendly fire: the company is a major donor to the Republican Party and its anti-LGBTQ candidates (as is Target and countless others). For the most part, corporations don’t make these donations because they have a secret antagonism towards the LGBTQ+ community, but because they support the kinds of low-tax, low-regulation economic policies which have been bundled together with social conservatism since the 1970s (a coalition that is necessary, in large part, because free market economics are perennially unpopular.)  This provides a strong incentive for corporations to partner with repressive political forces, regardless of their branding, their stated values or the personal views of their executives.

“One of the things that moments like this can do is expose the contradictions of these corporations, who will say one thing while investing in right-wing campaigns,” says Professor Ferguson. “This allows us to see the amoral nature of capital at work. It will do and say whatever it can to promote profit, saying one thing to one group and the opposite to another. Capital has to do a certain amount of obfuscation to cover that up, because it’s not really acceptable to say outright that you don’t care about social justice.”

If free market capitalism is amoral, then it is also pliable. When it comes to social issues, corporations have no greater loyalty to our opponents; they are vulnerable to pressure from either direction and they have, at times, made effective interventions against discriminatory legislation (even while donating to the politicians responsible). “At this time, LGBTQ+ activism remains crucial, and that activism should include, in my opinion, engaging with corporate America and, when necessary, applying pressure on it to do the right thing by defending equal treatment and equal citizenship rights,” says Professor Ball. 

This approach can only take us so far, though. Corporations might advocate for legal reform, as they have done in the past, but they’re not going to advance any cause which threatens their bottom line. While repealing discriminatory legislation is important, this approach – on its own – isn’t going to address the poverty, police violence, homelessness and exploitative labour practices which LGBTQ+ people face (factors such as race, class and gender identity make some demographics more vulnerable than others.) The actions necessary to remedy these problems would be fundamentally hostile to the interests of any major corporation. 

“LGBTQ+ activism remains crucial, and that activism should include, in my opinion, engaging with corporate America and, when necessary, applying pressure on it to do the right thing by defending equal treatment and equal citizenship rights” – Carlos A Bell

The shifting terrain of rainbow capitalism presents an opportunity to think about what we want victory to look like and who we want on our side. Some of the world’s most powerful weapons manufacturers, commercial landlords and fossil fuel companies are still flying the rainbow flag, and being celebrated for doing so, even as their activities immiserate and endanger queer people around the world. If we are only concerned with individual rights and the absence of legal discrimination by the state, then it makes perfect sense to ally with these corporations. It’s not hypocritical for Lockheed Martin to support a model of gay rights which is oriented towards professionals in the Global North and doesn’t oppose colonialism. It’s not contradictory for BlackRock (the largest commercial landlord in history) to support a model of gay rights which has nothing to say about economic redistribution or the housing crisis. That model itself – which divorces the LGBTQ+ movement from other struggles – is a large part of the problem. 

More and more, people are rejecting this single-issue approach in favour of a more expansive vision of queer liberation: just this week, a number of public figures  - including Joe Lycett and Shon Faye - have backed out from the British LGBT Awards, in protest against the ceremony's sponsorship deals with Shell and BP.  “This is a moment in which you have interesting possibilities where politics is concerned,” says Professor Ferguson. “In Florida and around the US, the attacks on queerness are taking place in the context of the attacks on Blackness; attacks on anti-racist politics, practices and analyses; critiques of settler colonialism, and attacks on environmental justice. If people see this more clearly, this might produce a more multi-dimensional queer politics.”

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