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The Dark Reality of Rainbow Capitalism

Graphic by Marcelo Orrico.

In 2019, I went to my very first Pride celebration. Nervous about the day’s 100-degree heat and the overwhelming likelihood of leaving with a sunburn, I popped into Target in search of a hat, or at least some extra SPF.

Rather than the usual assortment of crop tops and borderline-translucent leggings, the clothing section was a sea of rainbows. Tulle skirts in bright colors filled the racks. Rainbow flags were slapped across the backs of denim jackets, paired rather appropriately with t-shirts displaying rainbow avocados and the words “extra like guac” in bold print. Even the pet aisle was overflowing with rainbow bandanas and clip-on bows — perfect for a person’s newly-out Frenchie, I imagine.

All available for purchase for one month only at my local multi-billion-dollar corporation.

Happy Pride.

Photo by Aloyisius on Wikimedia Commons.

What is rainbow capitalism?

Rainbow capitalism refers to the way companies, such as Target, appeal to the LGBTQIA+ market by commodifying queer identities to generate sales. Often, companies will include rainbows in their logos and release Pride-themed products in May or June, only to return to business as usual on July 1.

At its best, rainbow capitalism is mainstream representation; at its worst, it’s a disingenuous ploy to increase profit while simultaneously supporting blatantly anti-LGBTQIA+ policies.

In 2018, for example, Pfizer proudly sported a rainbow logo during June, yet that didn’t stop the pharmaceutical company from donating nearly one million dollars to 52 anti-gay politicians between 2017 and 2018, according to Forbes. Although a Pfizer representative later claimed the donations were only “based on [the politicians’] support of the biopharmaceutical industry,” Pfizer’s inconsistency in their support of the queer community indicates that their actions were little more than a performance.

A new study highlights 25 companies that claim to support LGBTQIA+ policies but have donated to anti-gay politicians in recent years. The list includes companies like CVS, Comcast, and AT&T, who have donated a combined $1.26 million to anti-gay politicians since 2019.

Some companies — including Target — donate either a lump sum or a portion of their proceeds to LGBTQIA+ organizations; alongside their Pride line, Dr. Martens donates $100,000 to The Trevor Project annually. While charity is certainly a good thing, it’s also important to note that many of these donations don’t put a dent in a company’s budget— in Target’s case, their 2020 donation roughly equaled 0.0001 percent of that year’s revenue, and it’s unclear how much money their Pride collection made.

Rainbow capitalism erases the history of Pride.

The first Pride was a riot.

During the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, nine NYPD officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a mafia-run gay bar in Greenwich Village. The officers made 13 arrests, apprehending employees selling bootlegged liquor and multiple patrons who were not in compliance with the (technically mythical) gender-appropriate clothing law.

Angered and exhausted from the incessant police raids and brutality, a nearby crowd of neighborhood residents and bar patrons — many of whom were butch lesbians, Black trans women and trans women of color — began throwing coins and other objects, forcing the officers to barricade inside the building.

The riots continued for five days.

The events at the Stonewall Inn marked a turning point in LGBTQIA+ liberation. Soon after the riots, activists formed the Gay Liberation Front and demanded an end to the widespread harassment and discrimination suffered by LGBTQIA+ individuals. A year later, on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, thousands of activists marched through New York City in protest – and year after year, the marches continued.

Today, Pride marches are more often reminiscent of a large party than a protest. As journalist Alex Abad-Santos pointed out, Pride is now “a branded holiday,” and rainbow capitalism heavily contributed to this shift as it flattened the endless variety of queer identities and issues into one hegemonic, marketable category. After all, strife and trauma don’t sell nearly as well as a rainbow bottle of Absolut.

What can I do to help?

Let’s be honest: it feels good to have queer identities celebrated. Even if a company’s activism is entirely performative, the representation given to LGBTQIA+ individuals during Pride month is refreshing. And a lot of Pride merch is really, really cute.

Rejecting rainbow capitalism doesn’t mean you can’t purchase anything for Pride. Rather than buying from massive corporations, consider supporting queer-owned small businesses instead.

Queer Latinx artist Bianca Negron designs and sells hats, pins, t-shirts and more on her site, biancadesigns. Negron frequently donates her proceeds to LGBTQ+ organizations such as The Marsha P Johnson Institute and The Audre Lorde Project.

If you want your money to have an even greater impact, consider donating to mutual aid organizations like Out in the Open, a Vermont-based organization distributing 100% of its funds “to rural QTBIPOC/LGBTQ+ community members.” At Mutual Aid Hub, you can easily find mutual aid organizations closest to you.

Photo by QZAP - Photo archive via Flickr

Liberation can’t be won in a rainbow Mickey Mouse hat. Pride is a time of celebration, but it’s also a time of remembrance of and appreciation for the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought — and continue to fight — for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.

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