There’s a crucial difference between pink pound marketing – however tacky or cynical it may be – and pinkwashing. It’s time to pick our battles
Complaining about Pride being too commercial has become a June tradition in its own right. Which is understandable: corporate Pride is unequivocally bad. But much of this criticism is so glib and superficial that it ends up conflating real problems with inane nonsense that we simply don’t need to care about. And while I’d never dream of telling anyone to stop complaining, if you’re not doing anything to support the many cooler, cheaper and more fun alternatives to Pride, which already exist all over the country, then there might be better uses for your time.
Corporate Pride sucks, but the discourse around it is often muddled. Take the concept of ‘pinkwashing’. The term was coined in 1985, as a way for women with breast cancer to critique companies which claimed to support them while profiting from their illness. It was then used in relation to LGBTQ+ issues by the Palestine solidarity movement: in this context, it referred to Israel’s cynical exploitation of gay rights to present a progressive image and conceal its oppressive policies. As time went on, the term became more widely deployed to refer to the practice of violent governments or corporations appropriating LGBTQ+ issues to launder their reputations. The crucial component of pinkwashing is that it’s a smokescreen used to deflect attention from something else. This could apply to Israel, oil companies, and arms dealerships, but doesn’t really make sense as a framework to discuss Marks & Spencers releasing an LGBT-themed sandwich.
Yet, nowadays, the term ‘pinkwashing’ is regularly used to disparage any LGBTQ-related marketing campaign – from black-and-white Skittles to food delivery apps offering tips for a bottom-friendly diet. We can dislike these PR stunts on the basis that they are corny and pandering, but it’s unhelpful to collapse them together with the more insidious ways that Pride month is exploited. Burger King releasing – and having to apologise for – a set of burgers where both buns are ‘tops’ or ‘bottoms’ isn’t the same thing as the Israeli government presenting itself as a queer utopia to distract from its brutal military occupation, nor is it equivalent to the Home Office adding a rainbow to its Twitter profile at the same time it’s deporting queer asylum seekers. There’s a crucial difference between pink-pound marketing, however tacky or cynical, and pinkwashing. The first category is annoying and patronising but ultimately merits little response beyond an eye-roll; the second is actually important and worth devoting energy to fighting. Eliding the difference between the two leads to a trivialising effect, where a taco chain posting a gauche tweet is afforded the same significance as an apartheid regime marketing itself as a gay travel destination in order to bolster its image. We don’t have to care about these things equally.
It’s fine to be against corporate Pride, but we should endeavour to be actively for something too. People often pine for a bygone era when Pride was radical, which is all well and good but you can’t expect a counterculture to be handed to you on a plate by corporate-sponsored events. All over Britain, groups of people have responded to a lack of diversity in mainstream Pride events by starting something new. UK Black Pride, which was launched in 2005, is now Europe’s largest celebration of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Caribbean-heritage LGBTQ+ people. There are also several Trans Pride events, most notably in London and Brighton: when you recall Pride in London’s failure to prevent a gang of transphobes from hi-jacking its parade in 2018, it’s clear that these alternatives are sorely needed.
Free Pride, based in Glasgow, was started in 2015 after the city’s mainstream event began charging people to attend (including a £60 VIP ticket), as well as being strictly policed, corporate-focused, and overwhelmingly white and cis. “Transness, gender variation, spaces for Black or disabled LGBTQ people weren’t being taken into consideration at all,” the organisers tell Dazed. “We decided to offer a space for celebration, partying and fun, but also for learning. We introduced workshops about sex work, police abolition, and different aspects of trans identities.”
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Free Pride, and other events like it is, is an attempt to repoliticise the tradition. “It’s always been important for us to take positions on issues like Palestine or migrant detention, and to draw attention to how those struggles intersect with queer liberatory politics,” they explain. In contrast, Glasgow Pride’s 2015 slogan was “#BeHappy”. “However political we are, it’s not all doom and gloom,” say the Free Pride organisers. “There’s a lot of righteous anger but it’s primarily a space to connect, learn from and party with other LGTBQ people.” Alongside the focus on organising and activism, club nights have always been a key part of what Free Pride does, with a major focus on accessibility. All of their parties are pay-what-you-can (starting from free), held in accessible venues, and offer quiet spaces and taxi funds. “I’m not claiming by any means we’ve managed to achieve full accessibility,” they say, “but we have tried to make parties more accessible for disabled or trans people.”
Free Pride does what it does extremely well, but it’s not an isolated case. There are events like this happening in most British cities, and many of them offer the exact spirit which people claim to be hankering for when they bemoan Pride’s commercialism. At this point, the mainstream event feels like a lost cause, which isn’t to say it’s a space we should abandon entirely: protesting the presence of police is worthwhile, and we should absolutely care when the language and aesthetics of the LGBTQ+ movement are used as a PR shield by repressive governments and corrupt corporations. But if what we are objecting to is a more generic commercialism, our energies might be better directed towards building and supporting alternatives, instead of just… tweeting. “The feeling that we all have at Free Pride is that the corporate event is always going to exist and we’re not opposed to the idea of it existing. That’s fine… well, I don’t think it’s fine but it does exist and c’est la vie!” says one of the organisers. “And while things like that do exist, it’s imperative that we have an alternative. We can bitch about corporate Pride all day long, because it sucks, but there are better options available.”
It’s fair enough to have a principled objection to rainbow capitalism in all its forms, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be too distracted by marketing campaigns. A lot of this stuff is just profoundly trivial and not worth our attention. “To determine whether a movement genuinely challenges the structures of economic and political power, one need only measure how affected it is by the goings-on in the fashion and advertising industries,” writes Naomi Klein in No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. “If, even after being singled out as the latest fad, it continues as if nothing had happened, it’s a good bet it is a real movement. If it spawns an industry of speculation about whether movement X has lost its edge, perhaps its adherents should be looking for a sharper utensil.” Complaining about corporate Pride might be justifiable, but don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of going to something that’s actually good.