Why brands “rainbow-washing” for Pride month is even more harmful after a year in the pandemic

Tilly Brogan
January 25, 2024

Every year on May 31st, I stay up until midnight to watch businesses around the world suddenly update their logo to one with a rainbow on it; at the end of the month, I also watch as these corporations wait no longer than 00:01 on the 1st of July to return to their usual trademark symbol. More often than not, this marketing revamp is an example of rainbow-washing.

According to writer Justice Audrem, rainbow-washing is when ‘people, governments, and corporations that don’t do tangible work to support LGBTQ+ communities at any other time during the year, slap a rainbow on top of something in the month of June.’ In other words, it’s a performative act of allyship that makes tokenistic use of the LGBTQ+ struggle by minimising the community to things like a cartoon rainbow on a sandwich.

Above: A selection of rainbow logos for Pride 2021.

For many businesses, the chance to gain extortionate revenue from the “pink pound” in June each year is too good to resist. With an estimated combined buying power of $3.7 trillion dollars (approximately £2.6 trillion pounds), the purchasing power of the LGBTQ+ community means multinational companies have pencilled in Pride Month as a selling season as lucrative as Halloween or Valentine’s Day. But if these huge corporations aren’t doing anything to support the queer community and amplify their voices on the other eleven months of the year, they are guilty of exploiting the LGBTQ+ struggle for their own commercial gain.

But if these huge corporations aren’t doing anything to support the queer community and amplify their voices on the other eleven months of the year, they are guilty of exploiting the LGBTQ+ struggle for their own commercial gain.

While rainbow-washing trivialises the queer community and attempts to monetise from its shared history, it’s even more dangerous when done by brands who at the same time have taken measures that directly harm the LGBTQ+ community. One example is Pfizer Inc. While Pfizer wasted no time in sprucing up their Twitter profile with a colourful rainbow, they also donated $959,263 to 52 anti-gay politicians in 2019. It doesn’t matter that Pfizer have supported the LGBTQ+ community in other ways, if they’re still giving money to public figureheads that are actively causing harm to the queer community, then these efforts mean absolutely nothing. For other big corporations, their concern for the LGBTQ+ community is limited by geography; car manufacturers BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and technology companies Lenovo, Cisco, and Bethesda, refrained from giving their company logos in the Middle East an additional rainbow flair – the irony being it’s in these countries where LGBTQ+ people face the most oppression and perhaps need this allyship the most.

But it’s not just corporate companies that are guilty of stabbing the queer community in the back with a rainbow knife. On the same day that the UK Conservative Party tweeted a Happy Pride Month to the world, their Equalities Minister urged the party to pull out of Stonewall’s leading LGBTQ+ employment scheme. And let’s not forget the irreversible damage brought by Section 28; the 1988 law passed under a Conservative government not only prohibited schools and councils from talking about homosexuality which led to uncontrollable violence against young queer people, but was instrumental in creating a culture of fear and stigmatisation of the gay community who were already collapsing under the emergence of HIV and AIDS. Section 28 was eventually repealed by Labour in 2003, however that doesn’t mean the party hasn’t also blurred the boundaries between genuine queer ally and tokenistic hypocrite; current leader Keir Starmer had to recently apologise after praising a north London church for its work as a vaccination centre – the same church commonly known for its strong anti-LGBTQ+ stance and adamant advocation of gay conversion therapy.

Rainbow-washing is incredibly problematic in its own right, but even more so over this past year in the pandemic; as quickly as Thursdays became associated with standing outside your house and gossiping about your neighbours as you clapped for carers, the rainbow flag quickly became synonymous with the NHS. People who had once been subjected to homophobic abuse by hanging a pride flag outside their house were suddenly seeing rainbows in every window, and even sellers on eBay were rebranding the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag as a “Thank You NHS Flag”. Yes, nobody owns the right to the rainbow symbol; however, pushing the narrative that it’s associated with the NHS when for the last forty years it has been internationally recognised as a symbol for the LGBTQ+ community, feels like an intentional act of erasure. The flag represents a hard-fought struggle for fundamental human rights, and there is genuine fear in the community that its new association with the NHS will lead to the dissociation of the symbol with LGBTQ+ equality. And it wasn’t the NHS who gave themselves this motif – they’ve had rainbow lanyards for years in support of the queer community. It was instead the same political party that celebrated LGBTQ+ History Month in February, but who historically voted against marriage equality passing through parliament in 2013.

The flag represents a hard-fought struggle for fundamental human rights, and there is genuine fear in the community that its new association with the NHS will lead to the dissociation of the symbol with LGBTQ+ equality.

Because of the new association of the rainbow flag with the NHS, companies engaging in rainbow-washing for Pride month this year – particularly businesses in Britain – feels even more like queer tokenism; especially when so many of these corporations already added a rainbow onto their logo over lockdown in support of the NHS. Last year, British supermarket giant ASDA explained how they added rainbow colours to their clothing line to “show support for the NHS” as “during the pandemic the NHS has adopted the rainbow colours,” while Plymouth Citybus shared how they had rebranded their Pride bus to a rainbow NHS bus. After the pandemic, rainbow-washing in the UK isn’t just tokenism, it’s lazy tokenism.

As long as companies label themselves queer allies while still openly supporting anti-LGBTQ+ corporations and politicians like Donald Trump, businesses celebrating Pride month will forever be an empty gesture. The history and symbol of queer people isn’t something businesses can sell, and simply slapping a rainbow onto your logo educates and challenges no one. Being an ally is like being someone’s wingman – if you make it all about you then there’s no point in doing it at all.

Businesses can avoid rainbow-washing and support the LGBTQ+ community all year round by doing the following:

Making your marketing LGBTQ+ inclusive 365 days of the year

Queer allyship is not just for June. By normalising the use of LGBTQ+ individuals in your marketing all year round, companies can be real allies to the community. Starbucks did this really well in February last year.

Hire queer people for your team

The best allyship starts from within. By hiring LGBTQ+ employees, companies can engage with and directly support the queer community from the ground up.

Get current brand ambassadors to address LGBTQ+ issues

By asking existing brand ambassadors to address queer issues, you can show a good example of allyship; it doesn’t matter if they’re not a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Creators outside the queer community can still be a good ally by: talking about LGBTQ+ influencers they admire and direct their audience to start following them, inviting a queer activist on as a guest to discuss their work, and opening up about their own journey to becoming an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

Start donating to queer charities

Companies can use their platform to address issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community and highlight groups trying to combat these problems. By donating both time and money to tackle these issues, businesses can actually make a difference to the lives of queer people in their country. If your brand can’t make an impact directly, work with queer activists that can. Here is a list of great LGBTQ+ charities to work with.

It’s also essential to support QTPOC (queer and trans people of colour). Studies show that out of the quarter of young people facing homelessness who identify as LGBTQ+, 61% are people of colour, the figure rising to 79% in London. Businesses need to make a conscious effort to support the QTPOC community – here is a list of good QTPOC groups to donate to and support.

Learn how to be a trans ally

Anti-trans hate crimes have skyrocketed in recent years, and transgender people remain one of the most marginalised and stigmatised groups in the world. It’s important that companies learn how to be a trans ally as well as an ally to the wider LGBTQ+ community.

Support queer creators

There are so many fantastic queer creators on the internet right now. By supporting these creators all year round and not just in June, brands can work closely with the LGBTQ+ community and understand the queer struggle first hand. Involving queer creators in your business can help you run authentic campaigns and make original content that actually resonates with the LGBTQ+ community; this is even more essential during Pride month when brands are creating products that are specifically marketed to the queer demographic.

Here is a list of 43 LGBTQ+ creators and influencers.

Be prepared to defend your position

Being an ally to the queer community 365 days of the year will inevitably make homophobic trolls on the internet angry. Brands need to stand up against these comments and continue their support even in the face of hate. British lingerie brand, Playful Promises, clapped back to trolls last year in the best way. Who says putting homophobes in their place has to be boring!

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