Celebrating Pride in its essence cannot be tokenistic and led by marketing algorithms, but must be consistent, conscious and deeply rooted in corporate culture and responsibility, says Shagun Sethi, a Director for Global Leadership for OneShared.World.
At the onset, it is important to clarify and note that I do not belong to the LGBTQIA+ community and that this article is written purely from an ally’s perspective. I cannot begin to understand and would never try to represent the problems facing the community and challenges affecting them every day. I write this from an outside-in perspective as a human rights activist, social development professional and gender/women’s rights activist.
It’s not all rainbows (and butterflies)
Every December, markets across the globe turn red and white, lights adorn every storefront and almost every consumer good is neatly gift-wrapped and ready to be sold as a Christmas-themed treat. Similarly, every Halloween, spooky decor blankets public spaces both virtual and physical. The trend continues for Diwali, St Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving, Holi, Eid and so forth.
In the last decade, every June, rainbows have started covering my social media feed and local streets and suddenly, just like that, sexuality and gender are being neatly wrapped in a parcel and sold to me like a treat.
At the outset, let’s begin by answering the question “What is Pride month? When did it start? Why the rainbows?”
According to the Library of Congress, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month is currently celebrated each year in the month of June to honour the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. The Stonewall Uprising was a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States. Memorials are held during this month for those members of the community who have been lost to hate crimes or HIV/AIDS. The purpose of the commemorative month is to recognise the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have had on history locally, nationally and internationally.”
With this understanding, it is fair to assume the socio-cultural significance of pride. Then why do corporates need to be involved? Why is this becoming a marketing stunt?
Historically, companies have only been liable to investors, shareholders and perhaps even government agencies. All a board had to do was create an annual financial report, note their findings to these stakeholders and be done with their work. Maybe they would hire lawyers and public relations experts in times of controversy to navigate brand imaging but that was about it. However, as monopolies around products were reduced and consumers gained significant power through human rights structures and courts, the number of stakeholders a company was responsible to also increased. It was no longer enough to just make a profit – companies had to protect consumer interest and act as a driver for social change. Corporate image was gradually more defined by the values they prescribed to than by the percentage of sales and revenue generated on a quarterly basis. This is not to say that all brands suddenly adopted liberal, egalitarian values; of course not, they each chose a narrative that was mainly led by board ideology and the popular consensus at the time.
This becomes important because gradually, as civil society motivations, non-profit action, employee needs and wants, and the general climate of activism rose across the world, brands had to accommodate and include policies and measures that empowered their consumers and stood for the values they espoused. Ideas of equity, inclusion and diversity become synonymous with branding and advertising as waves of feminism and anti-racism enveloped the world.
This is when brands had to start reconsidering and re-narrating their products and services because if they only wanted to serve the majority blue-eyed white men, they would not make a profit and would most likely be (as Gen Z calls it) cancelled. Gradually, more women appeared as equals in advertisements, skin tones were more representative and language for marketing became more inclusive and less stereotypical.
Now, decades of struggle, debate and protest later, Pride has (arguably) gained the same traction as feminism did in the last century. With laws towards same-sex marriage changing every year and people from transgender and other communities being recognised on forms and official documentation, brands need to adapt to and adopt the changing socio-cultural context and use their spaces and platforms to champion diversity and inclusion. That is what popular culture says people want, that’s the change in tide, and brands that lean in and gain significant first-mover advantage.
However, putting up one rainbow or changing your logo colours to those on the Pride flag for the month of June is not only tokenistic, it is also deeply toxic and opportunistic (read this article on sports and inclusivity). Inclusivity and equality are values and values are demonstrated over time, not just by short-lived actions. In order to truly embody the values governing Pride, intentional, everyday action is needed, and while this may sound complicated and time-consuming, it really isn’t. Here is a simple checklist to actually be inclusive – not just with rainbows!
- If your brand truly wants to embody the spirit of Pride and come out in public support for LGBTQIA+ folk, ensure that your hiring policies, employee wellbeing, health policies and codes of conduct are truly inclusive. This does not just mean the anti-discrimination disclosure at the bottom of your website and/or policy documents and job descriptions; this means proactively hiring and seeking folks from underserved and underrepresented communities.
- For instance, this would mean conducting specific hiring drives wherein only people from these communities can apply for jobs and seek positions. It would mean redrafting dress codes, relabelling restrooms in your facilities and office spaces, and rethinking health policies to account for the needs of people from different genders and sexualities.
- It’s simple: Put the rainbow in your logo if you take even one small step to ensure your employees feel empowered, represented and safe in the workspace.
Champion the cause
- Pride, as already touched upon, is a moment to celebrate diversity and raise collective consciousness towards the issues and identities of those most often forgotten by popular culture. Visibility and representation in the public and private spheres therefore become crucial and paramount to a movement rooted in the awareness generation. Hence, if your brand is considering developing a public narrative towards diversity and inclusion, and is embodying the idea of representation as a means toward the awareness generation and advocacy, consider providing a platform for LGBTQIA+ employees within your company to speak about their stories and journeys.
- This platform could be one that respects anonymity if and when needed, and gives voice to those who seldom have access to talk about their everyday lives. Having people from the community be the face of the brand, not just in June but as a year-long practice, would be a start towards enhancing visibility.
Pour money down the right drain
- Every Pride month, brands spend millions in an effort to incorporate Pride-related visuals and tokens into their brand icons, visuals and images. Again, as already mentioned, while such representation and visualisation are an essential part of advocacy, it is important to recognise that in the large scheme of activism and mobilisation for a movement of human rights, it is simply a small “means” and not an “end” in itself. From an activist’s or human rights professional’s perspective, if brands donated even 50% of the money they put into branding and marketing for Pride towards non-profits working for LGBTQIA+ people and their needs, we would have a more equitable world where consistent effort was put into bridging the divide between the haves and have nots.
Pride year, not month
- When we celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14, we document it as a day to appreciate our special someone. Similarly, when we celebrate Christmas on December 25, it is a recognition of religion, one that is practised year-round. None of these celebrations mean that love or religion is only felt and celebrated on that one day. Imagine not loving your partners every day and instead just on that one day. Or being atheist every day except on Christmas. Absurd, right? Then why do we celebrate Pride only in June and not every day? Why only on logos and not when a gay man asks for paternity leave? Why only on LinkedIn and not when trans employees want gender-neutral washrooms? Why only publicly and not in boardrooms and cubicles where action and decision-making reside every day?
- If your brand truly celebrates inclusivity and is a safe and empowering space for all genders, why not celebrate and honour Pride every single day, and just feast on it once a year? This would look like more gender-neutral branding, gender-conscious narrative development and sex-inclusive practices every day. It would look like rainbows on mundane Tuesdays in October.
Leverage corporate influence
- In today’s world, governments and civil society are not the only two pillars of society. In fact, they are not even the two most important stakeholders in governing everyday decisions and socio-economic conditions. With the industrial revolution and the rise of financial markets, the economy and the major players in the economy have gained significant leverage in affecting and influencing people’s behaviours, thoughts and opinions. Brands today decide the way people spend; they govern social decision-making and dominate personal life decisions, and while this is a double-edged sword, in this particular case, it’s an asset. If brands rally and position their strength, motivations and leanings towards influencing change for minority communities, in this case, the LGBTQIA+ community, real change can take place on the ground. We have all seen ways in which corporate influence has led to the formation of laws, change in policies and imposition of sanctions; now imagine a world where corporate influence could pave the way for more acceptance towards the LGBTQIA+ community in laws and local (conservative) politics? Apple and Facebook are two companies that have employed corporate leverage toward these issues.
Celebrating Pride is a matter of honouring those who were easily and conveniently forgotten by history. It’s a time to create a safe space for people belonging to different genders and sexual orientations, to explore their personhood and gain visibility, for just being. It’s a time to reflect on the heteronormative boxes we put ourselves into every single day and question the ways in which stereotypes and expectations cage and disadvantage people from non-majority genders and sexual orientations.
However, Pride is not a once-a-year festival. For us to celebrate it in its essence, it cannot be tokenistic and led by marketing algorithms. It has to be consistent, conscious and deeply rooted in corporate culture and responsibility. Only when your brand is being inclusive and intentional every day can Pride and the colours of hope truly shine; only then can you gain the moral high ground and professional accolades for leapfrogging the agenda; only then can you say you celebrate Pride.
Emily Birnbaum, “Apple Wields Its Lobbying Might against LGBTQ Laws”, POLITICO, April 2022
“GLAAD’s Recommendations for Corporate Allies”, GLAAD, May 2022
“The Facebook Administration to Take Further Measures to Limit the Spread of Hate Speech Against the LGBTIQ+ Community in the MENA Region”, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, September 2020