In three days, the month of Pride begins. Colourful parades, rainbow-coloured flags flying high in the sky, people decked up in bright clothing with flags painted on their cheeks, will walk hand in hand across the world to show solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community. The march has grown since its inception and become a global symbol of celebrating and accepting identities. But it has also turned into an opportunity for corporations to come up with quirky taglines on their social media, collaborate with LGBTQIA+ artists and incorporate the rainbow flag into their brands – only until the calendars flip to July.
A recent Starbucks advertisement about parents rekindling ties with their child - a transgender woman - has touched a chord with many. The ad, starring prominent transgender model Siya Malasi and featuring the hashtag #ItStartsWithYourName, was viewed more than 12 million times on Twitter and Facebook. Starbucks has in fact run similar campaigns with messaging around LGBTQIA rights in the United Kingdom and Brazil as well.
However, the ad soon sparked backlash, divided public opinion and highlighted the complexity of gender and social acceptance in the world’s largest democracy. While the feedback was largely homophobic, certain queer rights activists and allies were reminded of “rainbow capitalism” once again.
Rainbow capitalism is also known as ‘pink capitalism’ and ‘pinkwashing’ and is a term which is often used to commodify and commercialise LGBTQIA+ movements. The central ideology of rainbow capitalism is showing solidarity through the consumption of products which use rainbow colours or pride related themes, as Vrinda Ewering writes.
Bonita Rajpurohit, a transmodel who auditioned for the same ad says, “Starbucks is a mainstream company and a lot of people go there. When brands like these come up with such inclusive ideas, it makes people more aware and humanises the experience of a trans person. It plays a huge role in people's ideas and perceptions about a trans person ,” she says.
Showcasing logos in solidarity with the community shows them that the entity is standing with and by them. However, some queer rights activists bring to the fore the problem when companies introduce such campaigns only on the surface but are not taking the appropriate action inside their own walls to support the community.
"Many companies prefer to bring out ads online during the pride month for promotional purposes but if we may ask them- how many of them hire queer individuals ? How many are not doing labour rights violations? Starbucks has been known for underpaying the employees and union busting, how can a company like that claim to be inclusive by mere ads ?" says Meghna Mehra, a member of the All India Queer Association (AIQA).
Tokenism or support?
Major corporate houses in India have been at the forefront of campaigns fostering LGBTQ+ inclusion. According to the first ever global analysis done by the Boston Consulting Group on how companies are treating members of the community, more and more Indian companies are adopting a no-discriminative inclusion policy. This includes some of the marquee names of India Inc like Reliance Industries, Mahindra and Mahindra, Godrej and Tata Steel.
But ironically, the same corporations are reportedly simultaneously functioning as a major source for donations and electoral bonds to a political party which has often been under the scanner due to its policies and bills against the LGBTQ+ community, according to reports.
The hypocrisy is not limited to India. Corporates across the world that are eager to wave their flags during June, support anti-gay and homophobic politicians via donations. According to a report by Forbes, nine of the biggest, most LGBTQ-supportive corporations in America gave about $1 million or more each to anti-gay politicians in the last election cycle.
A study, released by the Popular Information newsletter in 2021, found that alongside pronouncements of LGBTQ+ support, corporations including CVS, AT&T, Walmart and Comcast have supported candidates who seek to block or otherwise restrict equal rights based on gender or sexual orientation.
A Comcast subsidiary, Xfinity, tweeted: “Pride is the love we share. And with Xfinity, it’s Pride all year.” Comcast itself has created “a virtual ‘Pride World’, where we will feature events, Pride floats, Pride flags, and even a Pronoun Guide for employees”.
But according to the study by Popular Information, Comcast has also donated more than $1.1m to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians since 2019, including $30,000 to the sponsors of anti-trans legislation in Florida and Texas and $1,095,500 to 149 members of Congress.
A double-edged sword
While companies do get hyperactive during Pride month, trans persons say that it does work for their advantage too. “I have gotten more work during this month than any other time. If some people don’t have a manager, then corporations might end up using them by paying them less money. If they have a manager then it becomes easy. But brands won't do something if it's not financially stable for them,” says Bonita.
She says that one of the reasons she chose to audition for the ad was because the budget was favourable. “I wanted to do it because it was good money for the main character. So this cannot be labelled as tokenism. One way or another we have to get roles. Tokenism is prevalent in the industry but every ad in which a queer person gets cast cannot be a sign of tokenism,” she further says.
However, the representation of LGBTQIA+ employees at Indian companies is still significantly low. A study by Accenture showed that in India, 79% of the LGBTQIA+ employees have indicated that their career growth has slowed down because of their gender identity and expression, and revealing their sexual orientation.
In an article published in 2018, professional drag queen and activist, Jabez Kelly says, “In the bigger picture, these companies have never stood up for the LGBTQ rights until today and majority of these companies do not hire transgender people, nor do they have a policy for it.”
Activists and researchers are careful to point out that while these campaigns are a step forward in the right direction, corporations, companies and the society at large must step forward to support the movement beyond promotions and ad campaigns, all year round.
“Not just corporations but everyone should see queer people as human. See their capabilities and how they can contribute to your organisation. We don’t want a pride flag on your head all the time,” Bonita says.