June is Pride Month, when gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other not-straight people celebrate with a variety of events, including activism, parades, and concerts. As with any popular celebration, corporations and brands have become involved, creating special offers and limited-release products to cater to the enthusiasm. Not everyone is excited about this development, however.
Will Capitalism Poison Gay Activism?
One might expect the opposition to greater corporate recognition of Pride Month to come primarily from people with religious objections to homosexuality. Those objections are certainly out there, but oddly, some of the loudest opposition to Budweiser and Dr. Martens embracing the rainbow flag are gay people themselves. While traditionalists might not want consumer culture endorsing what they see as an immoral lifestyle, many queer people seem worried that capitalism will poison gay activism.
Surely companies can recognize a popular holiday and provide items to celebrate without being expected to lead the parade.
Last June, a Vox column argued that it was a problem for Pride Month to have become a “branded holiday.” Alex Abad-Santos wrote that while many companies might market rainbow-colored merchandise, they “may not always be consistent in actually supporting the LGBTQ community.” Depending on how expansive one’s definition of support is, that is no doubt true. Do we need every company that sells rainbow bottle openers to also be a gay rights activist organization, though? Surely consumer product companies can recognize a popular holiday and provide customers with the items they use to celebrate without being expected to lead the parade.
Of course, some companies have decided that they do want to at least join the parade. There’s an entire cottage industry in ranking and rating the pro-gay attitudes and activities of major corporations. While an increasingly large number of employers have sought out those accolades in recent years, some have built more impressive histories than others. Management expert James O’Toole, for example, writes in his recent book The Enlightened Capitalists about how Levi Strauss & Co. addressed the rise of the AIDS epidemic in its home base of San Francisco in the 1980s, creating an internal information campaign about the disease, but also supporting previously closeted gay employees who came out in those years. According to O’Toole,
Levi Strauss was thus the first large American corporation to openly address the AIDS crisis and to fully accept homosexual employees.
Consumer Culture around Holidays
The worry that commercialism is watering down gay identity reminds me of the concerns that many Christians have long voiced about the commercialization of Christmas. When Christmas becomes an opportunity for a cartoon Santa Claus to sell us Coca-Cola, we are warned, we may forget to celebrate the joy of the incarnation of the Lord. My response is that there are many hours in the day, and consumer surplus need not crowd out piety. My husband and I love putting up our (real) Christmas tree every year. We also love attending mass on Christmas Eve. Wrapping presents doesn’t somehow make you less able to appreciate the nativity of Jesus.
The same is true of Pride Month. The merchandise of queer awareness might be in stores ”just” so that the companies selling it can make money. Does that make the wine glasses any less elegant or the garden hammock any less sturdy? The impersonal nature of transactions makes it easier for us to acquire the necessities (and luxuries) of life without having to interrogate every seller. One of the great advantages of consumer culture is that there is profit in meeting the needs of consumers, regardless of whether the buyer and seller know or like each other. It is precisely the impersonal nature of the transaction that makes it easier for all of us to acquire the necessities (and luxuries) of life without having to interrogate the conscience of every shop owner, sales clerk, and swap meet vendor.
No one is required to buy those SoulCycle “All Souls” fanny packs, drink the queer-affirming seltzer, or invest in LGBTQ cryptocurrency. If you want to feel more like a creative individual, you can spend your month painting portraits of Marsha P. Johnson or screen-printing your own Bayard Rustin t-shirts. You can even donate to a good cause like the Trevor Project or Washington, D.C’s own Casa Ruby. The commercial items at Target and Nordstrom, however, will at least give you options while you plan a party—or a brunch (on your own behalf).