By Rick Braatz
It’s Pride season and I have mixed emotions. I feel pride for my sexual identity and the successes the community has achieved, but I also feel a deep disgust, if not alienation, by the many ways Pride, or rather Pride Inc., has become commodified or co-opted by the market.
There is something incredibly distressing about the commercialization of our Pride events, festival, parades etc. It is sort of a conflict — this want to celebrate who I am and the community at large versus the repulsion I feel by the ways the celebration has been sold off to corporate sponsorship and marketing. This conflict is not only within me; it’s in many LGBT people, it’s in the research on pride festivals, and in the various anti-corporate Pride protests that occur each year — most recently at this year’s D.C. Pride Parade.
It wasn’t always so commercialized. The earliest incarnations of Pride celebrations began with the demonstrations that sought to recognize the anniversary of Stonewall, the riots against police brutality and to resist the stigma of being queer. Quickly other cities followed suit in the form of marches and much later with festivals. To pay for events’ cost, individuals would solicit donations from bars and small gay establishments and host fundraisers all year long.
But beginning in the 1980s and even more so in the 1990s, the funding source began to change, which scholars Alexandra Chasin and Lauren Joseph have touched on. As they see it, corporations started to see Pride events (and the community more generally) as opportunities to market themselves and sell their products. And as more corporations became involved in funding the events, corporate parade floats and festival booths started appearing more and more. Today, corporations are part and parcel of Pride events. But it appears to be getting worse.
To look at just how bad it’s getting, I decided to focus on one aspect of Pride corporatization, the annual Pride parade, and because I am based in San Diego, I decided to look at last year’s San Diego LGBT Pride Parade.
I reviewed the list of the 205 contingents — the individual participants of the parade in the form of floats, marching groups, etc. — posted on San Diego Pride’s website for last year’s Pride parade (with repeat names deleted) and categorized them based on whether they were explicitly LGBT and non-LGBT. Among those that weren’t LGBT, I found they were nonprofits or corporations (and businesses) or government departments.
Based on this categorization, I found only 26 percent of the 2016 San Diego LGBT Pride Parade consisted of LGBT-identified contingents. The rest of the contingents were corporations (36 percent), non-LGBT nonprofits (29 percent) or government entities (8 percent).
That is, nearly three-fourths of the 151 participating contingents in the Pride parade were not explicitly LGBT and the majority were corporations or non-LGBT businesses (74 in total). With this sort of representation, one could easily conclude that the Pride parade has essentially become a traveling marketing expo — dressed in rainbow flags and Pride symbols — than anything remotely having to do with LGBT Pride.
Some, however, may see this as a positive sign of the community’s success in achieving market recognition and legitimacy. Others may point out how it shows the LGBT community’s integration into mainstream institutions, like the economy, marriage or the military. Still others may point out the good things that come out of Pride celebrations, such as the annual grants that Pride organizations provide to various community agencies.
But for me, that corporations and businesses see the LGBT community as a gold mine or cash tree is not liberation but simply exploitation; and assimilating into mainstream institutions ignores the harm these institutions do to all kinds of people, such as the military with their perpetual wars against the people of color of the world.
In addition, the fact that some of the corporate sponsorship money goes to local community agencies doesn’t hold water when we look at the behavior of the corporations the money comes from.
Take Wells Fargo for example, one of the many corporations in the Pride parade. The bank has been fraught with racism over the past decade, including charging higher costs to African-American and Latino borrowers, and neglecting the maintenance and marketing of foreclosed homes in black and brown neighborhoods. It is also one of the top investors of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the life and resources of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
When a Pride organization takes money from Wells Fargo, are they not implicated in the stealing of funds from African-American and Latino borrowers and the further pillaging of Native Americans? And when San Diego Pride takes money from Walmart, who we all know is a huge exploiter of labor, are they not playing a part in the ongoing robbery of America’s working poor? Some call this “pink-washing,” or the ways that corporations market themselves as pro-LGBT as a means to distract people from their nefarious actions.
Besides being complicit in corporate malfeasance, I believe — like some of the Pride attendees in Steven Kates and Russell Belk’s research on Pride celebrations — the focus on commercialism and corporatization has led to something lost, something inhuman, something inauthentic. The increased commercialism has turned away the celebration from authenticity and liberation and reduced it to a “commercial spectacle” with a focus on consumer behavior.
What was once an event that was very genuine and grassroots oriented is now a consumer product.
But Pride Inc. isn’t just dehumanizing, it’s also exclusionary. With its focus on corporations and businesses, Pride Inc. implicitly communicates the message that all LGBTs are better now and can afford what it has to offer. That’s a delusion, or what Amber Hollibaugh calls the “myth of gay affluence.”
The reality is quite different. For example, the Williams Institute reports that nearly one-third of bisexual women (29 percent) and nearly one in four lesbians (23 percent) are poor and transgender people are four times more likely to be living in extreme poverty compared to cisgender people, and the list goes on.
But there is some hope in all of this. While San Diego Pride and other Pride organizations have turned our Pride festivals and parades into essentially corporate infomercials for the well off — more and more LGBT people are resisting and saying, “Enough.”
Over the past several decades, alternatives to corporate Pride events have emerged, including events organized by Gay Shame in San Francisco, QueerBomb in Austin and more internationally with Queeruption. These events (and/or groups) critique Pride Inc. events for being overly commercialized and commodified and focus on the cultural expression and the issues and concerns of the LGBT disenfranchised; those the mainstream parades and festivals tend to ignore or forget, such as people of color, poor queers, the homeless and gender non-conforming people — you know, those typically without the big bucks.
It is these events our community should be supporting more of. But unfortunately, they are still on the margins and Pride Inc. is the dominant model of LGBT Pride, the one most LGBT people attend.
So as we enter yet another Pride season, take a few moments and think about the degree to which your Pride parade and festival is corporatized. Is it a cause for celebration or concern? Should the behaviors of companies have any bearing on who should and should not sponsor or participate in the parade and festival? Is there something lost or inhuman by all the focus on corporations and consumption? Do you in any way feel excluded or alienated by the corporatization?
Finally, amidst the intense corporate/business parades and festivals, how will you celebrate Pride?
—Rick Braatz is a sociologist, social worker and a journalist who lives in San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.