Not A Pride Month Exclusive: The dangers of rainbow-washing

Graphic by Zoë Carr // Graphics Center

When I returned home to Panamá this past summer, I never would have expected to see pride flags as I walked through the historical streets of Casco Viejo. Even the busy mall near my house had a shop with a new rainbow flag display spanning across the glass of a wig store. Where homophobic remarks are a common occurrence, seeing these flags made me feel seen and represented as a queer woman in my hometown, where I never thought queer pride would be displayed. 

However, I couldn’t shake a queasy feeling behind the pride flags being displayed around shops and tourist-populated areas, because I knew I could never feel truly represented in a country where marriage equality isn’t recognized. While queer representation in stores and in marketing campaigns can make myself and other queer kids feel seen, certain displays of queer advocacy can be harmful when they are inauthentic, as shown by a lack of care for actual queer liberation within their environment. 

Representation is crucial for bettering the state of LGBTQ+ rights. Not only does it provide exposure for the community and increase acceptance of LGBTQ+ people as reported by GLAAD, but the Trevor Project has also found that representation makes LGBTQ+ teens feel better about their queer identity. 

In the corporate world, however, queerness and pride have become a rainbow-colored marketing campaign that exploits a vulnerable community for profit that can commodify LGBTQ+ rights. This inauthentic advocacy does little to contribute to queer people’s struggles. Furthermore, companies may make problematic decisions behind the scenes that actively set back the LGBTQ+ community.

Rainbow-washing, also known as pinkwashing, is defined by Eric Louis Russell, a professor at the University of California, Davis, as “the deployment of superficially sympathetic messages for finalities having little or nothing to do with… (LGBTQ) equality or inclusion.” I’ve admittedly fallen for it before, having purchased a pair of Target’s Pride collection socks without considering where my funds might end up, simply because they were rainbow.

Though pinkwashing can raise awareness of the queer rights movement and provide the community with a sense of belonging in that space, it ultimately is a marketing ploy without the intent to uplift the community. Under this marketing strategy, ulterior motives may also be disguised under shallow statements and rainbow “Love Is Love” displays. 

A 2021 investigation by Popular Information found that 25 major corporations who scored a perfect rating on the Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates corporate policies for LGBTQ+ employees, and showed public support for the queer community had also “spent more than $10 million since 2019 supporting members of Congress with a zero rating on the latest Congressional scorecard.” The Congressional scorecard is a report on elected officials’ history in voting on issues of equality. 

Popular Information highlights CVS Health as one of these companies. CVS has covered all the public allyship bases from a rainbow heart logo for Pride Month, to tweeting in opposition to anti-LGBTQ state legislation. However, in 2019, the company donated $2,000 each to Senators Dawn Buckingham and Bryan Hughes. 

Buckingham and Hughes co-sponsored SB1646, a bill that seeks to criminalize parents who allow their children to receive gender-affirming care in Texas. This highlights why pinkwashing’s possible benefits in representation do not outweigh the political hindrance to the queer rights movement. While a company’s public advocacy for pro-LGBTQ+ policies can be helpful, it doesn’t do much when the company is undoing that advocacy work by providing funds for anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and policies. 

Positive LGBTQ+ messaging on a large scale signifies large strides for the community, but queer people should not settle for the bare minimum just to receive recognition. Corporations using queer advocacy as a marketing ploy to hide their harmful actions is unacceptable. 

Queer advocacy is more than a profit opportunity. Pride Month is not meant to be the marketing cash grab it’s turned into. It’s time to amplify the need for LGBTQ+ advocacy with contributions that help every day, not empty promises for thirty days. Queer people are here and will advocate for rights to exist all year round. That should always include calling out corporations that use rainbow logos as a double-edged sword, harming the community behind our backs.

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