The world is experiencing a paradigm shift with the society’s mindset evolving towards becoming more inclusive and accepting of minorities. With woke culture becoming ‘trendy’, it isn’t out of the ordinary to see corporations and politicians jumping on the bandwagon and coming to support the marginalised. They proclaim themselves to be LGBTQIA+ friendly, feminist and believe black and Dalit lives matter.
With each passing day in June, Pride flags and rainbows are everywhere and increasing— company logos, Instagram bios, clothing lines, and tweets from politicians and companies. This trend of companies and politicians has been observed previously during past Pride Months, and whenever the movement achieved milestones like Section 377 being decriminalised in India or the US legalising same-sex marriage. However, is their allyship and activism constant or a perfectly timed tokenistic act? Are their supporting words and rainbow display pictures translating into tangible acts, or are they just trying to garner profit and goodwill by capitalising on the LGBTQ movement?
As the LGBTQ movement gets incorporated into the market economy, products dipped in pride colours dominate the generation of a market specifically focused on them. The corporates are leaving no stone unturned to tick off all points on their corporate social responsibility checklist – sponsoring pride events, manufacturing pride-themed merchandise and creating advertisements revolving around the queer. Companies are capitalising on the ‘queer awareness’ wave to increase their sales, thereby increasing profits earned by them. With a growing acceptance of the LGBTQ, ‘pink money’ is now becoming a way to boost the economy. This rainbow (or pink) brand of capitalism, however, is accessible by only those affluent, liberal, upper-middle-class people who have gained enough purchasing power.
These public displays of acceptance allow companies and politicians to ‘pinkwash’ their image to be perceived as progressive and tolerant. Pinkwashing refers to the marketing and political strategies used by corporates to promote products, people or entities by portraying themselves as allies. This allows the corporates to not only target the queer but also their allies, thereby creating goodwill for themselves amongst a vast audience. Breast Cancer Action originally coined this term to call out corporates, who used the pink breast cancer ribbon as a PR stunt while creating products that directly contributed to breast cancer.
Earlier, advertisements representing the LGBTQ community were restricted to LGBTQ organisations and LGBTQ-owned businesses directly targeting the community. We can attribute this to other businesses’ cautiousness to advertise in the gay press due to fear of backlash from the majority. A breakthrough for queer representation in advertising came with the 1994 IKEA ad, which showed a gay couple purchasing furniture. They did it to normalise depictions of LGBTQ identities. However, the ad was accused of creating a brand of ‘homonormativity’ - a concept complementary to heteronormativity with the assumption that all individuals fall into two complementary categories as males and females, and that they behave as per their gendered ‘norms’. Homonormativity upholds heteronormative presumptions and institutions by assimilating the heteronormative norms into the LGBTQ culture, thereby assuming that gay couples are just like everyone else.
While the corporates and politicians remain busy soaking their products and policies in rainbows, the LGBTQ continues to face problems like discrimination, unemployment, and lack of healthcare. In recent years, Barclays Bank, an institution complicit in driving up food prices globally, has been sponsoring pride in London. Barclays Bank also holds a 4.25% shareholding in BAE systems, which also has a presence in the pride march to showcase itself as an LGBTQ friendly employer. On the flip side, however, as of 2016, BAE Systems has provided arms to nations such as United Arab Emirates, India, Pakistan, and Qatar, which are known to commit homophobic and transphobic human rights violations.
The corporates, however, aren’t the only ones capitalising on the LGBTQ movement. In 2005, Israel started promoting itself as a gay-friendly tourist destination to portray itself as a progressive country and shift attention away from its regime of occupation and apartheid oppressing Palestine, regardless of sexuality. A secondary motive of the same was to reiterate the Islamophobic myth: Palestinians are backward, homophobic, misogynistic and uncivilised. The ‘gay-friendly’ destination, however, hasn’t spared queer Palestinians from the marginalisation and discrimination at the hands of the Israeli regime. Additionally, Israel’s far-right government has been known to align itself with the likes of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán - world leaders known for their homophobic, racist and intolerant opinions. Because of the religious law, same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples is also banned in Israel.
A similar example can be seen back in Kashmir. On one hand, the right-wing fascists denounce the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination and celebrate their freedoms being taken by abrogation of Article 370, lockdowns, and information blackouts. But on the other hand, ‘non-political’ student organisations like the Kashmiri Youth Movement that have previously supported the right-wing, call for a Pride march in Kashmir to celebrate International Pride Month. Not only do these propagandist acts cast a rainbow smokescreen to conceal the damage done to the minorities by their policies, but they also undermine the efforts of various organisations towards queer rights. As with Israel, these methods act as a reiteration of Hindu superiority. The Hindu nationalists try to cast a light on the supposed dismal life of LGBTQ in the Muslim-majority state. This can further be used to justify violent pogroms in the Muslim-majority areas. While the government is busy pinkwashing its image using Kashmir, it is turning a blind eye towards the people protesting the Transgender Rights Act.
By appropriating the voices of the queer, these pink washers are creating an ‘us v/s them’ narrative. However, movements that aim at fighting oppressive structures must do so unconditionally and not at the expense of other marginalised groups. As the queer community includes people from all races and economic backgrounds, queer liberation can’t be achieved without racial, economic, and all other forms of justice. Going by this principle, anti-pinkwashing activists have been pushing Palestinian rights to the forefront of Pride events across the world.
In her 2007 book, Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir K Puar explains this as ‘homonationalism’. After 9/11, LGBTQ rights became a way for the West to demonstrate its civilisation and humanity in contrast to the barbarism and homophobia in the Middle East. However, this easy-to-buy narrative is untrue as prisoners continued to be tortured by the American government at Guantanamo.
Out of all entities guilty of pinkwashing, few have taken additional steps to tangibly contribute to the movement. Companies like Coca Cola and Hyatt have gone beyond the tokenistic post on social media by making their health insurance trans-inclusive. Hyatt was also the first major hotel company to offer domestic partnership benefits to queer couples. Thus, a company’s LGBTQ friendliness must not be judged by how good they are at marketing, but by their intent to foster a safe and equal workplace, thereby leading to the creation of a more inclusive society.
Many hold the opinion that expecting corporations to always work selflessly for the minorities is placing too much onus on them, for they are at least ‘trying’, and backing of such powerful organisations is required to take the movement forward. To some extent, this is true. With corporate involvement, the LGBTQ community accrues the marginal benefit of integrating into the mainstream and of further normalising being queer. But as more and more corporations join the movement with their rainbow-dipped products, the Pride movement includes only those who have the purchasing power to buy those products. Additionally, by trivialising the movement to make it an elitist one, the corporates are creating a brand of pride movement antithetical to what it originally stands for. At the heart of the LGBTQ movement lies its motive of liberating the oppressed queer community from the age-old societal stigma. But the assimilation by the capitalists creates a false sense of acceptance for the community, leaving little scope for them to question the status quo. For society expects the queer to take a moral high ground and accept whatever minimal representation they’re being offered by the ones in power.
Pinkwashing can be done by the LGBTQ community itself too. After the 2016 Orlando gay club shooting, many Republicans - including gay people - used the tragedy to describe all Muslims as homophobic and terrorists.
Whatever the particularity of its meaning, pinkwashing refers to the exploitation of marginalised sexual identities to promote deceptive agendas. To fight this, appropriated movements must be reclaimed and reoriented towards collective social change. Individuals must not be swept away by organisations’ pseudo-activism aimed at grabbing headlines. Instead, these appropriators must be called out and held accountable for their actions, because Pride is a protest and they are late to the party. As an alternate, grassroots methods of awareness like education, fundraisers, and activism have proved to be more successful in fostering an equal environment for the queer community.
As ally involvement in Pride events increases, a responsible analysis is vital to decide the face of the movement – will it be about the queer, whose lived experiences bind them together in solidarity, or the pinkwashed corporations and politicians?
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