By: Clara Guthrie
June is Pride Month, although many Americans may be more familiar with it as the month where big corporations drench their logos, merchandise and window displays in rainbow colors. This predictable phenomenon has been coined as “rainbow washing”—the act of using rainbow imagery to effectively advertise and signal allyship to a more diverse audience of consumers, with little genuine support of the LGBTQ+ community behind it.
The heart of the controversy surrounding rainbow washing and businesses’ celebrations of Pride Month lies in inconsistency. Many big-name brands—ranging from Bloomingdale’s to Amazon—brandish themselves in rainbow flags for the 30 glorious days of June, but then fall seemingly silent on LGBTQ+ issues for the remaining 12 months of the year. There is something about this kind of activism that is inherently performative. Sadly, this half-hearted performance almost makes sense when one considers that, according to LGBT Capital, the LGBTQ+ community holds roughly 3.9 trillion dollars of purchasing power globally. Rainbow washing during Pride Month is an effective capitalist strategy to garner more profit, while also looking like you care.
Let’s first consider McDonald’s as an example (among countless others) of this inconsistency…
According to Forbes, for Pride Month this year, McDonald’s has formed an unlikely alliance with Revry, “the world’s first global queer streaming network.” Their content is curated for the LGBTQ+ community and is boundlessly inclusive, highlighting both queer characters and queer content creators. The unlikely collaboration between a mega-fast food joint and a queer streaming platform has taken the form of a variety show, “House of Pride,” which is sponsored by McDonald’s and streamed via Revry. The show premiered June 6th, and you can watch it HERE.
This partnership is revolutionary and undeniably exciting; however, McDonald’s is not quite unified when it comes to its actions towards and support of the LGBTQ+ community. According to Business Insider, the fast food corporation has its own political action committee (PAC) through which it donates money to a wide array of politicians’ campaigns in the hopes of eventually influencing how these bipartisan lawmakers vote on issues that have a more direct impact on McDonald’s business (like working wages). Thus, McDonald’s has donations on opposing sides of key issues, LGBTQ+ rights being one of them. Most recently, McDonald’s PAC—and the PACs of other big corporations, including aforementioned Amazon—had a portion of their donations operating behind Republican representatives in the House who voted against the Equality Act, a bill with an overarching goal to protect LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination. Between 2019 and 2020, according to the same Business Insider article, “McDonald’s PAC donated a total of $213,000 to lawmakers who voted against the bill.” These donations have very real repercussions in the world of legislation and in the intimate worlds of LGBTQ+ individuals who are consistently at risk of discrimination in their everyday lives. A sparkly new partnership with a queer streaming service may be more attractive and easily marketable, but it has far less real-world impact.
This fact is especially true when one takes into account the rates of workplace discrimination and harassment against LGBTQ+ employees. CNBC recently reported on a survey of working LGBTQ+ individuals conducted by Linkedin in which “25% of respondents [said] they have been intentionally denied career advancement opportunities (such as promotions and raises) because of their identity.” Another 31% of people from the study said they have been the target of “blatant discrimination and microaggressions in the workplace.” So while businesses may change their logo to the colors of the rainbow for the month of June, current legislation and inner-company culture is ignoring the lived experiences of queer workers.
Other examples of rainbow washing and inconsistent activism include J.Crew’s new “Love First” merchandise campaign—from which only 50% of the proceeds are going to an LGBTQ+ organization, PFLAG—and Nike’s “BETRUE” campaign. As with the McDonald’s case study, these Pride efforts are not to be singularly praised or criticized; they are far too complicated for that sort of a response.
In support of these campaigns, one could argue that heightening queer visibility by emblazing shirts and sneakers with rainbow logos and then donating at lease some proceeds to organizations that support LGBTQ+ individuals is doing some good. Going even further, many companies are using Pride Month and their colorful campaigns to amplify queer voices, which is another positive outcome. For example, J.Crew asked a handful of queer individuals “what it means to support and be supported in their community,” and then published their answers and photos online. Similarly, fast fashion company H&M recently launched their “Beyond the Rainbow” campaign, an interactive web app on which people can scan any rainbow flag to read others’ or share their own Pride stories.
On the other side of the coin, however, one could point to the lack of action taken by these companies outside of the month of June or the lazy “slacktivism” that their Pride campaigns promote. Slacktivism is the practice of supporting a social movement or cause but in a way that requires little commitment or effort. An example of slacktivism would be posting a graphic expressing protest or dissent on social media, without any further action taken. Within the context of Pride Month, slacktivism takes the form of companies commodifying the rainbow flag and mass-producing rainbow gear which then consumers can easily buy and feel validated as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. What these efforts lack is follow-through: supporting LGBTQ+ organizations, amplifying and showcasing queer creators and models and workers, lobbying for protective legislation, and informing consumers on the true meaning of Pride, all year long.