July 18, 2024

escape the spreadsheet

a couple rainbow flags flapping in the wind outside a soul cycle in the castro
photo caption: the castro neighborhood of san francisco. rainbow flags flap in the breeze outside harvey milk’s soulcycle building. i’m kidding, of course. he was more into crossfit.

June is LGBTQIA+ Pride month in most of the united states. This is great news for people who want to sell things to us! I’ll back up. There’s a joke in some parts of the queer community. People wake up on June 1 to see which brands have changed their logos to include a rainbow or two. The joke I shared is less funny this year with a resurgence of attacks on queer and trans folks across the country. People and their systems of power are making the lives of queer and trans people harder.

The term we give to brands pandering to us is sometimes called rainbow capitalism. This year it should be a welcome sight to see brands standing with us during this of all Pride months. Companies publish statements or even sell stuff branded for us and our allies. At a time when we need supporters now more than ever, why is that a bad thing?

we’re on a spreadsheet

Brands see us in the LGBTQIA+ community as a market. We and our supporters have money, and companies would like us to spend some of it on them. Somewhere, these companies made the decision to market themselves to us. The income they gain from marketing to us will be greater than any income lost from people mad about that. It’s a business decision.

Dig a little deeper and we understand that it’s not a binary choice. Companies decide what their support will look like. What will the clothes celebrate? What will the marketing campaign say? Which celebrities will we partner with? Companies take a risk on what decisions to make, and they’ll want to take the smallest risk possible. Alex Avila‘s video on rainbow capitalism sums it up this way: a company’s “ultimate goal is not to represent queerness accurately, but to profit from the community and progressive allies.” This means the most palatable versions of queerness are the ones that stand in for the community. And no matter how big or small the risk was, it will still generate backlash from people who don’t want us to exist.

the wind sock of corporate support

These business decisions change when the risks change. Two prominent example this year were Bud Light and Target. Both companies nodded towards the LGBTQIA+ community so we’ll buy what they’re selling. When the backlash became more pronounced, they backed away from their gestures that we exist. As kayla says says in her video on rainbow capitalism, “Corporations don’t care about publicity, good or bad, they only care about profits. When something like this affects their profits, that signals to other companies this is not a community worth throwing their support behind.”

I can’t trust wavering support. Just like I can’t turn off being a brown man, I can’t turn off being queer. I don’t want to turn off either one! They’re a part of how the world sees me. I can’t step away from being either one like brands can step away from their support of me. That’s scary. I can’t trust them like I can trust the people who stick by me and defend me from harm. Instead of fickle pandering, what else could we focus on?

more than a consumer

Queer liberation has to center people, not the products we buy. Some people align their identity with what they consume. Buying a pro-trans shirt isn’t the same as supporting actual trans people. Rainbow capitalism encourages us to believe that they’re the same, or at least related. Our activism shifts from “supporting marginalized people” to “supporting these brands.” Companies don’t need our activism. Real, living people do.

outcomes you can feel

Instead of supporting brands, focus your activism on concrete life improvements. If you’re a person in power, make changes happen in whatever spaces you have influence. Advocate for trans-affirming healthcare at work. Or use an LGBT+ HR guide to push for broader transformation. Even allies can support LGBTQIA+ employee resource groups at the workplace and mutual aid organizations at home.

Allies do play a role in queer liberation, as long as their primary function isn’t “learning.” Allies can push back on statements or call people in from harmful statements or actions. They can speak up for us in spaces that we aren’t in. But what’s true for organizations is even more important for non-LGBTQIA+ allies. If you’re going to stand with us, don’t flake when it matters. Here are a few examples of what that means. Not letting people getting away with making homophobic or transphobic jokes. Modeling respect for people’s pronouns. Being mindful about the assumptions you make when you meet someone. You don’t need to be performative about it for us to notice.

the inclusion party

In these situations, ask yourself, who didn’t get invited to the inclusion party? How can you help make things better for them? What might be keeping them out? Think about it, ask them if you know them, and act on it.

We can use the fight for marriage equality as an example of inclusion. The Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. This was fantastic news for people who had long sought such protections. More than just a piece of paper, legal marriage allows us to many health benefits: the least of which is that we can legally visit loved ones in the hospital. It let us protect their estate from homophobic family members after they passed. But after we achieved this victory, some people in the fight for marriage equality peeled away from the larger movement. We won, right? What else was there to do? Meanwhile, queer and trans people are still living homeless. Housing and job discrimination still exist in many states. Harm to trans folks around the country is at horrifying levels. Even though some allies and activists felt like we won, we still left people behind.

rainbow capitalism is good, actually?

This will be a short paragraph.

Are the benefits to brands “seeing” us? The support of major companies can be a good thing. To be honest, it’s nice not to feel marginalized. So much of society centers and upholds cisgender heterosexuals. It’s nice to feel seen. It’s nice to have brands cater to me. But that’s me saying that as a married cisgender man with decent credit and spending money. For a long time, companies were nervous about advertising to us. When they do it now, in some ways it normalizes queerness. But what aspects of queerness are going mainstream? Which aspects are still outside the marketable norm?

don’t just copy and paste

It’s ok to celebrate the brands that stand with us. Remember that those brands want our money, not our queer solidarity. A little bit of queer visibility in advertising can be a nice thing. But that visibility often ends with people with white, cisgender, and thin identities. It’s up to us all to announce that the LGBTQIA+ community is full of wonderful, liberating people. We’re all more than numbers on a spreadsheet; our strength is our collective solidarity. Without it, dominant culture would be happy to fracture us out of existence.

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space