The Problem With the ‘Rainbow-Washing’ of LGBTQ+ Pride
It happens every June like clockwork: the rainbows come out. (Pun intended.) Suddenly major metropolitan storefronts are filled with multi-colored displays and clothes emblazoned with "Love Is Love" and other slogans of the LGTBQ+ rights movement. It seems as though even your cable provider wants to know you should turn off the TV and get out to celebrate the queer community.
Yes, everyone wants to get in on Pride now. Two decades after companies pulled their ads from the Ellen episode in which Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay, corporations can’t wait to market their goods to queer people. Target has "Love Wins" T-shirts; Amazon's Alexa personal assistant will tell you Pride facts; Nike has some "Be True" sneakers for you; a couple years back, Burger King even had a "Proud Whopper." The list goes on and on.
But when are all these Pride-related promos genuine attempts at supporting the LBGTQ+ community and when are they just rainbow-washing? Is there a line between allyship and marketing that shouldn’t be crossed? As Pride month wraps up, the WIRED staff sat down to discuss the issues.
Angela Watercutter, Senior Associate Editor: I’ll start, but I’ll keep it quick. For a long time, I would get excited when I saw companies doing Pride-related ads etc. They might’ve been shallow attempts, but they always seemed better than the days when companies didn’t want their names associated with LGBTQ+ people at all. Over time, my feelings have gone back and forth. Sometimes I walk past a window display and think “Did Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera take on the cops at Stonewall to sell T-shirts?” And honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever have an answer to that question. What about you guys? Justice, I think you were the one who first mentioned rainbow-washing the other day. Where do you land?
Justice Namaste, Social Media Coordinator: Well Angela, I really started thinking about the idea of rainbow-washing after seeing Apple’s ‘Pride Edition’ Apple Watch wristband that they announced during the WWDC keynote a couple of weeks ago. It irritated me that this massive tech company would be making money off a symbol that not only represents joy and celebration, but also the LGBTQ+ community’s long history of struggle and oppression. But my issue isn’t specifically with Apple, a company that actually has a track record of supporting LGBTQ+ causes (and an openly gay CEO), it’s with the way rainbow imagery gets co-opted to benefit groups and individuals who aren’t LGBTQ+.
Rainbow-washing allows people, governments, and corporations that don’t do tangible work to support LGBTQ+ communities at any other time during the year to slap a rainbow on top of something in the month of June and call it allyship. A perfect example of this is the city of Atlanta’s rainbow crosswalks, an undeniably beautiful project, but one that cost the city nearly $200,000 (!!!!). Now Atlanta has a long and rich LGBTQ+ history, and the city deciding to commemorate that history and to honor those lost during the 2016 Pulse shooting is quite touching. However, I can’t help but wonder if painting some crosswalks is what Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ communities would’ve wanted the city to do with those funds. Seeing storefronts and lamp posts adorned with rainbows during the month of June always brings a smile to my face—and this kind of visible support is something that was denied to LGBTQ+ folx who came before us—but what are the limitations of symbolic gestures?
Emma Grey Ellis, Reporter: I agree, Justice. A decent share of these corporations could take another lesson in allyship. Being an ally is like being a wingman: If you make it about you, you’re doing it wrong! To me, some of the worst offenders are companies that keep their rainbow-washing vague. (There’s a Red Bull billboard on top of my building that is just a rainbow of cans with a caption that says, “Wings for everyone.” Didn’t realize getting jittery wasn’t already an egalitarian pursuit.) Corporations could be powerful allies using their privilege and deep pockets to put people who do real work for the LGBTQ+ community front and center. Co-opting a color scheme and a few hashtags is … not that.
Watercutter: And I think that’s the difference in a lot of cases. If you’re selling Pride gear and giving your profits to an organization like the Trevor Project and/or making sure your company is hiring/supporting LGBTQ+ employees, that’s a good-faith effort. If it’s just about changing your logo on Twitter or hanging a flag in your store so queer people will spend their queer dollars there, well, in the immortal words of Shania Twain, that don’t impress me much.
I was actually at a live taping of the Food 4 Thot podcast last weekend and this very topic came up and I was kind of relieved that most of the panel had the same mixed feelings. So I imagine it’s something that’ll be discussed for a while. (I mostly just bring this up to mention Food 4 Thot, because they’re very funny and everyone should listen.)
Jason Kehe, Senior Associate Editor: To be perfectly frank, I don’t know what the big deal is. Here’s how I think about this. Some kid comes out to his parents. They don’t understand. Maybe they’re religious, or don’t have gay friends, whatever. Then their cable company—distant, bureaucratic, soulless—tweets, I don’t know, a rainbow flag on a TV screen. The parents see that. They think, huh, my kid isn’t alone. Even our stupid cable company supports him. Maybe we should too. To me, that’s nice. Obviously companies want to look cool and sell stuff. Capitalism! But in this case, it also means seeding a homophobic world with more symbols of love and support. I say wash the world in rainbows.
Josie Colt, Gear Fellow: My question is: Do corporations ever fly flags out of sincere support? Unless they’ve shown other actions of allyship, rainbow-washing seems like an attempt to appear hip, hop on the current bandwagon and make a few bucks while they’re at it. Should the same question be applied to people who tag along to parades? If that’s your one action of solidarity for the whole year, should you be wearing a rainbow at all? Then again, sincere or not, showing the world that much rainbow doesn’t seem so bad either.
Ahalya Srikant, Research Fellow: I agree with Jason that sometimes we have to put aside our own standards for the good of the community as a whole. Living in a big city can make life easier to be out and proud of who you are. But for a lot of the LGBTQ+ community, pride is still a protest.
I also know that I am incredibly privileged to live in San Francisco, and can just be myself with little to no repercussions for my sexual identity. I think we sometimes forget, in our safe cities, that there are still horrible fates for LGBTQ+ people across the country and around the world. The average life expectancy of a trans person is 35, gay conversion therapy is still legal in 37 states, and homosexual relationships are still banned in 74 countries.
I completely agree that companies need to be held to a higher standard of allyship and dream of a world where LGBTQ+ people are genuinely supported and recognized. But unfortunately, bandwagoning of social rights sometimes needs to come before the genuine intent to support. In the meantime, if even one child sees that commercial with the rainbow flag and decides it is worth it to live another day, that meaningless advertisement was worth it.
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