So far, we have seen the usual hallmarks of Pride: from vibrant celebrations and the recognition of LGBTQIA+ changemakers, to rainbow washing and genuinely confusing campaigns.
Pride can be a mixed experience for many queer folks. While it’s a time of celebration and joy, there has also been an overt sense of exhaustion among the community this month. From rising anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment to corporate Pride backtracking, it’s clear that more work is needed to create a meaningful Pride that celebrates and protects the LGBTQIA+ community.
Whilst the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights achieved major gains in recent decades, this year’s Pride takes place amid the rise in anti-LGBTQIA+ violence and the rolling back of previously won human rights. For example, in the US, over 540 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures, with many focused on the rights of Trans+ communities.
Across the pond, the UK received the most dramatic drop in this year’s ILGA’s Rainbow Europe Index, following an increase in LGBTQIA+ hate crimes and widespread political and media-fuelled anti-Trans+ sentiment. The UK now ranks 17th out of 49 countries. Nine years ago, it was ranked 1st.
Not only does this environment create a taxing atmosphere for the LGBTQIA+ community, it makes it all the more frustrating to see corporations take ill-informed approaches to Pride campaigns that are insubstantial at best or damaging at worst. By now, many of us know of pinkwashing (or ‘rainbow washing’), yet despite the awareness, brands continue to make this mistake year after year.
In high-profile brand crises, Bud Light and Target were called out by the queer community at the onset of this year’s Pride Month. Bud Light partnered with Trans activist Dylan Mulvaney, and Target created a range of Pride products in collaboration with independent queer artists. However, conservative backlash and boycotts ensued, leading to Bud Light distancing itself from its own campaign and Target withdrawing their Pride collections in several stores. As two of the most widely consumed brands in America, both companies found themselves in the complex territory of adopting purpose-based mass marketing in a divided country. Yet, as their responses failed to advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community and creatives they partnered with, it only added to the disillusionment felt about rainbow capitalism.
Corporate Pride campaigns can be particularly frustrating when delivered by companies that fail to create inclusive places for their LGBTQIA+ employees. Our recent research into the UK workforce highlighted the disconnect between organisations feeling more confident in talking about ED&I broadly but not personal identities. Only 25% of LGBTQIA+ employees feel comfortable talking about sexual orientation with their colleagues and 65% of Trans+ colleagues are not ‘out’ in their workplace. Overall, LGBTQIA+ employees are more likely to find ED&I conversations frustrating and nerve-wracking.
An Inside-Out Approach to Queer Allyship
Organisations have the power to influence public opinion and shape societal narratives. Brands should approach their support for the LGBTQIA+ community as an ongoing commitment all-year-round rather than a one-time marketing campaign. Long-term engagement requires listening to community needs, consistent action, and addressing the intersectional challenges that LGBTQIA+ folk face.
What we are seeing is a lack of inside-out inclusion® – in today’s ED&I landscape, inclusion must extend across the whole organisation. From external commitments and statements to internal structures and the lived realities of colleagues. In the case of Bud Light and Target, both brands delivered external marketing communications driven by an inclusive social agenda, but when faced with backlash, their actions were determined by internal culture and leadership. When ED&I is embedded from the inside out, teams have the cultural confidence to challenge and be challenged while remaining true to their values.
The North Face took a different approach. After releasing their Pride campaign starring drag queen Pattie Gonia, they faced similar calls for boycotts. Instead of retreating, the brand reaffirmed its stance in a public statement standing in support of Pattie Gonia and the LGBTQIA+ community. The response was widely commended, with GLAAD President & CEO declaring, “The North Face’s decision should be a signal to other companies that including LGBTQ people and allies is better for business than siding with a small number of violent extremists who want to keep LGBTQ consumers and employees invisible.”
Going forward, brands will have to become more assertive about allyship. Following the Target and Bud Light retractions, The Unmistakables has endorsed Outvertising’s Stand Your Ground initiative, which calls on the brands to run their Pride campaigns, brave the backlash, invest with credible media, and back up declarations with meaningful actions.
To become legitimate allies, brands considering activating around Pride should assess whether their understanding, commitment and practices align. Companies must establish the balance between advocating externally and focusing internally on the psychological and physical safety of LGBTQIA+ employees and the communities they partner with. Otherwise, they will end up cashing external cheques without the internal currency to pay them.
Here are some ways in which brands and businesses can demonstrate meaningful support:
Amplify LGBTQIA+ representation and voices: A recent GLAAD report revealed that just 3% of US ads had LGBTQIA+ representation. By showcasing queer voices, stories, and experiences, brands can help challenge stereotypes, increase visibility, and promote acceptance. It is important to remember that the LGBTQIA+ community is not a single group and queer communities are not homogenous! Through our cultural confidence sessions, we co-create with members of the community by listening to their lived experiences to ensure authentic, intersectional representation.
Create an LGBTQIA+ inclusive workplace: Allyship should be considered a verb, and many practical steps can be taken to provide a safer space for queer people. For example, at The Unmistakables we ensure that our policies are comprehensive across healthcare, parental leave, surrogacy, and adoption (to name a few), each considering the specific needs of different groups within the community. To support gender inclusivity we also have guidance on ease of name changes, pronoun practices, data safeguarding and self-identification to help reduce friction whilst navigating the workplace. `
Provide partnerships and financial support: LGBTQIA+ initiatives are notably underfunded and businesses have the resources to create tangible improvements in the lives of the queer community, for example, LGBTQIA+ organisations focused on mental health, housing stability, and gender-affirming care. As well as supporting mainstream campaigns, consider supporting alternative and intersectional Prides like Trans Pride and UK Black Pride.
Use influence for advocacy: Brands have a platform and influence that can be harnessed for positive change. In addition to amplifying the voices of the community, brands should use their voices to advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights and challenge discriminatory practices. This includes engaging in lobbying efforts, issuing public statements, and supporting organisations working to combat anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation. For example, last year tech giant Apple wielded its lobbying power and recruited corporate allies to oppose bills targeting gay and transgender people in several US states.
Pride is far more than a colourful celebration; it remains a call for continued activism, visibility, and rights.
While Pride events have become synonymous with parades and parties, it is essential to remember that for many Pride is still a protest – an ongoing fight for liberation. Businesses recognising the significance of this movement have a responsibility to go beyond superficial displays of support. Through meaningful actions, brands can stop being a contributor to the queer community’s exhaustion and, instead, begin to alleviate it.
This article was written by Rosie Ngugi, Inclusion Consultant at The Unmistakables.