“Happy Pride! Cash or card!” A vendor’s voice rang out from under a pop-up canopy tent. Before the first beaded necklace was thrown from the first Stonewall 50 float at Washington D.C.’s Capitol Pride celebration, the merch arrived. On the second Saturday in June, it was all rainbow everything from the kind of vendors you see hawking bootleg tees and glow necklaces in the parking lot of a concert. Rickety scaffolds hung with rainbow, trans, bi, and bear flags, with bandanas, buttons, and more. The vendors arrived secure in the same knowledge that a growing number of brands and corporations have: Though the parade traces its roots back to both celebration and riot, modern LGBTQ+ Pride is also a lucrative merchandising opportunity. The streets were full of people; the tent was swarmed. Business is good.
On parade-goers, rainbow shirts, tanks, and bandanas mixed with branded variations like the cute Express Pride black tank with rainbow ribbing and the understated gray J. Crew Pride “Love First” shirt. A phalanx of men wore Todd Snyder x Champion Pride shirts and rainbow suspenders. Even I’d thrown on a “National Parks Are For Lovers” Pride t-shirt (a huge hit) and last year’s Under Armour “United We Win” Pride shoes with rainbow soles.
Gilbert Baker really did the damn thing when he created the six-color Pride symbol. And the remixes—like Philadelphia’s More Color, More Pride flag with black and brown stripes added in support of racial diversity, equality and inclusion in the LGBTQ communities, and Daniel Quasar’s inclusive Pride flag—have only added to the image’s resilience.
But how much more corporate cosigning can Pride withstand before the rainbow starts to mean something else? In St. Petersburg, Florida, the annual Pride parade is being sponsored by Tech Data and organizers have actually renamed the event, like it’s a stadium. The new “Tech Data St. Petersburg Pride parade” sounds like something out of a Simpsons episode or George Saunders short story, but it very well might be the future. Some see the targeting of LGBTQ+ consumers as a sign of progress; others as a cheapening of a social movement. I set out to investigate. And by investigate, I mean fill my house up with rainbow stuff like a Lisa Frank fever dream.
It started with a trip to Target in the middle of May and a bottle of Listerine. Specifically, the seven-color rainbow Listerine bottle. This was the first Pride-related merchandise I’d seen this year, and I had a few questions. First question: Why is this mouthwash queer? The display with the Listerine advertised that the store was making a $100,000 donation to GLSEN; a little Googling pointed to the Johnson and Johnson CARE WITH PRIDE initiative, which reportedly has donated over $1 million to various LGBTQ non-profits. The mouthwash was queer, it seemed, for a good cause. Whom amongst us is not?
I remember clearly the Pride campaigns from brands like SKYY, Absolut, and Smirnoff that I’d seen in gay bars since I first came out in the Pleistocene Era. I moved heaven and hell to get my hands on that Absolut bottle covered in tiny mirrors like a disco ball in the early 2000s because it was flashy and helped me convince myself I was a Queer as Folk character. It also felt meaningful that this company was making something specifically for me as a member of the gay community. But it’s a long way, conceptually, from an alcohol ad in a gay bar to a Pride section in the toiletries aisle. As writer Claire Willett, whose viral Twitter thread on rainbow capitalism weighed the good and bad, put it to me, “What I think has changed…is that there’s been enough of a shift in public perception that suddenly the LGBTQIA community and our allies are now considered a much more powerful market.” The numbers back this up: A 2018 Community Marketing and Insights Study found that 76 percent of US study participants said they’d give more of their business to companies that supported LGBTQ+ equality. But is printing a rainbow on a shirt the same thing as support?
Alex Blynn, a freelance writer and former editor at Out, makes sure that whichever company he’s buying Pride-themed merchandise from has an excellent track record with the LGBTQ community “in regards to both employee diversity and charitable actions.” Journalist Ernest Owens takes a dimmer view of the whole endeavor: “Pride Month has become a capitalistic cesspool of commercial marketing and overhyped branding that’s being pushed by mostly straight-owned corporations and white-led LGBTQ organizations.”
The question of whether Pride merch is a sign of progress or a mercenary project matters to me. Nobody is totally free from capitalism’s influence. I mean, hello, I’m working for a corporation right now. As we speak! But I also hear Audre Lorde’s voice in my head when I notice the Chipotle ad with a rainbow burrito, reminding me that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Capitalism isn’t a solution for social justice issues. Still, as a black queer person, I can trace my history back to people who had actual price tags attached to their freedom. So the idea that liberation and buying power might be somehow linked in America, even in a bastardized way, isn’t totally foreign to me.
It’s a sign of progress that we’re even having his conversation in our community and in public. Community organizer Charlene A. Carruthers points out in her book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements that we—and our favorite brands—haven’t just learned words like “intersectionality” and “queer” on our own. “Black feminists, Ballroom legends, queer folks, and people who fit no binaries have done the groundwork but are taken for granted in far too many movement spaces to this day,” she writes. And, according to that Community Marketing & Insights survey, LGBTQ people like the brands that see them: 78 percent of LGBTQ respondents said they tend to support companies that market to and support the LGBTQ community. “I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are people attending these [Pride] events that don’t have access to this degree of queerness everyday,” Brian Wenke, executive director of It Gets Better Project, told me. “It means a lot to see the brands and the nonprofits that are supporting them out there representing.” To quote Keala Settle from The Greatest Showman: “This is me.” I bought the rainbow Listerine; I am basic and I am gay and I like things. Where’s my parade?
I decided, for a moment, to let the name brand rainbow wash over me. Unique Vintage sent me a Rainbow Fiber Doormat (for my gay house!), a Rainbow Vinyl & Holographic backpack (for my gay kid!), and a shirt that reads “Stay Gay” (for my gay future!). IKEA sent the Kvanting Shopping Bag, just like the iconic blue bag but—guess what—rainbow. Happy Feet has socks with the inclusive Pride flag. “Feet Have No Gender,” the campaign says, which I guess is technically accurate.
Kush Queen sent a rainbow CBD bath bomb, a tincture, and the PRIDE edition of their CBD Lube. I may not have found queer liberation yet, but queer freedom from queer anxiety seemed like a good next best thing. Boy Smells’ candle commemorating Stonewall is honestly one of the best-smelling candles I own with notes of black currant, white cedar and cardamom. That’s high praise, because my house has more candles than the “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” video. Moments of gold and flashes of gay rights for my nose!
Around the time in2green’s 50-inch by 60-inch Eco Pride Throw in, yes, rainbow colors showed up, I started wondering what I’d gotten myself into. “I can’t handle all of this color everywhere!” I exclaimed to the empty room. Had Pride turned me into a bigot from a movie about the 1950s? My husband came home to find me sitting in a bright pile of assorted shirts, Sally Hansen’s Xtreme Wear Pride nail polishes, TOMS from the UNITY collection, Warby Parker’s Blue Prism case, and cans from the bubly All for Love pack. “Look what the homosexuals have done to me,” I said, doing my best Lucille Bluth impression.
As for what to wear? I’ve got more options than Cher from Clueless. Fifty alone from the ASOS x GLAAD collection. Express‘ huge collection includes a black blazer with a rainbow liner. Secret rainbow! Nike’s BETRUE collection and Under Armour’s Pride collection are entire lines of athletic and athleisure gear, including rainbow-soled shoes. H&M and GAP are also releasing Pride collections. So. Many. Rainbows. And so many different takes on what queerness looks like and means. Lucky Brand commissioned shirts by three artists with unique takes on Pride and love. American Apparel’s six-item “How We Love” line includes a shirt that reads “Everyone’s gay.” I don’t know about that one. Everyone? In this climate? With a glass of Tank Winery’s graffiti-labelled Love & Pride white wine in one hand and a rainbow can of Archer Roose Rosé Spritz in the other, I realized that I could conceivably never wear, sleep on, bath in, or drink anything non-Pride for the rest of my life, if I had enough money.
But what about the money? Express, for instance, is donating a minimum of $100,000 to GLAAD. ASOS boasts that their partnership with GLAAD has raised over £200,000 to date. And since 2012, NIKE says they’ve provided “$3.6 million in financial and in-kind support to LGBTQIA causes.” Of the 20+ brands I reached out to, all said they were making donations as part of their Pride campaigns. But with a few exceptions, most brands weren’t interested in giving me hard figures beyond the percentage of their profits they were going to donate. American Apparel, Michael Kors, ASOS and IKEA are among the brands donating 100 percent of their net proceeds to LGBTQ-centric charities, including the Los Angeles LGBT Center, God’s Love We Deliver, GLAAD, and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Far more brands are donating a portion, usually 10 percent or 25 percent.
According to Wenke, those Pride month proceeds can add up for pro-LGBTQ organizations. “Behind the scenes, all the brands that are working with the It Gets Better Project are really providing us with the critical funds we need to grow and expand our work around the world.” Still, things get “pretty quiet” after the parades have ended, Wenke noted. “This needs to be something that is a 365 day a year initiative, not just during Pride season.” For Pride stalwart SKYY vodka, for instance, that translates to running their Proudly American campaign year-round. “We all wanted to do something that made a difference and put our money towards supporting a real cause that wasn’t just a ‘Hey, it’s June, we should do something’ cause,” said Dave Karraker, Vice President of Communications of Campari Group and a member of the LGBTQ community.
For my money, one of the brands doing Pride right is Under Armour, a company in only its second year of rainbow merch. Last year, they sent me shoes from their debut “United We Stand” collection. They also drew my attention to their Athlete Ally partnership: “We made the strategic decision to continue partnering with Athlete Ally by designating a portion of our philanthropy budget, to further support their mission to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports,” Natasha Clark of Under Armour told me. Meanwhile, Under Armour employees formed an LGBTQ Culture Club, one of many similar groups at the company dedicated to giving employees “a safe, empowering space to connect, create lasting connections and act as a catalyst for change across the organization.”
The club came up with the idea for an Under Armour shirt for employees to wear in the pride parade, and from that the rest of the Pride product line was born. “The goal was to create an internal voice for the LGBTQ community to make UA a more inclusive space and to put more of an effort into reaching LGBTQ consumers,” said Perry Hughes Williams, Manager of Strategic Execution and co-chair of the club. “That has now blossomed into actual Pride collections, which is incredibly rewarding to see.”
I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do with Under Armour’s 2018 Pride running shoes, as I am largely sedentary. But I found they were great for wearing on planes. Cool, easy to slip on and off, supportive. Though a relative dropping me off at the airport once cautioned, “Don’t let someone beat you up for your shoes.” The fact is, outside of a Pride parade, rainbow—like many parts of a queer identity—can make a person a target. I dress differently in my home city than I do in, say, Provincetown, Massachusetts, for my own safety. But I kept wearing my rainbow shoes, in airports in Houston and Denver and Boston; in Seattle, Baltimore, Mexico City. And without fail, at every gate, someone would lean over and compliment me on my shoes. I would tell them where they were from, and that they started off as a way for the company to support its employees, and where the money was going. And before long we’d gone from talking about Pride merch to talking about the lived experiences of LGBTQ people.
In the end, I love the Pride rainbow for what it represents and I’ve come to see the beauty in rainbow merch. For one, the merch can provide consumers with more brightly colored, pro-LGBTQ gear to wear in June and, more importantly, in their everyday lives. It can also mean that LGBTQ-focused non-profits get funding and heightened visibility. And in some—perhaps too few—cases, it can indicate a corporate culture that is supportive of its LGBTQ employees in policy, advocacy, and management. The symbolism of the Pride flag has always been able to encompass those disparate paths toward queer liberation—economic, political, social, representational—and more. Any company that’s sporting those colors should do the same.
“Would I wear rainbow all the time? It’s not my color, I’m a winter,” Wenke joked. “But it’s important and it does mean a lot…This is our community, this is what we are fighting for and in these [New York and LA] bubbles, we see a lot more of it than people do in other parts of the country and around the world. So, I can’t get enough of the rainbow.”