Stedman, a professor of religion at Augsburg University and an expert in digital communication, has been watching the ugly Pride merch discourse with great interest. To him, the uncomfortable feeling these rainbow offerings inspire has little to do with taste.
“It feels like a violation in some ways because these companies are taking our language, our memes and our norms and using them for their own gain without fully understanding them or investing in the community,” he said.
Pithy phrases and campy glitz may be great for selling things, but that’s not what this language was made for. Facing alienation from a culture at large, marginalized communities create their own cultures as a form of protection. Queer aesthetics, even the humorous, glamorous, fascinating parts, are often shaped around a basic instinct of survival.
Once they’re indiscriminately slapped on a fanny pack by big companies trying to look relatable, it’s no wonder they lose some of that power.
“This language and imagery emerged in spaces that have been a refuge for people who haven’t been safe and welcome in other communities,” Stedman said. “And I think that’s why people are so bothered by it.”
Get with the times
“You cannot just market to our community,” Ellis said. “You have to join the movement, and that’s a social justice movement. You need to speak out when there is bad legislation, especially when you have outsized influence.”
A lot of that work begins in-house, with inclusive HR policies and diverse, intersectional representation among directors and leaders, Ellis says. And such efforts should be sustained all year — not just in June, when allyship becomes trendy.
Before that, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, Ellis points out that brands sold to and connected with LGBTQ audiences in much less targeted ways. Sometimes just running a normal advertisement in queer media was enough to make their stance clear, a stance that was much riskier to a brand’s reputation than it is today.
“When I was young and in my early 20s, when I knew I was gay, if I were to see a company that was flying a Pride flag, that was accepting and welcoming, I would have been blown away,” Ellis said. “The progress has been phenomenal, but we need to work on perfecting it, on tightening it.”
In this way, he acknowledges that there can be positives to even ill-conceived Pride campaigns if they reach the right people; if an isolated person struggling with their sexual identity sees it and feels a little bit less lonely.
But in an age that is increasingly accepting of queer culture and LGBTQ rights, it’s no longer enough to just slap a rainbow on something and call it Pride.
“While it may be comforting to some, it also makes a lot of other LGBTQ feel like we’re valued only because the sands have shifted, and that is the only reason we’re worth celebrating,” he says. “It’s as if we’re not even worth actually getting to know.”