The Gay ‘Sellouts’

The famous Princess Bride quote “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something” fits quite well into our current social climate where commercials and ads jump out at us from every corner. Companies have to scramble to stay relevant and they are trying to reach new audiences by being ‘current’ and, as we all know well enough, it doesn’t always work out (Pepsi, I’m talking about Pepsi).

So, if we have these massive corporations reaching out to different markets, inevitably, LGBTQIA+ people end up becoming a part of that conversation. The famously dubbed ‘pink pound’[1] is becoming more and more desirable. According to Crunch, its estimated worth is £6 billion per year, and while the term still is often linked with gay men, it is being increasingly used to describe the purchasing power of the LGBTQIA+ community in general.

As June was Pride Month, many companies came forward with different campaigns that celebrated pride. Nike did an ad for its #BeTrue pride collection featuring the legendary performer and vogue artist Leiomy Maldonado. After years of ads featuring different athletes, Nike recognised voguing as a legitimate sport that deserves praise for its intricacy and the amount of hard work that goes into it. Nike’s act of featuring a transgender woman performing something which has so much of its history linked to the LGBTQIA+ movement is one of the few instances of mainstream sport brands shining a spotlight on queer issues. This has led to people discussing the intentions behind a big brand’s choice to play on themes connected with the queer community in order to appeal to a wider audience. For example, David Levitz and Ash Hardell talked about “pinkwashing”[2] and the commercialisation of the LGBTQIA+ movement in a recent video together, saying that brands like Skittles and Target producing this kind of merchandise makes them wonder if these companies have ulterior motives.

Pride Marches are also being accused of becoming too commercial. There are a number of activists who have expressed the opinion that Pride marches are becoming increasingly commercial and are watering down their original political message. Some have criticised Pride Marches by saying that Pride is now just an excuse to party, that people have “lost sight of its identity — and of the many challenges that the gay community has still to overcome. The outside influence of brands is ‘classic pinkwashing’”.

While the amount of people attending the march in New York City has grown by a third, a survey showed that more than a quarter of the attendants in 2014 identified as straight. These numbers could suggest a deviation from the original aim of Pride, which is to create awareness of the social and political issues concerning queer lives. That is not to say that it has become just a party for straight people; there are many straight allies who want to show their support. However, this could mean that Pride is now more focused on catering to the ‘general’ public. Last summer, a group bore a black coffin on their shoulders along the parade route at London Pride, symbolising what they, and others, perceive to be the death of the movement. In addition, smaller Pride celebrations are closing down because of a lack of funds and sponsors.

Two opposing camps become visible in this debate. There are those who are not pleased with the influence that big sponsors have on Pride marches. Then there is the opposing side that argues that sponsors are needed in order to make the events as accessible as possible and help raise public awareness. This was the case for Leicester Pride – the organisers had to set up a donations page because they struggled to find sponsors, without financial support the event simply could not happen.

The real question is this: Are the giant, faceless corporations that do not care about helping anyone but their wallets just trying to profit off of yet another marketing strategy? Can something good come out of this?

Amrou Al-Kadhi, a drag queen performer, talks about general, mainstream venues demanding that queer performers should just be grateful for being given the chance to perform for free. They feel as if they are just tokens for cis, straight people to come and see something unusual and for the venues to bring in the ‘pink pound’. If voices of people like Al-Kadhi are not taken seriously and they themselves are considered just an obscure attraction, then queer people have the right to be sceptical about anyone wanting to make a profit selling products connected to queer culture. This is not to say that everything is just about the ‘evil corporation’ wanting to make money, but there is always the danger that the message will be watered down in order to appeal to a larger audience. Shannon Keating brings up the history behind “The Future is Female” slogan t-shirt and points out how a product whose proceeds were donated to a charity supporting the cause got taken over by bigger clothing companies that do not share their profits with any of the charities that the t-shirt was originally made for.

This debate reveals that providing a platform where marginalised voices can share their stories, and have others understand their struggles, is vital and needs to be focused on. While the mainstream is starting to recognise more queer performers and creators, it is important that it is not done in the spirit of ‘tokenism’ but as a gateway to understanding and acceptance.

This is also, firmly, an issue for the publishing industry to consider. There is a lack of diversity in the industry and a need for representation, a need that commercial publishing cannot fulfil in its current state.

When LGBTQIA+ focused venues close down, like the legendary LGBTQIA+ bookstore, Giovanni’s Room, that closed in 2014, it is often a large blow to the community. Places aimed and created specifically for queer people should be uplifted and supported – giving a platform to those avoided by the mainstream is crucial to creating a change. While Nike’s decision to feature a trans woman in their ad is a significant move forward, more energy needs to be put into places that are specifically created by and for queer people. These places need to be supported not for how much they can entertain the mainstream, but because they’re one of the main reasons for the continued survival of the queer community.

Written and researched by Lenka Murova 

[1] Def: “The perceived spending power of homosexuals as a group; (in plural) money belonging to, or earned by, homosexuals” from Oxford dictionary


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