Reclaiming the pride flag in the age of rainbow capitalism

It is becoming even harder to ignore the commercialisation of LGBTQ+ pride. Two days ago, I attended the Manchester pride parade and was pleased to hear that it was their biggest yet, with over 180 contributors to the parade. The NHS, which is celebrating its 70th Birthday this year, and Greater Manchester Police were met with the loudest cheers and applause as they walked past the Midland Hotel where I was standing. It also warmed my heart to see so many volunteer charities and non-profit organisations celebrating pride. At a time where far-right ideology appears to be emerging from the shadows, our cheers and flag-waving felt like a joyous ‘thank you’ to those who continue their important work regardless.

However, it became clear that most parade participants were representing a company or business, many using the rainbow flag as a sign of their diverse workforce or customer base. As a ‘rainbowed’ Tesco delivery van drove past, brand ambassadors wearing T-shirts laden with inspiration phrases seemingly straight from Cheryl Cole’s Instagram account, threw bags of sweets to the crowd and the presenters narrating the procession threw compliments back at them, “we LOVE Tesco,” they cried, “give it UP for Tesco!” There was something about the heavy commercialism of the parade which felt inauthentic. And I get it, pride needs sponsors. There needs to be investment behind the parades to keep LGBTQ+ pride alive and if that involves the occasional walking advert then so be it. However, I couldn’t help feeling that the event, which originated as activist marches in the years following the Stonewall riots, was being hijacked by syrupy corporate sentimentality.

It felt reductive to see the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride in the face of oppression, as some sort of logo with the sole aim of attracting a large LGBTQ+ market to products and services. I was handed rainbow flags which were half covered by company logos and taglines. Why is it not considered disrespectful that this symbol of liberation is plastered over and used as an advertising strategy, aligning big business alongside historic and present-day LGBTQ+ movements? Although it could be argued that companies showing a rainbow flag sets a moral benchmark for other corporations who may not be as ‘progressive’, it only indicates to me how low the bar is. LGBTQ+ rights are human rights and diversity and inclusivity should be the bare minimum required of a company operating in the 21st Century. So why do we give big business a pat on the back for treating human beings with respect and for promoting equality?

The inequality and suffering caused by capital greed becomes disguised by these grand statements. For example, Amazon was celebrated at the parade for its ‘glamazon’ initiative which ‘helps make Amazon a great place to work by educating and informing employees about LGBTQ+ issues and opportunities.’ However, Amazon has recently faced ardent criticism over the treatment of its manual workers. A Guardian investigation in July found ‘numerous cases of Amazon workers being treated in ways that leave them homeless, unable to work or bereft of income after workplace accidents.’ Importantly, these are issues which impact LGBTQ+ people disproportionately worse. A report from Essex University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research found that ‘gay men, together with bisexual men and women, are more likely to experience poverty than their heterosexual counterparts’. We cannot carry on pretending that LGBTQ+ workers exist in isolation from a capitalist system. Just because a company adorns a rainbow flag, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing wrong. The workers impacted by corporate shortcuts and strategies, implemented solely for profit, includes members of the LGBTQ+ workforce which these companies smugly congratulate themselves for recognising.

I think it’s time we reclaimed the rainbow flag slightly from the grips of contemporary capitalism. Pride is my favourite time of year and everywhere you looked in Manchester, people were beaming in a joint celebration of diversity and freedom. However, that is not to say the fight is over. We need to reclaim the political power of the rainbow flag which is diluted by advertising campaigns. By recognising the capital motives behind corporate use of the rainbow flag, we can focus greater attention on issues which continue to disproportionately impact the lives of LGBTQ+ people. We must wave the flag out of pride and anger.

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