It’s June again, which means plenty of brands have rolled out their annual rainbow parade. This can range from a whole line of merchandise (a la Target) to simply changing a social media profile picture.
And, as happens every year, it’s also time for a discussion about “rainbow capitalism.” While it’s nice to see support—and, in times such as these, even hopeful—it happens all too often that this kind of “support” is nothing more than performative.
The question for queer people, then, is whether we can escape the hollow performative quality of rainbow capitalism to find truly supportive allies and representation.
Why Rainbow Capitalism Has Taken Over
Rainbow capitalism is a relatively new phenomenon, although it’s entirely explainable.
From the 1970s until the early 2000s, it was uncommon for brands to openly support queer rights. Most of the parades and demonstrations held in this period were grassroots efforts, organized by the community for the community. They were often run on donations and volunteer time.
Many still are, but there has been an increasing trend towards the corporatization of Pride and other events. Now, big brands will pony up big money to become an “official” sponsor.
What Changed, and Why?
Over the course of decades, queerness has become more visible and more accepted. That is entirely what the demonstrators, organizers, volunteers, and participants in the late twentieth century wanted.
The first Pride was a riot against police brutality. It remained a form of protest through the 1980s and into 1990s, when discrimination and homophobia let millions die in the AIDS pandemic. Issues such as transphobia, gay marriage, and discrimination still remain at large in queer communities.
Two or three big things happened in the early twenty-first century that changed the face of Pride. The first was the increasing number of people who identified openly as queer. If we look at demographic statistics, we can see a trend starting with Gen X and continuing through Millennials and Gen Z, with each generation getting “queerer.”
What this means is Pride worked. Pride made queer people visible and said, “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with us! We’re people, just like you.” With increased visibility, younger people were more able to identify themselves in the community—versus older generations, where queerness was “hidden” or “suppressed.”
It’s a funny thing: when you give people language, they’re able to identify things.
Seeing the World as It’s Always Been
This is not to say Gen Z is “more queer” or that the world is “getting queerer” or something. Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers and even those in the Silent Generation were queer. They either simply weren’t open about it or they were unable to identify that they were queer and instead suppressed their identity.
How do we know this? Look at the 1920s: queer subculture was flourishing. We can also see it in the 1800s and even before then. So people have always been queer. The statistics simply point to the fact that more people are willing to identify themselves as queer now.
Capitalism Discovers a Hidden Market
Okay, so what does that have to do with the development of rainbow capitalism? It means that there was an increasing share of the market that advertisers wanted in on. They wanted to reach Millennials and now Gen Z, many more of whom identify as queer.
So, if you’re an ad exec for a big company, one of the best things you can do is make that particular demographic feel welcome. Making a concerted effort to reach out to those groups is a great way to get them to buy your brand.
Case in point: Subaru. Subaru was an “early adopted” of rainbow capitalism. The car company specifically targeted queer people in its ad campaigns. Their messaging was basically, “Hey, if you’re queer, you should buy a Subaru, because our car fits with your life.”
Many queer people feel positively about Subaru because of this, to this very day. So, recap: there’s an emerging market of young people you want to snare, and they have a common identifier. No one else is serving them, because until about the late 1990s or so, “pandering” to the queer community was anathema.
Rainbow Capitalism Comes into Its Own
So, we have brands looking for an audience. And we have an underserved group who has previously been marginalized becoming more visible and accepted into mainstream society. Brand managers and ad execs realized they could tap into this emerging market and hopefully hook some of these younger consumers for life.
And thus we get rainbow capitalism, which is basically a case of underserved market meeting brands’ desire to keep growing.
Is Rainbow Capitalism Actual Allyship?
During the initial stages of rainbow capitalization and the corporatization of Pride, there may have been “actual” allyship. For example, Subaru may actually be a supporter of queer rights. They didn’t just jump on board to net a new market; they truly believe in queer rights.
The early phase likely saw a lot more of that than what we’re seeing now, although it’s very difficult to detangle what is “rainbow capitalism” and what is true allyship.
Take, for example, the company LUSH. LUSH has long supported the queer community by donating to various charities. But they’ve also partnered with police organizations, who have a history of brutalizing the queer community, as well as supported anti-trans charities, among other infractions, such as discriminating against employees of color and disabled employees.
So, is LUSH really an ally, or are they simply practicing rainbow capitalism?
In most cases, it’s a bit more obvious. For example, a company that changes their corporate social media to display rainbow colors, then switches it back at the stroke of midnight on July 1, is engaged in performative allyship. It is not actually supportive of queer people. They don’t offer products tailored to queer people; they don’t offer policies that make the workplace a supportive environment for queer people; and so on and so forth.
This is simply “lip service” to the queer community, to get people in the door and buy things. True allyship runs much deeper, which is where we need to ask exactly what else the company is doing beyond saying, “We support you, happy Pride!”
Does Rainbow Capitalism Have an Upshot?
From this assessment, it likely sounds like rainbow capitalism is all bad news. In some ways, it is: in most cases, there isn’t true allyship here. The companies don’t really care about queer rights nor do they care to understand it. All they want is those sweet, sweet dollars and if putting a rainbow flag on their profile will get you to fork them over, so be it.
Yet we can argue that rainbow capitalism does have certain upsides. One is that the visibility of queerness is increased even more. If you walk into Target on June 1, you’re likely to find a cornucopia of rainbow products. You can buy a rainbow flag or rainbow shoes to wear and showcase your support.
Being able to purchase these things in a big box store, readily and easily, is a recent development. And it makes queerness much more visible.
Visibility can help us normalize queerness, which is one reason we’re seeing so much pushback against Pride and other queer events. Certain sections of society don’t want queerness to be “normalized,” even if it is relatively prevalent in the population and in the natural world at large.
So, even if most corporate rainbows are a hollow form of support meant only as a money grab, they still end up pushing forward a key tenant of Pride itself: visibility.
Why Is Visibility Such a Big Deal?
Visibility is a key concern because seeing queer people, knowing queer people exist allows for more discussion. It often leads to increased support. Take, for example, the fact that most people who know a trans person—just one trans person!—are supportive of trans rights, vs. people who claim not to know any trans people.
So, knowing queer people makes you more likely to support them, even if you’re not queer yourself. Seeing that queer people exist changes attitudes. Early Pride was about not being forced to hide and live in fear—which are the goals of visibility and normalization. Queer people are normal, and they should not be forced to hide. They should be able to live their lives freely and without fear.
So, corporate capitalism pushes those goals, because it makes Pride much more visible—and it makes it incredibly easy for anyone to don the rainbow, whether to showcase their own queerness or to support a friend or family member.
We Still Need True Allyship Though
Especially right now, though, simply stocking rainbow flags on your shelves isn’t enough. Brands and companies need to go beyond this hollow performativity and become true allies.
Doing that, though, is difficult. Allyship means examining policies about employment and removing bias and policies that harm queer people. It means making sure you’re not offering to the queer community with one hand, while donating to governments that harm queer rights or charities that are transphobic or homophobic. And it means actively doing the work to help further queer rights—such as eliminating policies that are prejudiced against queer people or creating products that are inclusive of queer people.
Case Study: Disney
Perhaps no company embodies this better at the moment than Disney. The House of Mouse has a spotty track record with the queer community. Multiple characters have been reported as the company’s “first-ever gay character,” and most of those characters have been bit parts, villains, or otherwise problematic as representation. Disney has also censored queer content when exporting movies abroad, and it treated the series Love, Victor relatively poorly.
Still, the Mouse has paid lip service to the queer community with various shows and products. Yet, at the same time, the company was also donating to politicians with anti-trans and anti-queer agendas. This has now come to a head, with Disney retracting its support for the Florida government’s anti-LGBTQ+ campaign. The company is now suing Florida over the state’s actions against the company stemming from Disney condemning the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Is Disney truly an ally? Not really. Sure, they’re suing Florida and taking the government on, but their initial strategy was definitely to play both sides. They’ve just now been pushed, and the government pushed them too far.
That’s where rainbow capitalism falls down, and it’s why we need to reject it, even if does have some upsides. Because this allyship isn’t about human beings or their rights. It’s about whether or not queer people are lucrative enough as a demographic. For the moment, Disney has decided we are, but that may not always be the case.
That’s where rainbow capitalism falls down: it hinges on whether people can provide enough money to bother. If they can’t? Then they’re going to be thrown under the bus. Just look at Target this June. Or Bud Light. Or anyone else recently.
How Can We Avoid Rainbow Capitalism?
The answer, for the moment, is we can’t. We can make conscious choices to buy from small creators and queer people themselves, or companies with proven track records on queer rights.
When we get to the level of big corporations, the situation is much murkier. Are they actual allies? Some companies do a better job of being performative than others, but many of them, when we dig deep enough, we’ll find that they’re not as strong as they’d like to be. Of course, it’s difficult to then sort out who is being performative and who is just “doing their best.”
Putting stock in big brands to further queer rights and truly support the community won’t save us from being tossed under the bus if we’re not lucrative enough, though. Community and solidarity with queer creators, on the other hand, might.