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  • Writer's pictureAndréa Oldereide

Uncovering the truth behind pinkwashing

By now, you are likely to have observed big corporations swapping their traditional logos for a rainbow flag or a pride-themed background since the beginning of the month of June. This happens every year, special “pride” collections are put on the market, and at first glance, consumers think they are being great allies whilst brands keep a politically correct facade.


For example, Guess came out in May with their “What Makes You Sparkle” watch collection, a couple of accessories that clearly display rainbow colours. “As part of the launch of the "What Makes You Sparkle" capsule, Guess Watches is donating $25 000 to The Trevor Project, which will help the organization continue to provide free, 24/7 crisis services via a phone lifeline, text, and chat,” Guess' press release reads.


The donation sounds wonderful at first glance, almost like capitalism may benefit marginalised communities. However, the price of these pride-themed watches ranges from $100-$215 and are sold by a company worth around $1.05 billion according to stockanalysis.com, which raises the question of whether the donation equals the total sales of the product. I am no mathematician, but I would assume that the 25k represents a pretty small-scale proportion of the total bagged by selling these watches. Why don't they donate a percentage of each watch sold directly to the Trevor Project? Why wouldn't you donate all the proceeds from using the LGBTQIA2S+* flag instead of continuously promoting a multi-million dollar brand? That, my friends, is pinkwashing.

Man at a protest holds pride flag with Jewish star and a sign that reads "you can't pinkwash apartheid"
ReportOUT.org

June, being the month of LGBTQ+ pride, a month where thousands of towns and cities worldwide hold events to not only commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City but also raise awareness to queer related issues, is a period where famous brands like to sport the rainbow flag.


Other companies doing so include H&M or Nike, also selling pride-themed merchandise in June and promising a certain amount to charities defending LGBTQ+ rights or helping the queer community in various ways. The percentages that are donated vary greatly. From 10%, which is the cut H&M has given in the past from selling their Pride Out Loud collection to an exemplary 50%, with Nike donating millions of pounds to a cause directly helping queer people.


Mass consumerism in the name of Pride


But one could argue that pushing mass consumerism in order to incite people to do a good deed and donate to a greater cause is just a manipulative way to make more money under a noble disguise. In the case of pride month and the way big corporations play a role in it, the problem is part of a bigger issue mentioned previously: pinkwashing.


Pinkwashing, a term that inevitably resembles “greenwashing” and, as a consequence, can’t be good news, refers to "the practice of attempting to benefit from purported support for LGBTQ+ rights, often as a way to profit or to distract from a separate agenda,” according to Dictionary.com.

Rainbow flag and its shadow reflecting a flag with dollar signs
Urbania.fr

For instance, a brand might change its usual logo to a carefully designed pride-themed one in June, giving the impression of being a company that cares and helps queer people, while at the same time, that very company might hold activities in countries where gay men are stoned to death. Premier Inn, IBM, l’Oréal, HSBC, Rolls-Royce, and Adidas, are just a few of the hundreds of international companies that have changed to a pride flag logo on LinkedIn while conducting business and managing offices in Dubai and other UAE cities, where being gay is punishable by law.


Even though Saudi Arabia and the UAE operate their laws through a strict and extreme religious system that traces its roots back to the 7th century, other countries did not comply with oppressive laws of that nature before European colonisation. Such is the case with Pakistan when the Colonial British government criminalised same-sex relations in India in the 19th century. After gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan adopted the British homophobic laws. This historical event is often overlooked by Western nations, who often portray themselves as the saviours of “barbaric” countries. One could argue that history too, can be pinkwashed.


Political correctness and pinkwashing harmful agendas


The Pride EBN (formerly known as McDonald's Gay, Lesbian & Allies Network) was founded in 2005 yet, the powerful fast food chain has restaurants in Pakistan where homosexuality is punishable by death by stoning. Other companies can be more subtle, such as banks, which often change their logos on their Linkedin pages, as exemplified above, and Twitter pages to rainbow flags in June, but do not have policies to specifically protect their queer employees from discrimination at work.

M&S' pride themed LGBT sandwiches
Cercatoridiatlantide.it

Some corporations would go as far as to invest in a massive float to be paraded at a pride march event, yet continue their activities in countries where being an LGBTQ+ identifying person could cost their lives. For instance, HSBC and Barclays have both shown their flamboyant floats at London’s pride march and yet both banks have invested in Saudi Arabia for many years, where it’s common practice to kill and repress queer people.


Nevertheless, pinkwashing isn’t exclusive to manipulative and misleading marketing campaigns created by businesses worth billions. In fact, pushing a political agenda while hiding behind superficial support of queerness is one of the most damaging ways powerful nations utilise queerness to label themselves as a civilised state.


Behind Western countries proclaiming to support human rights and democracy, an important narrative is overlooked. One where Western countries are very much complicit in the oppression of queer people and especially queer people of colour. A perfect example of this is, without a doubt, “Israel”.


“Tel Aviv” has long become a popular destination for queer tourism, with its beautiful beaches, countless gay nightclubs and bars, resorts, and more. “Israel” is even a traditional competitor at the gay Olympics: the Eurovision song contest. With a reputation in the West as one of the most “gay-friendly countries in the world”, people with access to the true lived reality of people indigenous to occupied Palestine would beg to differ.

Israel’s government has been condemned by Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs for its apartheid regime as a result of its inhumane treatment of the Palestinian population, including queer Palestinians. According to Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research, “Israel's cynical use of gay rights aims to obfuscate the reality of occupation and apartheid”, and one of the techniques Israel uses in its pinkwashing campaigns is to “fabricate myths about “saving” Palestinian queers from their homophobic and oppressive families and communities by bringing them to live in Tel Aviv – the ultimate gay haven”.


Powerful politicians, including French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Joe Biden, and UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who support the state of Israel are consequently complicit to the pinkwashing and the erasure of the Palestinians' right to the land they came from.


Ultimately, corporations and people in leading positions partake in pinkwashing because presenting themselves as being LGBTQ+ friendly is better for business and political control than being branded as bigoted and damaging sales and their legitimacy. For a company to display an honest attempt at being an ally, one that impacts the LGBTQ+ community for the better, learning about the Stonewall riots would be a great start. It was, after all, a protest against the erasure of queer spaces and to fight back against the violence queer people faced for living their truth.

Collage of brands and their special pride products
HuffPost UK

Pride month not only brings awareness to issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community but also educates a population that might need it. However, pride should be practiced by brands all year-round; only then can an extravagant float at a pride march be fully enjoyed by both the community and businesses.


*Déi aner uses the “LGBTQ+” acronym to replace the longer LGBTQIA2S+ one throughout its article which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, and the countless affirmative ways in which people choose to self-identify.


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