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Life beyond style

This year marks 50 years since homosexuality was partially decriminalized in the United Kingdom. To honor the milestone, Pride in London has decided to team up again with WCRS, a creative agency with a global reach responsible for last year’s hugely successful #NoFilter campaign; conceived after research found that 79% of LGBTQ+ people self-censor to avoid abuse or harassment.

For the campaign, the agency repurposed the #NoFilter hashtag to encourage queer people to express themselves without fear. This year, however, the theme is ‘Love Happens Here’. Split into two parts (‘Love’ and ‘Hate’), the campaign aims to (a) highlight the ongoing battle LGBTQ+ wage against hate crimes and discrimination, and (b) offer examples of love in the face of these daily adversities. It’s about love as a form of resistance; about empowerment and normalizing LGBTQ+ relationships.

Or, so we thought. Things took a strange turn when a short film entitled ‘The Apology’ was released online. The film follows a series of guilt-ridden family members describing their discriminatory reactions to finding out they were related to an LGBTQ+ person as they cry silently for the camera. They lament the relationships they lost because of their own prejudiced actions, describing what they would have done differently now to maintain the relationships with queer relatives that they pushed away.

Not a single queer voice is heard in the video, nor is there any mention of the impact of this discrimination on the actual victims. Instead, it’s a cloying, emotive exploration of overdue heterosexual remorse; centering the experiences of the straight protagonists.

Things deteriorated even further when posters adorned with rainbow lettering and lukewarm slogans began to appear online and around London. “Gay Man, Straight Man: We’re All HuMan” proclaimed one (see what they did there?). “My gay friends make me more attractive by association,” read another; and, finally, perhaps the most nauseatingly tone deaf ad of them all read: “Being HOMOPHOBIC is sooo GAY”.

Frankly, all of these slogans are bullshit in their own special way. The first completely ignores the fact that queer people are denied their humanity on a daily basis despite the fact that we’re all ~huMan~; the next implies that queer people are useful insofar as they improve your own attractiveness (no doubt trading on the tired stereotype of gay men as sassy, image-obsessed gym rats); and the last… well, what can we even say here? Some kind of terrible attempt to fight fire with fire and turn the logic of homophobes against them? While also conceding that being “sooo GAY” is a very embarrassing state that no one would want to be accused of?

In short, all of the posters were terrible, some were overtly homophobic, and the whole campaign completely missed the mark.

At this point in the conversation, it’s worth looking back at the origins of Pride. In June 1968, a police raid was carried out at New York’s Stonewall Inn. Plain-clothes officers were ordered to seize everyone in the bar, verify their sex and then arrest anyone whose gender presentation didn’t match their genitals. Elsewhere, women were groped and other patrons were forcefully ejected; one, a drag king identified by several witnesses as Stormé DeLarverie, was hit over the head with a baton as she struggled with her too-tight handcuffs.

This was the catalyst for a series of violent riots led by a crowd of trans and queer people, many of whom (DeLarverie included) were queer people of color. Furthermore, some accounts say that Marsha P Johnson was the first person to react violently to the raid, although this account was ignored by the Hollywood adaptation of Stonewall, which centered the story of a gay white male protagonist.

Anyway: Pride literally commemorates the anniversary of a rebellious uprising, which is precisely why queer communities feel rightly protective of a celebration which is slowly but surely losing its meaning to hollow marketing slogans and corporate sponsorship.

Even the slogan ‘Love Happens Here’ has its flaws. Not only does it rely on the shaky logic that loving relationships are what make queer identities legitimate, it erases the experiences of trans people by failing to acknowledge the ‘T’ in ‘LGBT’. Trans people are marginalized primarily for their gender identity rather than their sexual orientation (and hence love lives), so the slogan misses this nuance.

Moreover, LGBTQ+ struggles aren’t limited to the abuse that comes with holding hands in public: hate crimes, bathroom bills, family abandonment and disproportionately high rates of suicide and mental health problems are just some of the issues which can’t be solved by romantic relationships alone. Is it enough to say that (romantic) love conquers all when trans women (particularly trans women of color) are being murdered at alarming rates for merely existing?

It’s not, but these issues are often sidelined in favor of discussing the much more politically-palatable issue of gay marriage. This is in large part because (corporate) media outlets are still much more likely to dedicate column inches to white, conventionally attractive gay men as opposed to actually spotlighting the most marginalized in the queer community.

Money has also factored into the equation since the early 1990s, when wealthy, white gay people began to appear on screen and advertisers saw a gap in the market; realizing that LGBTQ+ communities could actually be a commodity as opposed to a threat (remember, this was in the aftermath of the AIDs epidemic in the ’80s, when state-sanctioned homophobia was at an all-time high). The almost comically over-generalizing 2004 marketing report describes gay and lesbian consumers as “affluent, highly-educated, sophisticated, brand-aware and product-loyal” – an ostensibly flattering yet wildly inaccurate and stereotypical statement which is blind to the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality.

These various factors all interact to create a huge financial and ideological chasm between wealthy white gays and other LGBTQ+ people who might also have to deal with transphobia, racism or homelessness caused by prejudiced families and little to no state support. Worse still, queer people are often abused or turned out by the charities set up to protect them – hardly the “affluent, brand-aware” demographic advertisers are hungrily targeting, but these are the people Pride is for.

In essence, ‘Love Happens Here’ is just another case of cynical, market-driven pinkwashing. Most Pride advertising is a half-hearted nod to equality created for the sake of good PR at best and a complete shit show at worst. The posters created for London Pride were very much on the shit show end of the spectrum, leading to a formal apology.

“It is clear we misjudged the content of some of the messages in this poster series, undermining the individuality, importance and dignity of the LGBT+ community,” said a spokesperson of the PR car crash. “This was never our intention, and we are genuinely sorry to have played any part in something that appears to devalue our own community and have removed these images from our campaign.”

The apology is appreciated, and it does at least signal that agencies are willing to learn and change when called out. Still, this enormous PR fuck-up exemplifies another problem: these agencies are often all-white and lacking in representation of all minorities, making it difficult for them to get these things right without including the communities in question.

Now, as always, would be an opportune time for agencies and brands to learn from their mistakes by diversify workforces and actually paying queer people to create content for their own peers. If they don’t, we’re sure to continue seeing these missteps in future Pride campaigns.

Now read about how branding has fueled drug culture.

  • Images: Pride in London / WCRS
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