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This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.

Every summer, as the rains of spring give way to the season of Pride, parties kick off around the globe celebrating the power of the LGBT+ community. It’s a time in which the lives of queer people become visible, nudging in from society’s fringes to occupy the center stage.

But it’s also a time in which Pride becomes a buzzword, causing equal measures of support and hot debate. Everybody from banks to charities to grocery stores emblazons their logo with a rainbow flag as a sign of solidarity, even as the depth of their activism can be put to question. Some, eager to prove their intentions, take things a step further.

On the surface, the fashion world appears to be Pride’s biggest champion. Its ties to queerness are longstanding and strong. Name any designer to head up a legacy house in the past century, and chances are they’re a gay man. The industry has long been a safe space for queer people and has, perhaps before any other subsection of culture, embraced trans talent on the runway and behind the scenes.

But a multinational corporation’s main aim is profit, and when paired with the fact that most company CEOs are cisgender and heteronormative, that means there can be a blissful ignorance of Pride’s true meaning.

As pop culture takes affirmative action and champions queer art in the public domain, conglomerates have learned that at the end of every rainbow lies a pot of gold. According to a study conducted by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the LGBT+ community has an estimated purchasing power of $917 billion. So the benefit of making a Pride collection becomes two-fold: it’s a perfect way to present your brand as inclusive and an opportunity to rake in serious cash under the guise of supporting a marginalized community. Whether that money reaches them or not is another story.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall this year, it’s a time to reflect, but those moments of poignancy also make the community vulnerable to exploitation. We’re still trying to figure out the semantics of it all: barely a decade ago, Pride collections were pretty much nonexistent; queer designs were created and sold by, well, niche queer designers. Now, behemoth brands are creating $30 T-shirts and $100 sneakers emblazoned with rainbow and trans Pride flags.

ASOS

Just about every major fashion brand, from Converse to Ralph Lauren, American Eagle to Diesel, adidas to ASOS, is creating a collection to celebrate Pride. But the rainbow flag can be a coercive symbol. The sight of it makes us assume that the company using it has the community’s best interests at heart.

In reality, that’s not always the case. A few companies have misstepped in their attempts to preach inclusivity. When pharmaceutical company Gilead sponsored New York Pride, it was called out for the $2,000+ price tag for a month’s worth of Truvada, a pill that can prevent users from contracting HIV. Since then, the company has decided to provide Pruvada to 200,000 US citizens for a decade. This is a step forward, but it won’t eradicate HIV like widespread availability of the drug could.

Cases like this can veer into what many queer people think of as “rainbow capitalism” and slacktivism, exploiting a community for a branding hit.

“When brands slap a rainbow on something and call it a day, they’re selling us something that we created,” says Fran Tirado, deputy editor of Out magazine. “They are essentially stealing $100 from our own wallets and then using it to treat us to ice cream. But the thing is, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and brands are gonna do this shit no matter what.”

But for every example of exploitation, there is a brand that goes out of its way to do the right thing. And it’s likely that those brands are the ones that hand creative control over to queer people who know the importance of getting Pride collections right.

ASOS and LGBT+ media organization GLAAD have collaborated on a collection that steers clear of using the rainbow flag entirely, instead focusing on designs — everything from basic graphic hoodies to racer sunglasses and cross-body bags — that appeal to a wider demographic than the LGBT+ community alone. Importantly, these collections are also available year-round, not just churned out in June and relegated to sales racks weeks after Pride month is over.

Levis

To seal the deal, 100 percent of profits from sales of the collection are donated to GLAAD. And that approach isn’t exclusive to ASOS: Levi’s is also donating all profits from its rainbow-adorned Pride collection to OutRight Action International.

Donating all profits to a worthy charity is a surefire way to ensure your company is on its way to doing Pride collections right, but when the debate runs deeper and things are left unclarified, trouble brews. Converse unveiled a glittered Chuck Taylor in the colors of the Trans Pride flag to a loaded and complex response after failing to clarify where the profits from its sales would be going.

Converse said a mix-up in timelines had led to the confusion. Instead, while a set allocation of money from sales of the silhouette wasn’t going directly to a single charity, Converse confirmed money was being gathered and donated from all areas of the company and put into supporting the charity work of LGBT+ Converse employees, as well as charities and support networks for young, ostracised queer kids.

It might not have been screaming it from the rooftops, but Converse’s stance is a pretty admirable one: realizing that queer people need their voices amplified and addressed year-round and that it’s fine not to make a song and dance about it.

Embedding diversity into its design team is the approach Opening Ceremony adopted this year. Instead of producing a collection of rainbow tees that would have been shifted into the fast-fashion cycle, it collaborated with deaf trans artist Chella Man on a capsule collection that celebrates the creativity and culture of the community.

The collection, comprising painted leather jackets, suiting, and grandiose dresses, was modeled by key figures in Man’s life, including his trailblazing friends, disabled trans model Aaron Philip and Out editor-in-chief Phillip Picardi among them. In this instance, not only is a trans person of color getting their work projected onto a stage they’d struggle to reach solo, they were cutting a paycheck as well. And it worked: the collection is almost totally sold out.

It’s easy to champion the ones who do good while forgetting those who need to be told to do better. Realistically, the question always circles back to intent. Why do companies create Pride collections? Is it because they want to use their platform to support a marginalized community, or is it because, in the age of hashtag activism, pretending to be woke is as good as the real thing?

Doing things merely for “awareness” is unquantifiable and irresponsible. It’s a rainbow flag on a T-shirt made in a sweatshop, probably in a country in which LGBT+ people are killed for being themselves. Donating 50 percent of the profits to charity suggests you’re almost willing to give up your own desire for financial gain to help those who need it, but not quite. Ten percent? You’d be hard-pressed to find a person, queer or otherwise, who thinks such lousy dedication to a cause is worthy of attention.

Getty Images / zhar Khan / SOPA Images / LightRocket

But then again, who can blame these companies — who are almost certainly owned by white, straight cisgender men — for thinking Pride is nothing more than a flamboyant display by a group of people already assimilating into straight culture? After all, some cisgender lesbians lead major political parties and cis gay men are multi-millionaires; one is even the face of one of the most lucrative companies on Earth. Many others in the LGBT+ community aren’t in such a privileged position.

In light of that, ask yourself, “What does queer oppression look like?” The rainbow flag is a symbol of optimism for some, but for many — particularly the trans community and queer people of color — it’s a mark of defiance and the painful work that still desperately needs to be done.

It’s important we continue to hold multinational billion-dollar corporations to account and make no excuses for rainbow capitalism and refusals to support those most in need – your profession of love for the LGBT+ community may only be thinly veiled exploitation. Before you shell out your cash on a cool-looking rainbow T-shirt to wear to your city’s Pride parade, read the fine print.

Words by Douglas Greenwood
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