It used to be, and it wasn’t that long ago, downright dangerous to attend a Pride event. Why? Because LGBTQ+ people ran the risk of being fired if their employers saw their picture in the paper, saw them on TV, or walked by at an inopportune time. That’s why I never went to a Pride event during the first 15 years of my professional career. I worried if someone from work saw me, what would they say? Or worse, what would they do?
In addition to not going to Pride events because it might jeopardize my career, I also had to pretend I had girlfriends at work, go to strip bars with the guys and clients after work, hide the fact that I lived with my boyfriend, and go along with the plethora of gay jokes that floated around the office like germs. And to top it off, the only place you would see a rainbow flag was inside of a gay bar, rarely outside.
I can already read the comments on this column, and many of them will call me a bitter old queen. That moniker — or any other, frankly — doesn’t bother me at all. The point of writing a column is to strike a nerve and drum up debate in addition to enlightening. And it still amazes me that I can write for this historic news outlet, about issues and news affecting the LGBTQ community, with my byline under the title. Being out never gets old.
But to be called a bitter old queen about being grateful for something doesn’t sound very bitter to me.
Pink-washing, or rainbow-washing, seems to have reached a crescendo this year. If you don’t know what that is, I’ll try to explain it briefly. Basically, it’s business after business piling on during Pride month by using the Pride rainbow as an opportunistic way to make a buck. Many say that all the dollars spent on these marketing efforts should instead be put toward helping LGBTQ+ organizations that help at-risk members of our community. And that companies doing business with autocratic governments that outlaw homosexuality should have no part in Pride Month.
I agree with some parts of this rationale, but there’s more to the story. First, I sense so much anger at these businesses, with boycott efforts and petitions. It’s over the top. And it’s misplaced. And for those of us who had to hide at work for decades or never dreamed they’d see a Ford logo emblazoned with a rainbow flag, this overkill of rainbow colors is actually a dream come true.
The first thing to know is that arguably, Pride Month is the top fundraising period for LGBTQ+ organizations, and there’s a reason for that. When these businesses color up their logos or sell rainbow socks, for example, there’s usually a monetary plan behind the endeavors that supports LGBTQ+ nonprofits.
I have spent over 30 years in public relations, and during the first 20 or so, there was never any intention for companies to participate in Pride Month, in any way shape or form. All the clients or employers I worked with during the first couple of decades of my career never gave a thought to publicly acknowledging Pride Month. They wouldn’t dare risk offending their customer base, the religious right, or their shareholders. They remained loudly silent largely because catering to the LGBTQ+ community was seen as detrimental to the bottom line.
It’s only been recently, during the past few years, that there’s been a precipitous uptick in companies celebrating Pride Month. More so, again only in the last few years, many businesses are recognizing their LGBTQ+ employees, starting resource groups for them, and scheduling guest speakers or open dialogues in the office about LGBTQ+ life and issues.
Also during this time, in addition to their marketing and in-house efforts, corporations began to work with LGBTQ+ nonprofit organizations and started promoting these relationships. As a PR guy, I remember writing my first Pride Month LGBTQ+ partnership press release — in 2016 — and how amazed I was that this was actually happening where I was employed.
There are usually two ways businesses and LGBTQ+ organizations work together. First, companies make a large in-kind charitable donation to their LGBTQ+ cause partner or partners, and/or donate the proceeds from sales of their rainbow-adorned products to those organizations.
Let’s just key in on one sector, shoes. This year, Nike is donating a total of $625,000 to 18 LGBTQ+ organizations. And its competitor Puma said 20 percent of the proceeds from the sales of its Pride collection — with a maximum donation of $500,000 — will go to the Cara Delevingne Foundation, a project of the Giving Back Fund in support of LGBTQ+ charities worldwide.
These examples are fast becoming the norm, not outliers. In this day and age, if a company does not monetarily support an LGBTQ+ cause during Pride Month, you should take your business elsewhere and tell them to stuff their rainbow logos where rainbows don’t shine. It’s these companies that are pride-washing, and I’d be the first one to call them out.
Now, back to the flood of rainbow flags, logos, and profile pics. The naysayers should appreciate each and every one of them. For many of us, these welcomed changes of openness, realness, and rainbow flag prevalence only happened within the last 10 years. I remember the first job I had where I could be somewhat out at work, and that was only 13 years ago. And I can tell you that that Fortune 500 company did not change its logo in my honor during Pride Month.
I also remember the very first time that I saw a rainbow flag that wasn’t hanging on the walls of a gay bar. It was 2012 (that’s not even 10 years ago). My birthday falls during Pride Month , and I was telling a coworker that George H.W. Bush’s birthday was the same as mine. She was curious about what famous person might be born on her birthday, so we clicked on Google, and there it was. A rainbow flag alongside the Google logo. My heart stopped when I saw that, and I almost cried.
None of these endeavors should ever be taken for granted. It took decades of people being fired, coming out at the office, and numerous court fights, at great expense to the litigants, to get to this point. So many of us remember the fear and anxiety Pride Month would bring. You wanted to celebrate publicly, but the risks seemed so daunting.
And please don’t call us cowards for not being out and proud at work years ago. When your livelihood and career are at stake, the choice to be silent was the safest one. I have known people who were fired for being gay, and it’s a horribly destructive and scarring experience.
Despite last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that says you can’t be fired because of your sexual orientation, LGBTQ+ people are still being let go and discriminated against in the workplace. In dozens of states, LGBTQ+ people can still be legally booted from their apartments, denied foster or adoption services, or refused access to public facilities. That’s why we need the Senate to pass the Equality Act, and business support of this legislation is crucial. The Human Rights Campaign’s Business Coalition for the Equality Act has more the 400 major corporations on board, and it is believed to be the largest business coalition to ever come together to speak out in support of legal LGBTQ+ equality. This is remarkable to me.
I can understand some of the anger at big business, but there’s always been resentment that companies’ only concern is the bottom line, and that they will go to any length to build their profits. Yet this month, I’m feeling grateful that they consider the LGBTQ+ community important to their bottom line, and LGBTQ+ employees important to their culture. And that they are proud to show it by putting rainbow colors everywhere. The last thing I want to do is wash them off.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.