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‘Rainbow capitalism’ is pandering, pure and simple, but it can still help drive social change

This column is an opinion by Aimee Langer, a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

This year’s Pride Month is starting with a Lego set.

Pride Month is celebrated every year in honour of the Stonewall Inn riots that took place in June 1969, as well as the yearly demonstrations that followed in various cities across the U.S. and eventually the world. Pride reminds us of the violence endured, the progress made, and the hardships yet to come.

Today – the beginning of Pride Month in Canada – Lego is releasing a 346-piece LGBTQ+ themed set titled Everyone is Awesome, a clear nod to the massively popular song written for the 2014 Lego Movie (which undoubtedly traumatized many parents, teachers, and caregivers alike after the movie came out, due to how many kids were singing it non-stop – surpassed only by Baby Shark).

It’s one of the signs of how June 1 has become the start of a rainbow-themed marketing onslaught from every corner of the capitalist system. Companies of all types and sizes use Pride Month to market pride-themed consumables, decorate their stores with rainbow regalia and hammer customers with lacklustre slogans – only to pack it all up after June 30.

This phenomenon is known among the queer community as “rainbow capitalism.” It’s pandering, pure and simple.

Every year, rainbow capitalism is met with a range of responses, from outright disdain to excited cheers. The two camps that tend to form around this phenomenon represent a sort of “chicken or the egg” paradox.

One camp argues that companies are simply using queer existence and exploitation for profit, often without any form of support for the queer community.

In doing so, they say, these companies perpetuate inequality and oppression. How various identities intersect will determine the type and degree of inequality and oppression that they experience in their own individual communities as well as society at large, and for many, capitalism has been a vehicle for harmful policies including neocolonialism, gentrification, and upholding white supremacist institutions.

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A rainbow flag is seen in Toronto during Pride Month. Views about ‘rainbow capitalism’ and Pride Month marketing initiatives are mixed, writes Aimee Langer. (Eduardo Lima/Canadian Press)

The second camp acknowledges that, while profiting from queer peoples’ open existence is not ideal, it’s inevitable; everyone needs to buy things, queer people included. Many LGBTQ+ people experience barriers to full economic participation due to hiring discrimination or hostile work environments, leaving them disproportionately represented in low-income categories. Being picky about whether companies are genuinely committed to LGBTQ+ welfare leaves even fewer options.

This camp also argues that explicit representation, such as rainbow signage that takes over storefronts during Pride Month, can be encouraging, even if shallow. At minimum, it signals acceptance. If you must spend your money somewhere, why not at a place that says “We support you”?

The first camp perceives the phenomenon of rainbow capitalism as being a self-interested reflection of the public acceptance and normalization that has accumulated over decades of activism. The second views it as a propagating force for that acceptance and normalization, purely for the explicit representation that occurs over an entire month.

So … what came first? The chicken or the egg? Acceptance or exploitation?

Much like what quantum physicists believe, the truth is likely that both are true simultaneously. You can be frustrated about irresponsible and disingenuous pandering, but still acknowledge the inevitability of capitalist participation.

And this is the sweet spot for change.

Real change necessitates that companies do their pandering in good faith. This means consequential engagement, support, and policies not just during Pride Month, but year-round.

It also means that we, queer and straight people alike, need to demand that the pandering be done in good faith. This can include putting pressure on companies to truly embrace meaningful change by:

  • Demanding workplace policies to develop inclusive work environments;
  • Hiring LGBTQ+ people at all levels, including high-level corporate positions;
  • Planning and running community events that promote LGBTQ+ interests, arts, and businesses;
  • Creating partnership and mentorship initiatives with queer businesses;
  • Providing internships through universities and high schools;
  • And creating capital grant programs for queer entrepreneurs.

There are a million ways that companies can sincerely engage with queer folk and communities year-round that will help our community become more normalized and accepted and keep us spending our money.

And so many ways we can all help encourage that engagement.

For my part, I’ll probably buy that Lego set. But I’m also going to donate $50 to the Queer Education Foundation to support their mission to create inclusive and intersectional spaces.

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