Like a bad boyfriend, most corporations never show up for you when needed.
2023 saw some major global corporations withdrawing their support from Pride celebrations in the West. This concerning development is occurring at a time when showing support for LGBTQ+ identities is becoming increasingly controversial. Irish LGBTQ+ existence is a topic of contentious debate amongst a small cohort of right-wing extremists. This summer saw demonstrations at libraries in Limerick, Cork, and Kerry. The protesters demanded that books depicting LGBTQ+ topics be removed from shelves. The trend is part of a global context; the right-wing government in Italy has prevented same-sex couples from registering for parental rights, and the BBC in England issued guidelines for staff to avoid participation in Pride.
Corporate sponsorship of Pride has often been derided as a marketing tactic for companies to sell products to LGBTQ+ consumers - businesses participate in order to ally themselves with LGBTQ+ rights and chase the pink euro. However, while companies participate in Pride, they are signalling themselves as LGBTQ+ friendly workplaces, increasing LGBTQ+ employee morale, and theoretically attracting LGBTQ+ talent to the workforce.
Still, this practice is often decried as ‘performative allyship’ by the community. While companies endorse LGBTQ+ people publicly, they may also engage in unethical business and work practices that can be detrimental to workers. In a similar vein, the allyship that corporations demonstrate at Pride can be fickle. Companies celebrate Pride in Ireland but do no corresponding LGBTQ+ outreach in countries where being gay or trans is illegal. In many such instances, corporations participate in Pride merchandising for a month and then stay silent on LGBTQ+ rights for the rest of the year.
Marching at Dublin Pride this June, I felt a mixture of joy and confusion. Attending Pride with my trans boyfriend’s workplace - a non-profit - felt good. I had experienced homophobia in the workplace in the past, and I was delighted that his employers were open about supporting LGBTQ+ rights. This sentiment was likely shared by the countless people who marched with their corporate LGBTQ+ staff network.
Yet, positioned next to us was Amazon’s gigantic float, equipped with beaming drag performers who danced to speakers blaring dance music. Many articles have described their inhumane working conditions and union-busting in the US. Also, Amazon did not post publicly about Pride on social media, despite being in attendance. Similarly, Volkswagen - a platinum sponsor of the festivities - were present. While eager to show their support of the LGBTQ+ community, in 2016 the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal was a moment in which their support of the public good was highly questioned. The company installed machines that manipulated emissions readings, thereby lying to the public about the pollution caused by their cars.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael waved beautiful multicoloured balloons nearby. Under their government, LGBTQ+ refugees live in Direct Provision in temporary accommodation, asylum seekers subsist on weekly rates of €38.80 per adult and €29.80 per child.
The academic Eithne Luibhéid wrote about an earlier example of pinkwashing. In her analysis, the Irish government used the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum to “pinkwash migration regimes,” normalising the harsh policies that cause oppression in Irish society. The vote for equality did not signify equality for all groups of Irish society.
Pinkwashing, defined as “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” isn’t unique to companies, some states are guilty of it as well. Israel likes to champion itself as a beacon of gay rights (even though gay marriage cannot legally be performed in Israel) while it continues its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. The term Pinkwashing was coined in 2010 by the activist group Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT) in San Francisco as a twist on greenwashing, a practice where companies claim to be eco-friendly to make a profit. The activist Dunya Alwan said in response to their horrific abuse of the Palestinian people - “We won’t put up with Israel whitewashing or greenwashing [their policies] …or pinkwashing!”
My experience at Dublin Trans and Intersex Pride was the complete opposite of my encounter with Dublin Pride. The smiling corporations that had surrounded me before were replaced by community organisers. Explicitly pro-refugee in their stance, the demonstration felt like a protest instead of a party. Demanding trans healthcare, giving voice to minorities in the community, and standing up against all transphobia were the key messages at the rally.
Dublin Trans and Intersex Pride said in a statement that, “We’ve always known corporate support for the LGBTQ+ community was purely dependent on whether or not it was profitable for them and that same support would be dropped / would disappear without a second’s hesitancy if it threatened their profits. Unfortunately that’s exactly what we’ve seen this Pride season in the midst of a horrific right wing backlash against LGBTQ+ rights and in particular trans rights.”
The group then went on to say that, “With Irish billiondollar company Intercom dropping their support claiming it to be ‘too divisive,’ to Starbucks in the US taking down Pride flags, corporate friendship to our community rests upon one condition: it must remain profitable for them.”
Liberation won’t come from corporations or from neoliberal states. The only way we can win liberation for all, whether that’s migrants, sex workers, victims of imperialism and everyone else, is through the dismantling of a capitalist society and the building of a socialist society which places human need above private greed and where queer lives are not just tolerated but actively celebrated.
Gilbert O’Sullivan, the designer of the Pride flag is reported to have said to Irish LGBTQ+ activist Tonie Walsh that, “Being valued as a consumer is inherently liberating as we are no longer invisible”. It is true that the support that companies show at Pride is ofttimes tactical. Taking this into account with all cynicism aside, corporate participation at Pride signals that it is socially acceptable and normal to side with LGBTQ+ rights. The cautious attitude that businesses are taking to distance themselves from Pride comes from companies giving heed to the recent trend of increased homophobia and transphobia amongst right-wing detractors.
Gender non-conforming and trans people are especially targeted by intolerance from the right. By listening to those who oppose LGBTQ+ rights, corporations are emboldening and empowering those who preach dissent. This sets a precedent for companies giving preferential treatment to the spending power and opinions of right-wing reactionary consumers over LGBTQ+ consumers.
Gilbert O’Sullivan further asserted when it comes to Pride allyship- “the engagement of the corporate sector has to be on our terms”. Alongside their participation once a year, companies should care for ethics all year round, taking into account the impact that they have on the rights of workers, migrants, and on the environment.
Pride is bigger than profit. It’s bigger than corporate greed, and it should be more than optics and a PR opportunity. The legacy of the Stonewall riots inspired Pride. Pride celebrations across Ireland should take note.