The Other Corporate Pride Problem

This weekend, my partner and I made our annual pilgrimage to the holiest of all homo high holidays: San Francisco Pride.  It's a lot easier now that we live about 45 minutes from the City - and as a singing member of San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, it's a trip I make often these days.  We parked our chairs at the corner of Sixth and Market and eagerly settled in with snacks to wait for the flurry of fabulousness to reach us.

The first contingent passed the intersection around 11:00.  I'm pretty sure it's still making its way down Market Street right now.

When I first started attending San Francisco Pride in 2007, the parade was a tidy 2 1/2 hours.  This year it was still well under way when we finally headed home at 3:30, with no end in sight.  According to the folks next to us, in 2015 the parade was over 9 hours long.

How did it grow that much in a decade?   

The answer, I believe, lies in the other half of the story of the 2015 parade.  As the men beside us relayed, folks turned out in droves to celebrate the Supreme Courts decision granting nation-wide marriage equality; as a result, the Apple contingent alone was several thousand people.  Other groups grew similarly until it took a full day to get everyone to proceed a mile down the street. 

Watching the parade on Sunday, I was struck by not only the sheer number of contingents, but of how many were enormous groups representing large companies.  Practically every tech company had a contingent of at least a thousand happy workers donning rainbow-trimmed tshirts bearing their company name and logo, walking hand-in-hand with their opposite-gender partners and pushing their gender-conforming children in strollers.  Healthcare providers, insurers, airlines, and banks all joined in the fun as well, with a handful of enthusiastic people dancing on floats and hundreds more bopping along behind.

With very few homos in sight.

I'll be the first to acknowledge that you can't always judge a gay by their cover, and I'm sure there were people from the LGBTQ community in these contingents.  However, they were the exception, not the rule.

What was missing, as I stared at the sea of employees and their families in tshirts emblazoned with "GLAMazon!" and rainbow-outlined apples, was anything, well...gay.

A woman behind me noticed it, too.  "I told my daughter she couldn't come today because I thought the gay people might be too raunchy," she told a stranger, "but this is so tame!  It's all just political and conservative.  I can certainly bring her next year."  I might have minded less, but since she spent much of the parade complaining about women showing too much skin and cat-calling male firemen, I suspect the parade was never supposed to be about her.

Several weeks ago, the group No Justice No Pride shut down and rerouted the Washington, DC Pride Parade.  Among their list of demands that had not been met - or even addressed - by organizers of the event was the removal of corporations from Pride.  In particular, they focused on the ways in which particular sponsors engage in practices that harm POC and low-income communities, which therefore hurts queer people.  While I support much of their message, when it comes to corporations I feel they don't go far enough.

It's not that we should exclude Wells Fargo because of predatory lending policies or Northrup Grumman because they manufacture drones.  We should exclude them as parade contingents because they have nothing whatsoever to do with the LGBTQ+ community.  Neither does Apple, or Fitbit, or Uber, or eBay, all of which had sizable contingents in this weekend's parades.  Except insofar as they employ gay people, they don't do anything particularly relevant to the community.  They don't advocate for our rights with Congress or state legislatures.  They don't provide housing for LGBTQ+ youth or elders.  They don't fight against hate crimes.  In fact, even in areas where they do have some control - marketing, for example - they do either nothing or the bare minimum when it comes to queer representation.  Apple had a single ad featuring a gay couple in 2016, and it got serious attention from gay media outlets because that sort of representation is still rare.  These companies include orientation and gender identity/expression in their nondiscrimination agreements, which might be more meaningful if they weren't all based in California where that's required by law anyway. 

Oh - and they bring thousands of people to march in the Pride parade for no particular reason.

So how did we get here?  

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when corporations supporting LGB employees was still rare (and corporations supporting T employees were basically nonexistent), cities welcomed companies into parades with open arms, essentially saying "You're willing to be photographed under a rainbow flag while wearing your corporate logo - that's fantastic!  Please do!"  However, as time went on and more companies began to follow suit, it quickly spiraled out of control.  Now anyone who has ever had an HRC Corporate Index Score is bringing half their headquarters to the parade, paying a registration fee, and getting what amounts to a ton of very inexpensive advertising to an economically-powerful local group.  In exchange, the people who created Pride - and the people for whom Pride was created - now make up a tiny fraction of the event.

But, you may say, isn't it good that more people want to be involved in Pride?  Isn't it a fantastic sign of how far we have come toward acceptance that allies come out in droves?  To which I say, that depends.

You see, Pride is the one time a year for many LGBTQ+ people to be their true selves.  Even for those of us who are fully out in our daily lives, there's an increased level of acceptance in the air.  People dress differently, they walk differently - swishier, maybe, but with heads held higher.  There is an incredible feeling of acceptance when you know that you're surrounded by people like yourself.  

Allies experience this feeling every day.  It's called "the rest of the world," and they inhabit it well.  They don't have to worry about the same things we do - holding a spouse's hand in public, for example, or whether a shirt or haircut makes them look 'too queer' and someone's going to assault them as they step off the subway - which has happened to at least three of my friends in the past 7 months alone.  

I saw more straight couples holding hands and kissing yesterday than I saw same-gender/same-sex couples. Meanwhile multiple groups within earshot during the parade complained about particular LGBTQ+ sub-cultures as being "freaks" or making them "uncomfortable."  Leather Alley, long a staple of the Pride Festival in San Francisco, used to be a block-long space open to anyone who was interested and over 18; now it's shoved into a tiny partitioned area with a multi-hour line just to get through the chainlink fence.  Meanwhile the largest group I saw was to meet a drag queen.  Not to watch one perform; just to meet and selfie.  Almost everyone waiting appeared to be a girl in her early 20s whose primary interaction with queer people involved watching them on VH1 and Bravo.

Both my partner and I commented on the way home: it didn't feel like Pride.  It felt like a giant city-wide parade and barbecue featuring all the main companies in the area.  And it's fine to have that...but it's nothing that makes a person feel Proud.

So what could we do about it, short of setting up a checkpoint proclaiming "You must be this queer to enter or accompanied by a responsible gay-dult"?  Allies have always been and should always be welcome to come support their LGBTQ+ friends and family.  However, we need to return Pride to the community.  To that end, I humbly propose the following:

  • Removing corporate floats and contingents.  With the possible exception of large sponsorship organizations (though the bulk of their advertising comes from having their logos plastered over every surface during the weekend, including on beer gardens, over the main stage, in ads, and in the Pride Guide anyway), there is no reason to have every company in the metro area send a group to march with corporate branding.
  • Replace corporate contingents with LGBTQ+ employee groups.  This has long been a staple of the DC Pride Parade due to the large number of government employees in the area.  There isn't a State Department float, a Department of Housing and Urban Development delegation, or a Department of Homeland Security Profile-A-Profile booth in coordination with Grindr and Scruff.  Instead, LGBTQ employees (and some allies) march under their own group.  In some cases, that means a "gay federal employees" contingent and in others it's department-specific.  However, it's a few hundred people, not a few thousand, and they actual have some relationship to the community; namely, they're part of it. If groups of LGBTQ+ Google employees want to march, they can. Even better, if LGBTQ+ coders or lawyers or bakers want to get a contingent together to represent their gay trade association, it reinforces a community group and reduces the number of contingents.
  • Place more emphasis on community-based organizations and groups that actively work for and with the LGBTQ+ population.  Things like the local queer health center, the youth drop-in house, the gay chorus, even gay bars and social clubs should be put front and center.
  • There is no reason that corporations and community groups can't work together.  For example, Facebook wants to get its name in the parade and wants to make us forget about the whole dead-naming thing they're still doing to trans users; the LGBTQ+ youth homeless shelter wants to have a float in the parade.  Facebook could sponsor the float, get a little branding, get a lot of good will, and ultimately spend less money and not cause an enormous traffic jam down Market Street all at  the same time.  The homeless shelter gets its name in the parade, which increases visibility for the people who need it as well as donations to keep the doors open.  Everyone wins. Some cities have done this in years past with mixed results. At best it essentially amounts to donations to community groups; at worst it creates some discordant messages and problems with corporate-controlled branding. But it’s a start.

No one will ever agree on exactly what Pride is supposed to be: is it a party? A protest?  An excuse to get drunk midday while cheering on your friends?  A chance to fulfill your long-held dream of feeling like a Disney Princess as you ride atop a float, waving to the crowd below and posing for pictures?  (Just me? Okay then.)  But one thing we should all be able to agree on is that Pride needs to have LGBTQ+ people at its heart.  After all, to paraphrase a Christmas saying, WE are the reason for this season.

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