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What is Rainbow Capitalism?

Rainbow capitalism’ is the practice of companies, brands and organisations deciding for one month of the year that they support the LGBTQ+ rights movement. 

At the start of January, those of us who celebrate it, pull down whatever Christmas decorations are left up and accept glumly that the season of goodwill to all men is over. Similarly, at the end of June, corporations and brands ditch their rainbow logos and go back to no longer even pretending to care about the LGBTQ+ community. 

‘Rainbow capitalism’ is the practice of companies, brands and organisations deciding for one month of the year that they support the LGBTQ+ rights movement. It is so named because, with certain exceptions, most companies go no further than slapping a rainbow on their products or branding and using the signs, symbols and phrases of gay liberation to make a profit for themselves. These signs, symbols and phrases came out of social isolation, rebellion, community and the fight for survival in a world, which was and is hostile to LGBTQ+ people.  

Now obviously, there are upsides to companies promoting messages of pride and acceptance. These are things that have been fought for, and it can be comforting, maybe even empowering, to see your identity celebrated widely – especially when for so long the idea of public pro LGBTQ+ messages from large companies would have been inconceivable. It’s a sign of progress, but it’s also indicative of the way consumerism can infiltrate the most well-meaning movements. Just as an increased awareness of the problems caused by single use plastics means there is now an endless range of reusable water bottles and coffee cups available, many of which will end up in landfill, pride has become distanced from its radical origins and commodified. Is it really liberating to be able to buy a gay sandwich, or attend a parade sponsored by ASDA? Or do brands and companies just see the LGBTQ+ community as another market to target, and their words and symbols fair game?  

'These are things that have been fought for, and it can be comforting, maybe even empowering, to see your identity celebrated widely '

Some brands, such as BoohooLevi’s and Crocs, have pledged money from the sale of their pride ranges to LGBTQ+ charities all over the world, but many others have shadier connections to gay rights. American multinational company AT&T simultaneously sponsors queer suicide prevention charity The Trevor Project and donates money to publicly anti-gay politicians, and that’s just one example.  

Rainbow capitalism, well meaning or sinister, ends up simplifying pride and ‘LGBTQ+’ into one homogenous movement. The fight, and indeed, life, looks very different to each of the identities covered by that acronym, and to the many letters not covered by it at all. The awareness provided by the mass of rainbows is a surface level awareness. It does not provide nuanced discussion of the overlapping and contrasting problems faced by gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, trans people, nonbinary people, and the intersections of class, race and gender that influence the experience of living with these identities.  

You have probably heard the phrase ‘the first pride was a riot’. The origins of gay pride lay in rebellion against state oppression, in black and hispanic drag queens leading the fight against a police raid on a gay bar, at a time when being gay, or gender nonconforming in America was a crime. There is no wonder then, that the sanitised, consumer pride that we’ve become used to in recent years leaves many people feeling abandoned and frustrated by the movement that used to be theirs. 

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