For most of contemporary history, LGBTQ+ people were denied the right to self-expression. We have barely reached a point in society where queer people can identify publicly as queer and not be arrested for it — though that risk sadly remains in many parts of the world. There still are risks that come with identifying as queer. One of the most prominent danger is being rejected by your original family. For example, an estimated 40% of homeless youth in the US are LGBTQ+, even though LGBTQ+ people only make up about 10% of the overall population.
To combat these risks, the LGBTQ+ community has rightly fixated on the concept of self-love. Queer people have had to embrace themselves as individuals as a necessary act of survival. If the world hates you, the logic goes, then accepting yourself becomes a vital defense mechanism, and in the process, an act of political defiance.
You are brave for being your true self.
For decades, (some) corporations have attempted to facilitate that expression through niche premium services, and in some cases, entire professions. The 80s onward saw the rise of gay cruises, bed and breakfasts, airlines, and countless other services. These corporations provided a support system, albeit a highly inequitable one, to a group of people who were and continue to be spurned by their families, peers, and governments.
This cottage industry, however, has impacted the psychology of the queer community to the point where its more privileged members conflate individual expression and advancement with helping the queer community as a whole. Corporate services and products let them be their true selves, and that is still considered by some as a radical act. While this worldview is rooted in a painful history of fighting for one’s survival at all times, it has created blind spots within the LGBTQ+ community where successful, rich queers can brand harmful actions as progressive.
When Your Existence Is Illegal
It cannot be overstated how new it is for governments to condone the expression of queerness in public. In the United States, same-sex marriage became legal less than five years ago in the 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges. Sex between nonheterosexual couples wasn’t legalized on the federal level until the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas. This period of almost equality — almost because legal discrimination is still rampant with employment, housing, etc. — is less than twenty years old in the United States.
Queerness was not only illegal for most of US history, but a boogeyman straight people used (and let us be honest, still use) as a scapegoat to rile up their political base. It was not uncommon for parents, teachers, and government officials to erroneously claim that all queer people wanted to rape children. The California Inglewood Police Department, for example, infamously produced a PSA warning young boys to stay away from homosexuals.
This bigotry did not extend simply to propaganda. Queer people were and are still subject to violent hate crimes. We can point to infamous incidents such as the pulse shooting or the assassination of gay politician Harvey Milk, but the FBI didn’t start tracking hate crimes against sexual and gender orientations until the 1990s, and crimes against these identifiers were not legally considered a hate crime until 2009. They certainly happened and frequently, but its a hazy and untracked history.
Aside from immediate violence, there were also severe professional consequences. Those familiar with U.S. history may remember the second red scare when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of anti-communist hysteria to purge hundreds of left-leaning people from high profile positions. This period of fearmongering is referred to as McCarthyism, and it didn’t extend merely to communism.
Another less known scare that occurred around the same time was the Lavender Scare, which was when at least ten thousand civil servants were purged from the federal government for being suspected homosexuals. This was also started by Senate McCarthy who brought the Senate a list of 205 suspected homosexuals in the state department, who he promptly linked to communism. As McCarthy would later tell a group of reporters:
“If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.”
His witch hunt against homosexuals crept well beyond the state department, and soon his fear-mongering made it very difficult to be publicly gay, and hold a position of power in the federal government. It was not uncommon during the 1950s for employers to inquire about their staff’s sexuality, which made it quite challenging to organize for LGBTQ+ rights and maintain job security.
Combating Shame Through Pride
The high amount of rejection queer people faced romantically, socially, and professionally meant that the rhetoric of self-acceptance became all the more important. The rallying cry for the queer community famously became pride or the belief that queer people should accept and express who they are publically. This emphasis on pride was because the state actively tried to suppress and shame queer people’s expression, and so a movement was born to combat that shame. As one of the original organizers of this movement remarked in an interview with The Allusionist in 2015:
“People did not have power then; even now, we only have some. But anyone can have pride in themselves, and that would make them happier as people, and produce the movement likely to produce change.”
We now celebrate pride month every June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which was one of the first well-known examples of anti-police resistance from the LGTBQ+ community. On June 28 of 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The police very publically detained people on the street outside, and this garnered public attention that in the end, triggered both violent and peaceful demonstrations which lasted over six days. At the height of the riots, thousands of demonstrators showed up in solidarity.
Before this incident, it was not uncommon for the police to raid queer venues and arrest the patrons there. There were other queer groups long before Stonewall, but the response from the LGBTQ+ community to these incidents was usually muted. Groups like the Mattachine Society, still raw from events like the Lavender Scare, often operated in secret and relied heavily on respectability politics when appearing in public. These groups self-policed their members and demanded things such as dressing in formal attire for demonstrations. As activist John O’Brien remarked on his involvement with the group:
“We wore suits and ties because we wanted people in the public, who were wearing suits and ties, to identify with us. We [didn’t] want to come on, you know, wearing fuzzy sweaters and lipstick, you know, and being freaks. You know, we wanted to be part of the mainstream society.”
The Stonewall Riots signaled a shift in the opposite direction. Demonstrations would no longer be exclusively kowtowing to heteronormative power structures but resisting them. Within a year, a commemorative march was organized in New York City, and this event was not constrained by dress or formal attire.
This effort spurned the previous strategy of appealing to authority. The beginning of the equality movement was heavily influenced by anti-authority grassroots organizing. The NYC Stonewall march of 1970, for example, (called the Christopher Street Liberation March for the street the Stonewall Inn was on) was organized, in part, by bisexual activist Brenda Howard, who is sometimes referred to as The Mother of Pride. Unpaid, she organized many protests in the feminist and anti-war spaces.
Similarly, the rainbow flag that has become the icon of queer rights was never copyrighted. Creator Gilbert Baker purposefully left the symbol in the public domain so it could belong to everybody.
There has been a backlash in recent years against the perception that pride has moved away from its more activist roots. The modern meme The First Pride Was A Riot is a rallying call for the LGBTQ+ community to focus less on corporate sponsorships, and more on civic engagement and political resistance.
This narrative, however, belies the reality that there has always been a tension in the queer community between pushing the envelope and assimilating into the dominant, heteronormative culture. The Mattachine Society of the 1950s was all about “seeming normal,” and even as parts of the queer community grew bolder following the Stonewall Riots, there were other groups that just wanted to “fit in.” While the first Christopher Street march in NYC may have been more political, the corresponding Christopher Street West march in West Hollywood, LA had a more celebratory tone from the getgo.
The thing that bound these two disparate factions was the rhetoric of self-acceptance. The rejection queer people endured from society meant that the movement itself had to overcompensate. Members needed to find ways to love themselves in the absence of societal acceptance. From the 70s roughly to now, the language of the queer movement has been uncompromising, and unapologetic. Popular LGBTQ+ memes such as Born This Way, We’re Queer. We’re Here. Deal With it, as well as many more, have all essentially amounted to a campaign of visibility and acceptance that has made self-expression paramount to the movement’s very identity. Queer people needed to first be unashamed in who they were to push for social change.
As the mere existence of queerness became less taboo, some businesses saw an untapped market in facilitating that self-expression for profit.
The Rise of Pink Money
In the United States, it’s called the pink dollar.
In Thailand, it’s referred to as the purple baht.
In the United Kingdom, the pink pound.
Pink Money has different names in different places, but ultimately its the name assigned to the buying power of queer, typically affluent, gay men. Whereas in previous decades, queerness was a liability, starting in the late 80s and early 90s, queer people became a sought-after demographic. As then-president of the Rivendell Marketing Co., Di Sabato, commented in a 1991 article of the Wallstreet Journal:
“…you’re talking about two people with good jobs, lots of money and no dependents. This is a dream market.”
Suddenly, advertisers perception of queer people went from being untouchables with AIDS, to DINKS (i.e., dual income, no kids) who had cash to burn. This perception was highly reductive — the gay community is more than rich, gay men after all — but it succeeded in getting some companies to invest in LGBTQ+ advertising and branding rather than having to rely on indirect cues and double entendres.
One of the first “mainstream” companies to cater to the queer community was Pernod Ricard, which sells the Swedish vodka Absolut. Pernod Ricard began their advertising campaign for Absolut in 1981 by placing a standard ad in the gay magazines The Advocate and After Dark. The company has maintained a consistent presence with gay bars and events to this day. Since the queer community places an emphasis on expression, this move was primarily seen as a positive, especially during a time when being pro-LGBTQ+ was not as settled as it is today.
As the LGBTQ+ community started to more concretely organize in the 90s with the founding of groups like the Gay and Lesbian Independent School Teachers Network (GLSTN), companies began to take a greater interest in their market share. In 1994, the Swedish company IKEA made waves when it depicted a commercial about two male partners picking out furniture. The ad relied on the media stereotype of the affluent gay man, but it was one of the first ads of its kind and was consequently quite controversial. The ad garnered angry editorials, a boycott, and even a bomb threat.
That same year the car company Subaru attempted to advertise to lesbians with ads that had queer-centric vanity license plates such as “P-TOWN” (i.e., a gay travel destination) and “XENA LUVR” (i.e., a lesbian icon).
More progress occurred in the aughts. The 2000s were a period of greater political equality — mainly through the courts, states started to enshrine civil unions and the right to marry for same-sex individuals as well as some employment protection laws. This popular shift meant that it was less risky to invest in the LGBTQ+ community openly. The aughts saw the rise of gay-friendly cruises, bed & breakfasts’, hotels, airlines, and, as was the case with Israel in 2005, countries. While some have heralded this corporate exposure as a good thing, the more critical have labeled it pinkwashing, which was described succinctly by Stephan Dahl in the Conversation as follows:
“In today’s marketing, at least for some, even queer products for a straight audience have become mainstream — used to sell anything from fast food to credit cards, clothing to eReaders — but it’s not clear whether this is a real ‘win win’ for the market and the LGBT community.”
In the current era, pinkwashing is a fact of life. A day in June does not go by without a company branding its logo the colors of the rainbow, or selling limited edition ShadeTM shirts on its online store. Pinkwashing makes sense from a marketing perspective. The queer community is heavily organized around the concept of identity, and if you can tap into that market, then you have a highly-motivated consumer base.
It would be cynical and untrue, however, to claim that queer people receive nothing from corporate pinkwashing. The expression these products provide does add to a sense of self-esteem and validation for some LGBTQ+ consumers. As one respondent mentioned in a paper commissioned by GLAAD:
“I hate to admit it, but if AT&T perceives that it’s okay for me to be a gay man, then hey, everybody must. Which isn’t true, but there’s this sense, Wow! There must be more acceptance out there than I thought, and that’s a good thing.”
For some queers, acceptance comes from those in power, telling you they are valuable, and how that’s done in a capitalist society is through money. Validation, through this lens, comes from being seen as a socially acceptable queer, which is done by paying for the trappings of gaydom — the clubs, the rainbow-tinted vodka bottles, the gay cruises, the pink onesies. It’s about showing that you accept yourself through expressive merch.
It’s more than products, however. If you have money, it’s possible to believe that corporate America is there for you, even when your government plans on leaving you behind.
The Gay Corporate Safety Net
As we have briefly covered, the LGTBQ+ community has long been politically vulnerable. The government still fails to provide routine protections in areas like housing and employment. It’s easier for some segments of the LGBTQ+ community now, but in some parts of the US, it’s still possible to be fired for being queer or queer-coded at work.
When queerness became less taboo, some members of the business community didn’t just start advertising to queer consumers, but queer employees as well. These select companies created a more accepting environment for their queer employees through internal policy changes and benefits packages. In some limited cases, these benefit packages were ahead of the national legislation at the time.
For example, we are all familiar with the stereotype that a lot of male flight attendants are gay. This perception initially arose from the reality that for a long time, the job of a flight attendant (FA) was a female-coded profession. In the mid-1900s, Airlines like Pan Am infamously had a policy that barred males from working there in order to staff single, more stereotypically attractive women. When this policy was overturned in the case Diaz v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., any male who became an FA had to fight against the perception that they were effeminate or queer.
Eventually, though, airline companies leaned into this dynamic and started to provide male-centric benefits. One famous example is the buddy pass, which was a pass that airline employees could give to their spouses or family members to enjoy reduced prices on air travel. From the 1980s onwards, many airlines allowed employees to assign a person these benefits, regardless of gender or legal affiliation. This was a same-sex benefit provided to gay employees decades before state and national governments would confer similar benefits.
More explicit rights for queer employees started to solidify during the 1980s and 90s, especially from the tech sector. The tech company Apple, for example, sanctioned a gay employee group (i.e., Apple Lambda) as far back as 1986. The group successfully created a sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy years before many other players in the industry. The tech company Lotus introduced a comprehensive benefits package in 1991 that provided medical, dental, and bereavement leave to unmarried same-sex dependants.
This policy was a relative first, and the appeal for implementing it extended beyond just being the “right thing to do.” There was a financial incentive as well. As then-vice president of human resources, Russ Campanello admitted during an interview with the New York Times, a main goal of the new policy “was intended to help recruit talented workers.” Smart employers, the logic went, had tolerant workplaces.
As the political tide for LGBTQ+ rights started to expand in the 2000s, so too did the corporate safety net. Even mainstream conservative companies like Walmart (a company that at the time had a very bigoted CEO) began adopting gay-positive policies by the mid-2000s. In 2011, Walmart had some semblance of the same-sex health benefits plan that the company Lotus had implemented two decades prior.
By the time we got to 2015, the business community was, at least in the abstract, decidedly more pro-LGBTQ+. When it came time for the Supreme Court to hear arguments for Obergefell v. Hodges, 379 major businesses signed onto an amicus brief in defense of same-sex marriage.
There has been a dramatic shift in the last 70 years, from employers trying to weed out their queer employees, to placing them on the company brochure. There is now a certain cache that comes with associating yourself with the queer community. As Absolut vodka VP Maxime Kouchnir remarked in 2011 during a press release for the brand’s 30-year commitment to LGBT advertising:
“Yes, we’re a business, but at the end of the day it’s our choice to have invested for 30 years behind this market as part of being an open-minded brand.”
The belief that involvement with the queer community, which often translates into advertising to the queer community, is an act of corporate bravery stretches back to the principle of self-expression that has formed the bedrock of the modern equality movement. If gay people are brave for self-expression, then by the transitive property of advertising “wokeness,” then so too are the companies confident enough to associate with them.
The reality is, of course, more complicated. The rights now experienced by LGBTQ+ people have never easily been given or held. In 2017, for example, Walmart employees had to wrangle those very same-sex health benefits Walmart supposedly gave them from the courts. Additionally, now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land many corporations have eliminated the domestic partner benefits they established in the early 2000s, despite marriage not being an attainable or desirable goal for all their queer employees.
Clearly, the safety net given by corporations can just as quickly be taken away.
If you are privileged enough, however, to be on the receiving end of the gay, corporate safety net, then it’s possible to view this history as a linear progression. You become a queer person who believes not only that you are brave for “being out,” but courageous for being out and working at the helm of a tolerant corporation, regardless of what that corporation actually does for the world at large.
Self-Expression Through Werq: The RuPaul Paradigm
Before we go any further, we must first address the sequined elephant in the room — RuPaul’s Drag Race. This hit reality TV Show is an international phenomenon managed by legendary drag queen RuPaul Andre Charles. Airing originally in 2009, Drag Race now has a spinoff in Thailand, and soon the United Kingdom.
The show enjoys such a prominent place in the queer community that its influence on contemporary queer culture cannot be overstated. The show has affected the psychology of the queer community as a whole — for both good and ill. Whether you see Drag Race as a queer influencer, a microcosm of the queer community, or both, its undoubtedly a merger of the two major elements we have already mentioned — a worshipping of self-expression, in tandem with a glorification of individual work ethic.
The celebration of individual expression is woven into the fabric of the show. One of the shows primary slogans — something RuPaul says at the end of every episode — is “if you can’t love yourself how the hell you gonna love somebody else.” This call for self-love is a direct reference to the history of queer self-acceptance we have already discussed, and if you watch the show, it is littered with these references. Viewers are told continuously that they are worthy.
The show, though, is also about celebrating work culture, a.k.a. “the hustle.” RuPaul borrows heavily from Ball Culture, a predominantly queer and brown space where performers compete in various categories in front of judges to see how well they do. If that sounds exactly like the premise of RuPaul’s Drace Race, well, it is.
Yet, where the ball scene is more decentralized, with various competitors grouped into houses that act as a de facto family structure, RuPaul only has one house — the House of RuPaul. RuPaul calls all of her contestants her “children,” and the show is a continuous branding exercise where RuPaul plugs her albums, apps, and other swag. There is no real attempt to share the throne she has created.
This leads to a tension that mirrors the larger one we have seen for the better half of a decade. The show is both progressive, in the sense that it uplifts many queer issues, but it’s also an unabashed cash grab for RuPaul. The show seems to suggest that not only is being open about your queer identity brave, but so too is the naked advancement of your queer-ass career. RuPaul has an entire song called You Better Werq. On screen, she is continuously promoting a hustling aesthetic as competitors have to adapt to various, seemingly unconnected challenges.
RuPaul didn’t create this paradigm, but it’s indicative of a type of queer individualism that has become dominant within the community for decades. We see this dynamic replicated not only with many of her children — RuPaul’s drag disciple Shangela, for example, has a song called Werqin’ Girl — but with the LGBTQ+ community at large. Countless queer figures link their advancement within the corporate hierarchy to social justice.
In one offputting example, the company Dow Chemicals — infamous for making Napalm during the Vietnam War — was called “woke” by Bloomberg Business because it had a gay CEO (Jim Fitterling), as well as the same anti-discrimination policies that are now expected among major corporations if they want to retain competitive talent. The subheader for the article reading:
“The big conservative chemical company with a legacy of making napalm during the Vietnam War has a gay CEO.”
Dow Chemicals has a long history of pollution that the Trump administration has decidedly chosen to ignore. “Woke” is not the word many progressive activists would use to describe Dow Chemicals, and yet, sadly the company is not a rarity in its use of LGBTQ+ branding to achieve “woke” points.
Take the Yass Social Club that attempted to open up in San Francisco (“yass” is an exclamation that also originated from ball culture). Backed by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, the coworking space garnered criticism for being a paid community space for LGBTQ+ people — membership dues were projected to be starting at around $50 a month. In response to the criticism, the company CEO, Brian Tran, claimed to be supporting the queer community:
“My commitment is to serving the queer community and their needs.”
This endeavor was framed as a social justice issue, when in reality, LGBTQ+ community centers, which are struggling to pay for rent in cities across the country, usually offer similar services for free. It was an attempt to extract payment for services that the community has historically paid for communally while pretending to be a net benefit for the queer community at large.
The idea that a company is progressive solely for having queer employees or queer spaces fits neatly into the RuPaul paradigm of self-expression. From this mindset, if you are true to your queer self, regardless of what you actually do in the world, then you are seen as brave, progressive, and woke. This linguistic stretching co-opts the original intent of these words and legitimizes actors who are not deserving of such praise.
Rewriting the Paradigm of Self-Expression
We exist in a world where the vocabulary of queer activists has been repackaged for the benefit of more corporatist factions. The queer community’s emphasis on equating the performance of queerness with political expression has been co-opted by corporations and businesses around the globe for profit. This has created a culture where the CEO of a significant polluter can be rebranded as “woke,” or an expensive coworking space rebranded as a social justice movement rather than an act of gentrification.
There is nothing wrong with the expression of identity. The queer community’s desire to do so came from a good place — i.e., the need to create self-esteem for its members in the face of a society that rejected them. The concept of which to be wary is that a queer-identifying person is inherently progressive. What we have seen from the likes of Jim Fitterling and Peter Thiel is that you can be a queer person in a position of power, and still be awful.
We shouldn’t abandon the empowerment rhetoric that made the LGBTQ+ community so strong, but at the same time, a more critical lens needs to be applied to those who are now empowered. If the first step of the equality movement was all about empowering members so they could start to obtain positions of power, then this next chapter in LGBTQ+ history should be about monitoring how that power is used.
Will it be used to reinforce existing power structures, or to break them?
This is a question queer activists have debated since before the Stonewall Riots began, but it’s even more critical now because the question is no longer theoretical.
As RuPaul once said: “Fulfillment isn’t found over the rainbow — it’s found in the here and now.”
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