Last weekend, a stranger fell sobbing at my heels on a public street. The bouquets amassed in thickets outside of the historic Stonewall Inn had hooked several of us in, and we stood palely before the memoriam honoring 49 lives taken in the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
I had not come to grieve. My intent was to flicker by, on my way to somewhere else, but I was stopped short by the intimacy of this mourning. Here was a compassion that was not self-indulgent or misdirected. The collective response to the recent mass shooting in Orlando has underscored firearms safety and gaps in national security, volleyed the word “terrorism” more than occasionally, and muted LGBTQ concerns by bulking up security measures at Pride events this month. Absent from the media have been real efforts for helping the larger communities most directly impacted by the tragedy, specifically queer people of color who regularly experience high rates of hate violence.
Have we all been cutting corners in our compassion?
Over the past month of Pride, I have failed to see support for the LGBTQ community extend beyond the scattered use of photo filters and rainbow flags on social media, especially by allied corporations. Instead of actively confronting the complex and difficult issues at play in the mass shooting, I have seen the re-sharing of a new photo filter sponsored by GLAAD that allows Facebook users to adorn their profile pictures with a rainbow flag and a banner that reads “We Are Orlando.” This photo filter echoes much of the Orlando media coverage in that it frames the shooting as an isolated incident, without doing anything to indicate the many forms of violence that LGBTQ communities routinely face, or addressing how many of the victims were Latinx.
Back in June of 2015, Facebook similarly lit up with rainbow-striped profile pictures in celebration of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in favor of same-sex marriage — 26 million of them, to be exact. Then as now, this social media gesture was intended to show compassion, but the allyship and support seemingly stopped there. Isn’t there more we could be doing than sharing photos on social media?
This phenom is hardly limited to individuals with a filtered Facebook image; more troubling still is the increasing presence of corporations in LGBTQ causes and the use of queer identity for profit. In particular, this month’s Pride events were rife with companies showing their support for the queer community without doing anything to tangibly confront enduring homophobia. At times, these efforts have even been used to gloss over corporate interests that actively perpetuate said homophobia.
Who would want to be weighed down trying to resolve a history of sexualized and racialized hate crimes when they could simply express their support through a Facebook filter or handful of multicolored Pride Doritos? Or with a rainbow Burger King whopper? Or by supporting Visa, Starbucks, or Uber, which have displayed rainbow flags on social media?
As mainstream support for LGBTQ rights becomes increasingly more accepted and championed in our culture, one thing is clear: We still don’t know how to express empathy to LGBTQ communities without decentering the real issues.
Pride is dangerously “in” these days, but increasing support from national corporations tends to drown out marginalized voices. The co-opting of the rainbow flag by corporations and banks has made it easy to show support for LGBTQ rights — but perhaps deceptively easy. From the recent “Make America Gay Again” line by American Apparel to Target’s #TakePride merchandise, many young Americans have grown of age in a world where pride and queer identity are something to be bought. When corporations support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, they are really capitalizing on another unnamed identity: consumer. Corporate sponsors hope that when LGBTQ persons and allies embrace a spectrum of sexuality, they will also embrace their identities as patrons of Netflix, T-Mobile, or Whole Foods.
The self-expression promoted in Pride parades has been increasingly facilitated by corporate sponsors. Anyone who has attended a major Pride event in recent years has felt the heavy presence of big businesses: Wells Fargo, TD Bank, Walmart, and Diet Coke, to name a few. According to Project Queer, more than half of the 253 participants in the 2015 Chicago Pride Parade were corporations, businesses, and banks. In comparison, LGBTQ groups represented less than 10% of the participants.
Not only is it irresponsible to corporatize Pride, many of the sponsorships promote products or lifestyles that are inaccessible or insensitive to the LGBTQ community across the United States. In New York, the Pride Parade runs down 5th Avenue in Manhattan, passing mainly high-profile shops and neighborhoods fitting of high-figure salaries. The Guardian notes that many of San Francisco Pride’s biggest sponsors, like Facebook and Google, contribute to the growing income inequality in Silicon Valley, while members of the LGBTQ community struggle with homelessness in skyrocketing numbers.
And The Chicagoist points out that alcohol companies frequently sponsor Pride events — yet over 30% of the LGBTQ community is projected to struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, a rate three times higher than the general population.
Others feel unsafe by support from big businesses. Members of the LGBTQ community have rallied against Wells Fargo’s sponsorship in particular, criticizing the bank’s history of investing in private prisons that incarcerate LGBTQ persons, especially queer and trans people of color, at disproportionate rates.
Further evidence suggests that not all members of the LGBTQ community feel comfortable at Pride events, especially in the midst of heavy police presence and particularly since queer people of color share a history of being discriminated against by police officers. This year, Black Lives Matters withdrew its role as the grand marshal in San Francisco Pride days before the event, citing the increased security presence and threat of police violence as outweighing the benefits.
As the dissonance between the offerings of Pride and the needs of the whole LGBTQ community grows, is there any solace in celebrating this way? Or has the plea for LGBTQ-safe spaces gotten lost in an uproar of consumerism?
These days, who is Pride really for? Who are “We Are Orlando” filters really for?
The Orlando attack was not an attack on all of us, contrary to what President Obama stated in his recent address to the nation following the Pulse shooting. Not all Americans experience the same rates of violence. We do not all share a collective history of being the targets of state-sanctioned violence against our sexuality, gender, and/or race. We do not all experience fear and risk for revealing our sexuality in public spaces. We do not all experience post-traumatic stress from having witnessed disturbing events, as the survivors of Orlando may. We do not all experience aftershocks of bigotry for following a religion that is falsely stereotyped as hateful and terroristic, as Muslims do, especially LGBTQ Muslims. We have not all lost family, friends, and loved ones to senseless violence. We are not all Orlando.
In October’s address to the nation following the mass shooting at an Oregon community college, President Obama noted that we have become increasingly numb as these tragedies have solidified in the daily routine of our lives. Apparently, psychologists and scholars agree that, as our nation has become desensitized to violence, the repeated exposure to gun violence has run our empathy dry. But I think we’ve also been encouraged to be numb. Numb is safe. Numb is unanalytical. To be numb is to accept the injustices around you and do nothing. Or rather, to apply a Facebook filter or engage in a corporate sponsorship and pat yourself on the back.
Instead of succumbing to numbness, we need to reimagine a compassion that extends beyond ourselves. A compassion that defies self-interest requires work, it requires a suspension of our protagonism, it requires a rejection of couch and consumer activism as comprehensive means of support. I challenge you to be more proactive, more emotional, more public. I challenge you to go not just to parties, but to vigils; to not just flicker by, but to fight.
We are not all Orlando, but we can stand with the LGBTQ community in ways social media and corporations have failed to do.