June 22, 2023

Flying the Flag: Why Pride is More Important Than Ever

To accompany the release of Thinking Queerly, our latest ThreeSixty° white paper, we will be publishing a range of articles exploring LGBTQ+ issues. Thinking Queerly is a deep-dive on queer culture and its growing influence on the mainstream.

By John Livesey

Pride feels different in 2023. As a celebration of the queer community, it has never been more important, nor more at risk. It is in this context that the silence of many brands this year feels  disheartening.

A State of Emergency

LGBTQ+ rights are under sustained threat around the world. Over 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been filed in the US in the last year. From targeting trans bathroom laws, to banning queer books, and taking gender and sexuality off the curriculum: it seems no-one in the community is safe from an increasingly vocal anti-LGBTQ+ fringe. 

Pride festivals have fallen under particular attack. A man in Nashville was recently charged for attempting to bomb the city's Pride parade. And similar incidents have occured outside US borders too. In Vienna, police announced this week that they had arrested 5 individuals with intent to commit terrorist acts at the city’s annual Pride parade. Following a shooting last year, there have been multiple threats of violence on Oslo Pride as well.

Even in the UK there are signs of the turning tides. The debate around trans rights has grown increasingly toxic. Last week, Rishi Sunak was filmed joking about ‘Women with penises’. Meanwhile, the right-wing pundit Laurence Fox posted a video of himself setting fire to Pride flags, declaring it the flag of ‘child mutilators'.

Even The Times, one of the most respected broad-sheets in the country, recently published a think piece calling the trans- and POC-inclusive flag ‘a symbol of ideology, not gay pride’. When did flying a flag become such an issue? When did solidarity become so hard to swallow?

What About Brands?

The overt weaponisation of pride within the culture wars, coupled with genuine legislative threats to LGBTQ+ people worldwide, has changed the tenor of this Pride season. And it is clear that brands are picking up on the shifting mood. As Cassius Naylor, co-director of advocacy at Outvertising, told PRWeek: “While we can only speak for what we’ve seen, there does seem to be greater apprehension from brands around Pride this year”.

The question for businesses is what to do next. The Accelerating Acceptance Report from GLAAD found this year that 75% of non-LGBTQ participants were comfortable seeing LGBTQ+ people in advertising (Source: GLAAD). Despite this, a powerful minority are continuing to call the shots on what is and isn’t acceptable. And many corporations are caving. 

For instance, It was announced recently that Starbucks had banned the display of Pride decorations in many of its stores. In a similar vein, the retailer Target pulled much of its Pride merchandise, citing confrontations between staff and customers in stores.

Responding to the toxic mood, many other major companies have stayed silent altogether. The official Amazon Instagram, which in past years has been filled with rainbows, has yet to make any posts celebrating Pride month. Likewise Burger King, who were forced to apologise for their Pride Whopper campaign last year, have not signalled any support for this year’s Pride celebrations. 

Looking to the Past, Looking to the Future

The LGBTQ+ community has always been cynical about brand outreach to the community. Indeed, 72% of LGBTQ+ community still see their representation in advertising as tokenistic (Source: Gaytimes/Karmaram). Whilst some campaigns do manage to break through the noise and make a meaningful gesture of solidarity to those who live and love outside the norm, it is often hard for queer people to take brands seriously, particularly when they have historically neglected queer consumers. 

Sadly, the failure of brands to speak up at such a critical moment in time only proves this cynicism right. The willingness of brands to give up on Pride in the wake of attacks from illiberal hate groups is disappointing. It sends the message that rainbows were never meant as anything more than a marketing ploy.

Inside the first Pride parade—a raucous protest for gay liberation
The First Pride March in New York (1970)

Pride is a historic celebration. It is right that, during Pride season, we look back at our queer forebears. The first Pride march was intended to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that took place in June 1969. This year, like any other, we will continue to march for the LGBTQ+ campaigners who won us the freedoms we enjoy today.

However, perhaps this year we need not only look backward but forward. The rising waves of hatred directed toward LGBTQ+ people, something many of us might never have foreseen, threaten the very future of the community and its right to celebrate.

When I think about the first Pride parade I attended at fourteen, the memory is defined by the power I felt beneath my feet. An incomparable feeling, this power is a legacy of the many battles LGBTQ+ people have fought and won. It is also a legacy that must survive for the sake of all the queer fourteen-year-olds of the future.

It is for them that we must protect Pride. And brands, if they are serious about showing solidarity for queer consumers, must play their part in the effort. As Naylor writes, ‘some situations call for allies to be brave, and this is one of them.’ 

There is no question about whether Pride is important. It is something worth protecting.