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  • Maddie Barton

A Queer Critique of Rainbow Capitalism

So, we’ve all seen it– the plethora of queer flags and stripes, rainbows, unicorns, and overused sayings like “Love is Love” plastered on advertisements, merchandise, storefronts, and just about everywhere else that magically appeared at midnight on June 1st. But if you don’t like the new decoration, don’t worry– it will all disappear the way it came, suddenly and without warning, by the first of July. This phenomenon, my friends, is a little thing called Rainbow Capitalism.

Rainbow capitalism marks the tendency of brands and corporations to sell queer-oriented goods for their own profit and economic gain while using very little, if any, of this newly expanded profit and platform to financially or politically assist the queer community aside from a vague raised ‘awareness’ and ‘acceptance’ of the (mainstream and normative) LGBTQ+ identity. Some queer individuals, activists, and theorists have argued a few benefits of Rainbow Capitalism– awareness and tolerance of queerness is, perhaps, greater today than it was before corporate involvement. There is greater access to identity-affirming products, and a slightly greater ease in finding queer communities and accepting, and uplifting, groups around you. In the 21st century, however, the fight for queer liberation is no longer in convincing heteronormative and patriarchal structures of our presence, morality, or ability; it is instead in freeing ourselves from oppressive and dominating institutions by building our own intersectional and community-oriented spaces and organizations that work to gain economic and social freedom and justice under the current law, and, ultimately, dismantling the very neoliberal capitalist systems that pander to us with small notions of “its okay to be gay” in order to keep us oppressed. In celebrating queer life, community, and relative liberation, we must remember the words of the great Audre Lorde: “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

When corporations profit socially and financially by selling rainbow printed merchandise or making hollow statements of support, an illusion of incorporation of LGBTQ rights creates what is known as corporate “slacktivism.” Deliberately or not, this provides companies and consumers alike a languid approach to activism, primarily through the promotion of allyship and the spreading of ‘awareness’ of issues by means of consumerist spending rather than political action– in other words, brands and consumers are able to frame themselves as champions of equality by claiming to expand the socially defined understanding of queer and transgender communities (often, as an image still in favor of cisheteronormativity), without ever backing up their alleged beliefs with tangible action or political spending. Even more, the increased visibility provided by these brands, along with their stated commitments to support actual queer progress, allows individuals to perceive the queer community as being helped and uplifted, and falsely labels queer struggles as resolved. In reality, apart from a wider understanding that gay and trans people exist, not much is being done by these corporations to help the community. And, even when brands do make contributions to LGBTQ organizations, the action remains disingenuous, as these donations are generally minuscule amounts compared to revenue generated, and often come as a “portion of sales” or one-time donation, providing only short-term support to queer people and forgetting them until the next Pride month.

Many contemporary activists have also critiqued the way in which corporations have overwhelmed Pride celebrations with intrusive advertisements and expensive souvenirs. Alex Abad-Santos writes that this commercialization of Pride has “further [flattened] out the complex landscape of LGBTQ issues into an easier-to-support, and easier to sell, concept of awareness,” and notes how this has helped to popularize Pride as a party open to all, rather than a space where queer individuals are able to release themselves of societal expectations and limitations. To better understand the harm caused by this phenomenon, it is crucial to understand that the first Pride marches were never organized or seen as the festivals and parties we know today– they were political protests intent on disrupting cisheteronromativity and the systems that support it. Pride marches of the mid-twentieth century were meant to unite the queer community, to prove the power of collective presence, and to inspire real, lasting political change, but have since been transformed, largely disregarding direct political rebellion in favor of consumerist agendas, corporate advertisements, and rainbow stamped merchandise purchased at seven times its worth. To put it simply, contemporary focus is no longer on issues plaguing queer and trans communities across America, but finding the “gayest goods.” This corporate takeover of Pride results in the centering of capitalism, rather than queer issues, at Pride events, making the new goal of Pride pulling a profit. And, in true neoliberal capitalist fashion, we watch as, year after year, many companies’ support for queer liberation disappears as Pride month ends, doing little to support LGBTQ individuals in months other than June, and further illustrating the performativity of marketing strategies that aim to draw in new queer consumers while spending as little money on them as possible.

Many queer activists and organizations, including the Keep Your Pride (KYP) campaign, have drawn attention to the contradictory actions of corporations who publicize support for queer individuals, while simultaneously using profits drawn from these campaigns to donate to virulent anti-gay lawmakers across the country. A smaller group of activists and researchers within KYP, an organization called Corporate Accountability Action, collected data in Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee between the years 2015 and 2021, and used data provided by the National Institute of Money in Politics to reveal that five corporations (AT&T, Anheuser Busch, Coca-Cola, General Motors, and NBCUniversal) had made Pride statements or collections while also donating to over 400 anti-LGBTQ+ legislators in just those four states over the past six years.

Naturally, this leaves many questions: How much inequality is okay to support? Why would these brands and corporations make inclusive statements at all? Why do corporations want to be at Pride? Who is benefitting from corporate involvement in LGBTQ issues and Pride celebrations? Can you actually support both sides, and why would you want to? Where is the line between inclusion and commodification?

Painfully proven time and time again, the primary goal of (almost all) brands, corporations, and other capitalistic institutions is to increase profit margins– by advertising the acceptance of communities that are oppressed and in need of support (therefore gaining their support and business), while keeping them oppressed and in need of support (and creating/continuing the need for ‘awareness’ and corporate sponsorship), brands and businesses are able to create a steady source of income, without being forced to enact any meaningful change or alter their financial pursuits.

This can be seen in the case of AT&T as highlighted by the Keep Your Pride Campaign’s Corporate Accountability Action. The corporation has released statements claiming to believe in a “moral and business obligation to engage in the fundamental issues of equality and fairness,” but was shown to have made at least 327 donations (totaling almost $205,000) to over 130 anti-queer politicians, as well as contributing another $56,295 to Mitch McConnell’s 2020 reelection campaign, in which he actively worked to block the Equality Act. And it wasn’t until after Corporate Accountability Action reported General Motors had donated over $51,000 to 35 anti-LGBTQ lawmakers that the company released a statement declaring its political contributions “do not represent an endorsement of the candidate or support for all the issues a candidate supports,” and that it would “continue to clearly communicate with policymakers [General Motors’] commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Similarly, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) publishes an annual “Corporate Equality Index” that measures workplace policies and LGBTQ+ inclusion across the country by rating companies in four categories: non-discrimination policies, employment benefits, support of inclusive culture and corporate social responsibility, and responsible citizenship. However, the index is flawed– each company rated on the index must submit a detailed survey to HRC, meaning they must be actively seeking recognition for their efforts in support of the LGBTQ community to receive an endorsement. Also, the index fails to take into account political donations, and many brands that routinely receive perfect marks on the Equality Index are also contributing large sums of money to major anti-LGBTQ lawmakers and legislation across the country.

In fact, the HRC also issues a Congressional Scorecard, judging lawmakers on their support for the queer community and grading Congresspeople on a variety of criteria, such as their support for (or resistance to) legislation impacting the queer community. In HRC’s scorecard for the 115th Congress (2019), 228 politicians received the lowest score possible– zero. In 2019, Popular Information Newsletter drew attention to nine corporations that had been granted a perfect score on the Corporate Equality Index, but had also donated $1 million or more in the last election cycle alone to legislators who had been given a zero on the Congressional Scorecard.

Among these corporations were Comcast, Verizon, Target, UPS, and Pfizer. Comcast, which has consistently received perfect marks on the HRC Corporate Equality Index, has also made repeated donated to politicians like North Carolina Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, who received a zero on the Congressional Scorecard after going on record to claim that the murder of Matthew Shepherd was a hoax and that he was not murdered for his sexuality. Pfizer was also quick to issue a response to the Newsletter, stating that “the decision to contribute to these elected officials was made based on their support of the biopharmaceutical industry and policies that protect innovation incentives and patients' access to medicine and vaccines. In no way does our support translate into an endorsement of their position on any social issue.” Pfizer, along with Verizon and UPS, was found to have donated almost $3 million to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians while still earning perfect scores on the Equality Index.

While visibility and representation are important, if it is not followed by substantive political action, statements of awareness and support ring hollow and can be perceived as patronizing, especially with the knowledge of the company’s political contributions.

Personally, I see the majority of queer-themed merchandise and gay-centered advertisements as gross pleas for cash from a growing pool of historically avoided consumers, and demands for the dependence they have come to expect from a community they believe to be seeking ‘tolerance’ and ‘awareness.’ Seeing rainbow capitalism as a ploy to grow profits, however, only leads to further questions: How can we be ethical consumers when the majority of the most accessible and affordable products come from companies such as those named above, and others just like them, such as Target, CVS, and Walmart? Is it appropriate for me, as a queer person, to continue to spend money at these corporations, even though I have few other options? And, if and when I do not have another option, how can I justify this spending? How can I, as a single consumer, make tangible change? Who’s job is it to change these systems, and how do we get them to do it? What is appropriate to sell at Pride? How do we ensure the money we spend at explicitly LGBTQ+ events is actually going to support the community?

What questions do you have? What change do you demand?

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