New frontiers of pink capitalism: Or why sandwiches won’t lead to queer liberation

Greater representation for LGBT+ individuals in mainstream ads and marketing may seem like an important step forward. But there’s a tension between a liberal politics of representation and more radical, structural change, particularly when it comes to connecting LGBT+ rights to other forms of oppression and struggle

Travelling home late last Thursday night, something caught my eye from the train window. Meadowhall, a sprawling shopping centre on the outskirts of Sheffield, was lit up in rainbow lights. Against the city’s post-industrial landscape of power stations and warehouses, the effect was certainly striking. Inside the train, I eyed my fellow passengers uneasily. The carriage was noisy and smelt of stale alcohol. As a visibly gender non-conforming person, I always feel unsafe in these spaces. Whilst shocking, the recent attack on a lesbian couple on a London night bus confirms what some of us have been observing anecdotally for a while: beneath the veneer of ‘LGBT+ equality’ in the UK, things are not as rosy as they seem. This is borne out in reports of a 144% rise in homophobic and transphobic hate crime since 2014.

How then to explain these seemingly twin trends, of growing queer visibility and acceptance in mainstream media and popular culture on the one hand and rising levels of anti-LGBT+ violence on the other? This blog argues that these are in fact interrelated, rather than parallel, trends: that the struggle for queer liberation is being co-opted by corporate pinkwashing and the commodification of LGBT+ Pride, which shapes and reinforces a dominant queer liberal politics. This politics prioritises representation over more structural, redistributive demands, and is part of a wider trend towards what Audre Lorde calls ‘single-issue’ or autonomous struggles. Together, these dynamics work to obscure the connections between LGBT+ rights and other key social justice issues, specifically anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and pro-worker politics.

In the UK, a lack of inter-movement solidarity was evident when some LGBT+ individuals and groups crossed picket lines to organise and attend film screenings and events during the industrial action led by workers at the Picturehouse Cinema chain in 2016. Not only is this politics stalling progress in aspects of LGBT+ rights, then, it plays into the hands of multi-national corporations seeking to cash in on the ‘pink pound’ and to simultaneously enhance their ethical credentials. Of course, I’m not suggesting there is a causal relationship between corporate pinkwashing and the de-radicalisation of queer politics (or increases in hate crime); rather, these trends must be understood in relation to wider shifts in the political economy of activism under neoliberalism.

Critiques of pinkwashing – the ways in which companies promote particular products or services on the basis of their ‘queer-friendly’ politics – are hardly new. Yet the incursion of pink capitalism into this year’s Pride month activities is quite arresting. We see this in the now pervasive use of the rainbow flag in marketing and advertising campaigns and in products like the Marks and Spencer ‘LGBT’ sandwich (here, apparently, meaning ‘Lettuce, Guac, Bacon, Tomato’). Although the sandwich received a mixed reception from the public, M&S sought to counter allegations of corporate cynicism by highlighting donations of £10,000 to the Albert Kennedy Trust, a UK charity for homeless LGBT+ youth, and £1,000 to the Irish LGBT+ charity, BeLonG to Youth Services. A total donation of £11,000 from a company whose annual profit in 2018 was £523.2m might seem like a drop in the ocean, but the problem goes beyond the amount of money being offered. It raises a more fundamental question of political economy: who benefitsfrom pinkwashing?

A recent Gillette ad featuring a trans man of colour and his father shaving for the first time is another important, if complex, example. The ad was praised for its positive portrayal of the diversity of LGBT+ lives and Black trans lives in particular. Undeniably, there is symbolic power in having the experiences and embodiments of oppressed groups represented on screen. Indeed, as a genderqueer teenager growing up in the 1990s, I longed to see someone like me in an advert or TV series. But the significance of the Gillette ad may be short-lived, or even illusory, if representation is not backed up by genuine corporate commitments to LGBT+ rights and racial and ethnic equality at work: to policies and practices that protect queer and trans people of colour; to the promotion of more queer and trans people of colour to senior management and board level positions; and, importantly, to improving the pay, contracts, and rights of the most precarious and exploited workers, many of whom, statistics suggest, will be queer, trans and/or people of colour. The intersection of workers’ rights and LGBT+ rights is manifest in the recent case of queer workers in El Salvador who experienced harassment and discrimination in a factory linked to global apparel supply chains.

Against this background, trans and other LGBT+ rights represent the latest frontier in a series of attempts by large global corporations to re-position themselves as social justice champions, as Genevieve LeBaron and Peter Dauvergne have explored. These attempts range from ad campaigns advocating gender equality, to partnerships with activists and NGOs, and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives intended to improve labour and environmental standards in supply chains. However, research demonstrates that existing CSR efforts are failing in key areas like living wages and workers’ rights, and labour exploitation is widespread across the supply chains of many global industries and commodities. Exploitation is, moreover, geographically uneven and highly gendered, racialised, and classed. This suggests that the pinkwashing exemplified by Gillette and M&S can be understood as part of what LeBaron and Dauvergne term the ‘corporatization of activism’, a phenomenon whereby the politics and approaches of diverse forms of human rights activism increasingly align with those of corporate capitalist actors. In this instance, by incorporating various LGBT+ issues into ad campaigns, corporations are harnessing the power of queer struggle and re-fashioning it for their own purposes.

I imagine this argument might prove unpopular in some quarters and I don’t wish to undermine the important efforts of organisations like GLAAD, who aim to promote fair representation for LGBT+ individuals in the media. Nor is it my intention to deny the sense of positive change, recognition, or even empowerment that LGBT+ individuals might derive from greater inclusiveness in mainstream popular culture. However, from the perspective of LGBT+ rights in the UK, a liberal focus on representation rather than structural change, on working with capital rather than against it, promotes the idea that individualised acts and performances of consumption are the answer. Not only does this kind of politics ‘not go far enough’, as is the usual critique, it is having potentially regressive effects, in terms of sidelining more collective forms of resistance, distracting from levels of homophobia and transphobia, and disguising how this intersects with nativism, xenophobia, racism, and poverty, as Barbara Smith recently highlighted. Put simply, we cannot consume our way to queer liberation. Groups like Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants are doing important work highlighting these intersections and showing solidarity with migrants and refugees. Here, they build on the socialist politics of their forebears, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, whose work connecting LGBT+ issues to those of miners and the trade union movement, documented in the film Pride, was so transformative for the gay liberation struggle of the 1980s. But in today’s climate this is the exception rather than the norm. If Pride month is anything to go by, we are adrift in a desolate sea of rainbows and unicorns, where only the shiny shores of Meadowhall promise salvation.