Don’t Knock ‘Rainbow Capitalism’ – Business Is an Essential LGBT Ally

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During last month’s pride celebrations, there was a lot of debate about corporations and their embrace of Pride Month. As with any popular holiday, corporate America is eager to participate in this celebration, reaping the marketing and reputational opportunities that come with it. Yet, many activists and pundits are quick to attack those firms — and capitalism in general — for being shallow, self-interested, and hypocritical. These critiques of “rainbow capitalism” are largely off-base and unjustified.

The companies that sell rainbow-colored jewelry, Pride flags, and t-shirts with Harvey Milk quotations want to make a profit, of course, but that doesn’t mean the value of those expressions is only measured in currency. The products themselves are just a starting point for people to enjoy and interpret for themselves. When a customer unpackages a new set of rainbow tumblers and sets them out for her brunch guests, they contribute to a specific social occasion that their designers and marketers could never have planned or imagined. Like all products people buy, the use we put them to imbues them with meaning.  

Some critics have suggested that companies selling Pride merchandise are shallow in their commitment because they only feature LGBT themes during June. But that is expecting too much from a for-profit corporation. Unless a company has a gay-specific target audience, displaying a rainbow-colored logo year-round would be unnecessary and even confusing. As it turns out, many companies do sponsor on-going programs that support the LGBT community year-round, albeit with less public fanfare. And from the standpoint of diversity and inclusion, should LGBT themes exert a monopoly on the calendar when Black History Month, Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and many other observances also deserve their time in the sun? 

Critics, among both gay rights activists and conservative critics of “woke culture,” also deride the fact that some global brands feature colorful graphics and LGBT themes in the U.S. and Europe but not in the Middle East or Africa. German automaker Mercedes-Benz and U.S.-based video game maker Bethesda have come under particular scorn for this. 

This criticism also falls flat, unless we imagine that Western companies are capable of unilaterally changing the social environment in every nation where they operate. Working for global companies that have Western-style anti-discrimination policies can be a lifeline for people living in less tolerant societies. A policy that goes too far too fast could invite backlash and unwanted scrutiny from local officials, making LGBT people even less safe and all of the firm’s employees vulnerable to attack.   

Any corporation that wants to position itself as being welcoming and supporting of gay rights must pull off a balancing act. Too little advocacy internationally will be a failure to live out its self-proclaimed values, but being too aggressive in some societies could actually make local conditions worse. Would LGBT people in countries with anti-gay laws actually be better off if every Western corporation pulled out and stopped doing business there?

Such a decision will always be difficult, and often there is no clear right answer. Some gay rights advocates will likely bristle at that, but it’s part of the social evolution in which we all participate. The real question is whether we are heading in the direction of greater acceptance and whether we can expect corporate America to continue improving. Fortunately, the experience of the last 50 years offers reason for optimism.

We’ve come a long way indeed. Levi Strauss & Co. became the first major U.S. corporation to publicly address the AIDS crisis and fully accept homosexual employees in the 1980s. The company continues to display prominent support today. And, as Rutgers law professor Carlos Ball, author of The Queering of Corporate America, points out, big corporations played a crucial role in advancing and defending equality for LGBT Americans. U.S. companies, especially the largest, began adopting non-discrimination policies and domestic partner benefits well before politicians of either party were willing to endorse them as public policy.

Read the full article at Real Clear Policy.