More than 50 years after the famous Stonewall riots, the only Pride Month tradition more predictable than big city parades in June are the perennial complaints about the “commodification” of the gay rights movement.
These days, the month often features corporations and consumer brands participating in the celebrations, with bright rainbow packaging and gay-themed items for sale. Instead of this salutary sign of inclusion and tolerance being welcomed, however, it routinely gets attacked.
Critics often insist that corporations’ commitment to gay pride is shallow and self-serving, or that rainbow-themed merchandise and advertising during June end up tokenizing rather than celebrating the community. In the run-up to Pride Month, a typical tweet sarcastically enthused “2 days until companies pretend to care about us!,” while journalist Sherina Poyyail wrote an article titled “Why Rainbow Capitalism Is Making Me Start To Dread Pride Month As A Queer Person.”
While these critics claim that corporations are missing the true meaning of the season, they’re the ones missing the point of Pride Month. Buying a T-shirt with the phrase “Love Is Not a Crime” from Target won’t, on its own, change the world or end anti-gay discrimination. A person who wears it may hope to have some marginal positive effect on the people around, but it’s primarily an individual choice about self-expression.
Though there are historical connections between the gay rights movement and opposing capitalism, it’s a mistake for the LGBTQ community today to embrace an anti-corporate attitude. The desire to associate gay identity with a particular part of the political spectrum doesn’t reflect the community’s diversity and can actively alienate people who are not part of that political group — at the expense of the interests of the community as a whole.
What was originally known as the “gay liberation” movement was born out of a wide-ranging cultural ferment on the left in the 1960s and early 1970s that also gave rise to the women’s liberation, anti-war and Black power movements, a cross-pollination among activists groups described in Cornell University’s archive on the history of gay activism.
Given this background, and aided by the fact that their conservative antagonists were generally in favor of free-market economic policies, gay rights activists during the 1970s were associated with a hostility toward capitalism, markets and corporations.
This was not entirely by default — some gay activists were committed socialists who thought the two struggles were closely linked. The socialist theorizers in favor of liberation via class struggle and the abolition of private property, however, were a small minority of the movement. Gay historian Martin Duberman, an activist himself, readily admits that “The gay left — like every other kind of left in this country — has rarely represented more than a small minority.”
But that link between gay rights and hostility toward free markets continues to exist for some people today. Union organizer Meghan Brophy, for instance, epitomized this viewpoint when she wrote for the socialist magazine Jacobin in 2019 that “the greatest gains for the LGBTQ movement came through fighting corporations.”
The actual history of gay pride and corporate America, however, is much more positive and collaborative. Rutgers law professor Carlos A. Ball deftly tells this history in his book, “The Queering of Corporate America” (also out in 2019). Ball, a progressive who has plenty of criticism for corporations, documents how U.S. companies — often persuaded by internal affinity groups formed by their own gay employees — implemented nondiscriminatory hiring rules and extended benefits to same-sex domestic partners when virtually no national politicians were willing to support such policies publicly. For most of the late 20th century, the private sector well outpaced the political establishment on gay rights.
So while many early gay radicals were understandably suspicious of corporate America, we can now safely say that those worries were overstated — and, at times, based on pre-existing ideological commitments that had little to do with sexual freedom or civil rights. Someone who happens to be an advocate for both gay rights and socialist politics is free to try to link those two goals, but I as a gay man living in the 21st century don’t have to accept that they are connected. And it’s weirdly old-fashioned to be repeating hippie-era denunciations of big business when one of the world’s most valuable corporations is led by an openly gay CEO.
Even if it was the case that most gay people were clustered at one end of the political spectrum in previous generations (impossible to say because of the lack of polling), that’s not true today. While non-straight Americans are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans, a 2020 study by UCLA’s William Institute found that “LGBT people, like other minority groups, hold diverse beliefs and political affiliations.”
Claiming that a gay person needs to vote for a certain party or situate themselves on a certain point of the ideological spectrum is — to use some of today’s pop psychology terms — gatekeeping and gaslighting. Fox News contributor Guy Benson, for example, has described how after he came out, critics of his politics insisted he must be a “self-hating gay person.” To suggest that you can’t be out and proud without being a progressive who thinks corporations are evil is an offensive attempt to program someone else’s identity.
Moreover, it’s exactly the kind of high-handed effort that activists have rightly denounced in other contexts. Progressives would never accept conservatives insisting that they can’t be both gay and Christian. Why would I accept that I can’t (or shouldn’t) be gay and libertarian? And does it really make sense to turn down offers of support for gay causes and events from big business just to strike a stylishly militant pose?
That is not to say that the two major parties in America are equally aligned on policy issues affecting gay people. It has been a long time since the 1980s, during which, as historian Clayton Howard told FiveThirtyEight in 2021, “a lot of Democrats were indistinguishable from Republicans on gay issues.”
GOP majorities in many states have recently backed laws that critics characterize as anti-gay and that most Democrats strongly oppose. But if gay rights supporters want broader, rather than narrower national support, tying their agenda to unrelated economic stances will only further diminish the pool of potential allies.
While it is perhaps inevitable that institutions that are inherently political (because they are controlled by the government) will be flashpoints in the culture wars, the private part of society based on markets, competition and voluntary association has a much greater opportunity to defuse conflict — if we allow it to stay private and voluntary.
This is not because the institutions of civil society necessarily bring us all together, but because they allow us to live and work in our own chosen worlds and build our own chosen families. No corporation can dictate your living conditions the way the government can — but they can supply you with many of the desirable accouterments of out and proud living.
The United States is a country with a long history of market-driven innovation, growth and success, and gay people have been a big part of that. While some skeptics will always be cynical about the motives of pride-themed products and marketing campaigns, the rainbow packaging on store shelves is a stunning advance from a time when many companies were worried that having a single openly gay employee would lose them customers and cost them money. Even a socialist revolutionary should be able to celebrate that.
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