By Myrl Beam
I’m not the only one breathing a massive sigh of relief, right? Thank god Pride month is over. Do we have to do this every year now? Can we pray it’s just about the 50th anniversary (or “Stonewall 50”, as apparently we are supposed to call its branded iteration)?
Now that the rainbow Pride gear has moved to the clearance racks–a sad spectacle of excess, meaningless in a post-gay July–we have an opportunity to reflect on this rainbowification of queer politics, which has gone from remarkable to aggressive to menacing to absurd.
The consensus seems to be in: this year the rainbow shit was out of control. I’m not the only one who did a double take while walking through Target at the absurd rainbow mouthwash and shampoo endcap, right? Like, what is this? Rainbow mouthwash? What does that even mean?
The rainbowification of June produces a vision of queer life as if through some kind of an absurdist corporate rainbow random word generator. Has the rainbow become so disaggregated from any kind of political demand that it has lost all meaning whatsoever? HILArious, except not, because this is the state of queer politics these days, apparently.
The month was partially saved by the spate of truly excellent pieces in the waning days of June. Dean Spade’s, Shelby Chestnut’s, and M. E. O’Brien’s spring to mind, each helping to cut through the corporate spectacle and remind us of the militant roots of Stonewall. Julio Capó Jr.’s reflection on this very website made me feel some (dare I say gay) shame at my own cynicism. But I do worry that there is a danger in trying to reclaim, change, challenge, or otherwise “take back” Pride. It’s gone, folks. It belongs to Shake Shack now.
We have now gone beyond the point of queer identity and politics being co-opted, stripped of meaning, and sold back to us. Especially in the post-marriage world, we have a generation of queer people for whom this corporate, nationalist, defanged rainbow version is queer identity and politics, and revel in the chance to buy it at Target. But this isthe entirely predictable outcome of “inclusion” politics. This is what that means. There’s no way to have formal legal equality and a mainstream political infrastructure to advance that agenda without the complete loss of anything unique or even remotely queer about Pride.
There are a couple of fairly obvious lessons here that bear dwelling on for a moment. In particular, it’s worth thinking about the ways that those of us in queer studies and/or queer politics (or both!) have abided this rainbowification for too long as an irritating but unavoidable and generally harmless offshoot of the larger issue of mainstreaming and homonormativity.
First, capitalism. Second, nationalism. I’ll address them in turn:
It’s been twenty years since Alexandra Chasin wrote her sadly prescient book Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market. The book described changes that largely happened in the 1990s. But the changes that were nascent then, however, are all now far more complete and devastating in their effects than even she anticipated. As a reminder to all of us, Chasin argues: “In a consumer culture, subjectivity is negotiated in the marketplace; in the twentieth century, subjectivity was more and more often articulated as identity and therefore identity too was negotiated in the marketplace.”(Chasin, 13) The reminder here is there is no such thing as gay identity outside of or prior to capitalism. So rainbowification isn’t bad gay politics so much as the predictable outcome of gay identity-based politics in the first place.
This is evidenced by the intensification of corporate Pride marketing. It isn’t enough to just have rainbow crap anymore. Queers have become inured to that. We don’t want your boring rainbow Coors ad in The Advocate. Mostly. Now you better put your money where your rainbows are. IKEA partnered with the Human Rights Campaign to sell rainbow versions of its shopping bag, with profits from each $3.99 sale going to benefit the organization. Target sold rainbow everything as part of a 90-item “Pride collection,” donating a paltry $100,000 to the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN). AT&T has continued its multi-year partnership with The Trevor Project, for whom it powers their text and chat counseling services and to whom it gave $1 million. Does that cancel out the $1.8 million it donated to presumably anti-gay republicans? Chipotle, Shake Shack, Converse, Nike, MAC cosmetics, Disney, the list grows daily. The easier list to make would be those corporations who don’t make a pride themed donut/shoe/burrito/t-shirt/granola bar. Basically Chick-Fil-A, I think.
This phenomenon has become so notable to have made it onto the radar of even the mainstream news. CBS News notes that there is a lot of what it calls “Pride clutter” and that companies must be “authentic”. Um, okay? Otherwise, apparently, “it can seem as if companies are exploiting sexual orientation for profit.” It can seem that way, can it?
Again, to bring us back to Alexandra Chasin (and further back to John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” for that matter): the issue here is the “constitution and consolidation of a social identity in the marketplace.” (Chasin, 24) The issue here is gay identity, basically. Let’s be done with it, I say! In both queer studies and queer politics, let’s let go of gay identity as an animating framework once and for all.
This isn’t an LGBT issue (and ultimately thinking that there is any such thing is part of how we got here). This is capitalism.
There is a way that this IS an LGBT issue, though, because of the long-term hollowness and danger of visibility politics. The path to safety has been conceptualized as visibility, which has always been a racist proposition on its face, but which was entrenched and massified by the #lovewins messaging around marriage. It renders LGBT politics as unable to be understood alongside the violence of a $7 minimum wage, for instance, or immigration detention, or any of the other intensifying violences that intersectional, multi-issue queer politics can name.
And ultimately this is what is so frustrating about the rainbow spectacle that has become Pride: it erases multi-issue queer politics entirely and retrenches the centrality of identity. None of the issues that are making trans people of color so exposed to early death are remedied by any of these corporate donations, nor from the more generalizing veneration of capitalisim endemic to Pride. Much to the contrary, in fact. Pride hurts queer politics in a fundamental way.
The second lesson in the rainbowification of June is a reminder about nationalism. This isn’t to say that rainbows haven’t taken over globally – perhaps they have. But in the context of the United States, the aggressive rainbow explosion (pun intended) is fundamentally nationalist. The constitution of gay identity in the marketplace was ultimately about repairing the perceived harm of legal disenfranchisement. It is, and certainly was, a “we are citizens too” statement that had had an inherent political demand. It’s a flag. That remains true even now after formal legal equality has mostly been won, for good and for ill.
In fact, formal legal equality has only intensified the dangers of the nationalist sentiment contained in the rainbow flag. Because no longer is it a demand for inclusion, it is literal wrapping paper for the apparatus of militarism and violence. This post-marriage context matters. It’s part of what has enabled the rapid monetization of gay identity. Pride really does not mean the same thing now. It hasn’t pivoted to other issues – it can’t, it has never been about issues, it’s been about identity. So now it’s celebratory in a truly menacing way. Rainbow squad cars, for instance. The NYPD’s hollow, self-serving apology.
The final issue here that bears interrogating is the desire for the rainbow crap. Even if it also makes us angry, there is a piece of many of us that does indeed feel called or comforted by shared visibility, even if it is empty. We have seen this of course around marriage, where so many folks on the queer left have not only gotten married but have gotten married married, flowers, shmoopy feelings, and all. We all have a deep need for the symbolic. We want to be seen, we want to feel connected, and capitalism excels at selling us an aspirational, visible version of ourselves.
I think we have been too hesitant in pushing ourselves and each other to challenge those desires. Of course we end up wanting to be loved, and feel connected and celebrated and wanted. There’s a reason for that: capitalism needs us to want things. Desire is never apolitical, and it doesn’t become so even when it is a queer desire for normative institutional recognition.
I’ve witnessed a series of inane conversations about the rainbowification of June that all hinge on the basic idea that corporate pride is better than none at all. It’s not. It’s NOT. It is a dangerous emboldening of both state and corporate power that ultimately endangers marginalized folks, queer and not, AND vacates LGBT politics of the ability to even name the systems that oppress us.
Myrl Beam is an Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Gay, Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). He is currently on research leave, serving as the Fellow in Oral History at the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota.