If you visit the capital during London Pride, you won’t fail to notice the rainbows.
The high street decks out it’s store fronts with rainbow displays, and logos are rebranded (temporarily) in pride colours. The parade itself is packed full of delegations from every major corporation, many opting to bring huge floats from which they can dispense free pens, tote bags, stickers and coupons (and maybe the odd branded condom if they’re feeling brave).
How did we get to this point? When did marching in the Pride parade become a corporate holiday? And does the profit motivation demean the very point of the parade itself?
First, let’s consider some history:
Gay rights rallies have been happening since at least 1965 in the United States, but what we recognise as the modern pride movement began with the Stonewall Uprising in 1969.
In the morning hours of June 28th, 1969, a rebellion started against the notoriously homophobic New York police for raiding the Stonewall Inn, and the subsequent violence lasted for three days. Queer New Yorkers were fed up with being targeted for their sexuality and gender presentation, and sick of vague laws that allowed the police to raid queer spaces.
The following year, on the anniversary of the uprising, the Christopher street Liberation Day Parade became the first modern gay pride march in US history.
The first official UK march took place in London in 1972, following the blueprint set in the United States.
The group responsible for organising these early marches was the Gay Liberation Front.
The GLF was founded in America in the aftermath of the Stonewall Uprising. The UK wing was established by Aubrey Walter and Bob Mellor, after the two attended the Black Panther’s Revolutionary People’s Convention following their call for delegations of women’s and gay rights groups.
Here is our first significant point of note: the modern gay rights movement was founded using the same techniques as the Black Panthers. It was established as a protest against unequal rights and was never sanctioned by the government. Its very inception was radical.
So how did pride go from being affiliated with the Black Panthers to being sponsored by Tesco and Barclays?
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the GLF organised London Pride. The march was free to attend, because it was a protest, not a party.
During the 1990s, brands started to warm to the idea of the ‘pink pound’ and realising that there was money to be made from the gay economy, started to get involved in sponsorship.
In the late 1990s, the event became ticketed for the first time, and was rebranded as a Mardi Gras, losing any sense of the protest spirit that embodied early pride marches.
These parades were not organised by the GLF but were official events with permission from the government and police and organised by various charities and trusts.
In 2012, the Mayor of London doubled the cost of using Trafalgar Square for events and bankrupted the charity responsible for holding pride until this point.
However, Mayor of London at the time, Boris Johnson, stepped in, offering to give Pride the money it needed, in return for Pride in London being established not as a charity, but a Community Interest Company.
The man responsible for founding and chairing this company would be Michael Salter-Church, previous political advisor to David Cameron and Head of Broadcasting for the Conservative Party.
Pride was now brand approved and sanitised to the point that a party once notorious for its institutional homophobia and the implementation of Section 28 was now heavily involved in the largest pride parade in Europe.
Is this a bad thing? Surely if sponsorship and cohesive management of finances brings Pride to a wider audience, then it can’t be all bad.
Pink washing is the action of using gay-related issues in positive ways in order to distract attention from negative actions by an organisation, country or government.
If a company is getting bad press or being called out by its employees for not being inclusive enough, all they have to do is sponsor Pride in London and they are able to brag about being inclusive without actually changing their working practices.
Let’s look at some examples using the sponsors for 2020/2021:
Facebook has been widely condemned for refusing to remove discriminatory comments and pages, allowing anti-trans bigotry to remain on their website, not to mention the company’s infamous tax dodging antics.
Deliveroo has been failing to support local restaurants during the Covid pandemic, charging large service fees and promoting big brands over community businesses. Their business model relies on the labour of largely working-class populations without providing wage stability or basic employment rights.
Barclays Bank was famously complicit in South African apartheid during the 1970s and 1980s, only pulling out of the country after significant student protest and boycotts of their services. The bank is currently the largest investor of fossil fuels in Europe.
WeWork is funded in part by investments from the Saudi government, well known for its human rights abuses, including the assassination of critics, journalists and the suppression of women’s and gay rights.
Former sponsor BAE Systems is a weapons and defence manufacturer notorious for selling weapons to repressive regimes that criminalise homosexuality and use those weapons to contribute to ongoing war crimes.
That’s not to say that all of the organisations that support pride are inherently bad or that they aren’t doing good work behind the scenes, only that sponsoring pride in and of itself is not enough to be a truly inclusive or ethically responsible company.
What do people think of the change from protest to corporate parade?
Some people make the argument that sponsorship of pride is a good thing, because it shows that the UK is a fully inclusive society that welcomes the LGBTQA+ community in all walks of life.
Seeing brands with Pride collections can make us feel good and feel seen by companies that might not otherwise feel inclusive.
But making your company’s logo a rainbow on one day of the year doesn’t make your brand inclusive.
You can release a pride sandwich and claim to support the LGBTQA+ community but until your internal policies account for LGBTQA+ staff in a meaningful way, until you divest from funding that comes from countries perpetuating human rights abuses, until you pay your workers a living wage, it’s all empty posturing.
For example, Primark was called out in 2018 for releasing a pride collection that was manufactured in countries where homosexuality is still illegal. It doesn’t matter if the proceeds go to LGBTQA+ charities if the workers making those clothes and generating that donation are being exploited and suffering through human rights abuses.
Your net contributions are still zero.
Pride in London CIC may well point out that putting on huge events in London costs a lot of money, and that cash can only come from corporate sponsors. They argue that sponsorship allows some community organisations to attend some pride events for free, which helps support the wider LGBTQA+ community.
True enough, but the anti-trump march in 2019 was free to attend, as were the Brexit referendum marches and the Black Lives Matter demos. The key difference is that these events are protests, and the right to protest, the right to assemble, is free.
"Nowadays, you have to pay to march in Pride – that's completely against all the original principles of an open event for everyone. Individuals can't even apply to march, only organisations can, and they have to pay. If you look at last year's Pride, it was the corporate floats that took up by far the most space and attention." – Peter Tatchell
Does Pride need to be a protest now? What’s wrong with celebrating achievements?
Nothing is inherently wrong with celebrating our communities’ achievements over the past 50 years, but it does breed a sense of complacency. Arguably, we need protest now more than ever:
Since 2015, the UK was the best place in Europe for LGBTQA+ rights according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). Our ranking has slipped steadily over the past 6 years. We’re now in 10th place, and if nothing changes, we’ll likely not even make the top ten next year.
The government promised to ban Conversion therapy three years ago. No legislation has been forthcoming, despite pressure from medical, charity and religious groups. The proposed consultation on the practise has been widely condemned as an excuse to water down proposed reforms and include exceptions for religious groups and transgender conversion therapy.
No reforms to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act 2004 have been implemented, despite a 2018 consultation in which the majority of respondents backed meaningful change, simplifying the process of changing legal gender.
UK media outlets have been bashing trans people for years, with the government asserting a culture war in which to speak out against trans oppression is to silence those with bigoted opinions. 80% of respondents reported suffering a hate crime due to their gender identity in 2020.
In March 2021, the entire Pride in London Community Advisory Board resigned, citing a hostile environment for People of Colour in the organisation. Between 2019 and 2020, 72% of all hate crimes were racist in nature, with 44% of those polled in 2020 stating that the UK is a fairly racist society.
There is still much to be angry about and to protest against and we cannot ignore the origins of pride as largely Black and trans led. There is no room for celebration until our trans siblings, and our siblings of Colour are protected.
This is a glaring contradiction between Pride's origins and its present situation… The original Gay Liberation Front laid out the toolkit that the 1980s activists used to combat the AIDS crisis. That toolkit saved countless lives. If that anger and energy is allowed to fade – if Pride simply becomes about lifestyle rather than liberation – then when the next crisis strikes, which it will, what toolkit will be left to use? - JS Rafaeli
Arguably, the current crisis facing the community is the onslaught of transphobic hate in the UK from all political parties and media outlets. This is our Section 28, but we don’t have the tools to fight it that activists did during the 1980s.
So, should your company go to Pride in London?
We'll leave that for you to decide, but here are some suggestions of things you could do instead:
Pride is expensive – why don’t you sponsor a grassroots organisation that wouldn’t otherwise be able to go?
Invest in training instead and update your policies
Create a staff LGBTQA+ network and learn about the issues that really matter to the community.
Make a stand, divest in corporations that actively harm the community, and call out your competitors if they don’t follow suit.
Over the next week, we’ll discuss each of these in more detail, including a discussion of essential LGBTQA+ policies your business should have, so make sure to follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook for those updates.
Finn Grice (He/Him) is an activist and educator, and director of Rose Diversity Training.