Pride parades started out as displays of activism, declarations of presence, and yes, celebrations of community and identity. “Gay Pride” did not come into use as a common phrase until the ’80s, at least a decade after the first march. Instead, the events were called “Gay Freedom Marches” or “Gay Liberation Days.” Pride was a term introduced by less radical, less activism-focused groups, at a time when the community was being decimated.
Fast forward to today and Pride has evolved far past its original scope. In countries abroad, staging a pride parade or event can be extremely dangerous, making it an act of supreme courage and faith that things can change for the better. In the US, it’s huge. Fear that something terrible could happen still lingers, but people are mostly able to push it aside and bask in their community.
Other players also relish the community: those who stand to profit from it. At the very base level, corporations make the actual pride weekend suck. Most people just want to watch a fun parade filled with queer people, pride flags, drag queens and kings, dykes on bikes, community organizations, and celebrities. These are all in the parade, but they’re few and far between. The main filler is endless brand advertising; float after float designed to look like a logo, surrounded by employees wearing bland t-shirts emblazoned with “Google Pride!” “Soundcloud Pride!” “Tesla Pride!” “Whole Foods Pride!” They toss rainbow logo stickers to the crowd. They’re covered in rainbows. It stretches for five hours. There are no signs addressing issues, few pledges to help, and no flags aside from the well-recognized rainbow.
The hypocrisy and harm of corporatization goes much deeper than objectively harmless parade floats. Many companies are ready to profit off of LGBT folks while simultaneously doing nothing to support them, or are even actively complicit in their destruction. In 2019, Adidas had a sizable “pride collection” — items mainly branded with rainbows, along with a Keith Haring collaboration. (Haring died from AIDS in 1990, and his work was intensely political, about homosexuality, AIDS, and nuclear disaster.) Does Adidas have any right to use his work for a simply aesthetic purpose? At the same time as this June marketing scheme, Adidas was counting its profits from sponsoring the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Russia’s Chechnya region has been rounding up and culling LGBT people for the past few years, in what can only be described as a gay holocaust.
Many have been quick to point out that just a few decades ago, mainstream support of pride would be unconscionable. Queers should be grateful for this recognition, the availability of products to express themselves with the fact that hating gays isn’t really cool anymore. They have a point.
Of course we would rather have a long boring parade than a nonexistent parade with its organizers behind bars. We would rather have empty promises than live in fear of being discovered. But those things aren’t the reality in much of Western society. We’ve moved past it, but over-corrected. What started out as a rebellious act, a grassroots declaration of a people’s existence and their love for themselves, has been commoditized and neutered. That is unacceptable.