When a rainbow flag is more than a flag

Corporate involvement in LGBT+ Pride month is a contentious issue but, for small LGBT+ charities, partnerships with big companies go far beyond rainbow-branded products

LGBT+ Pride month is officially over for another year, and rainbows are falling away from the products and social media profiles of large organisations like confetti from a parade cannon.

The awareness month, which culminates in the protest party of annual Pride Parades around the world, commemorates its jubilee year in 2019, marking 50 years since the Stonewall riots.

Alongside the celebrations there has been a vocal pushback from LGBT+ people against the way some larger commercial organisations have used Pride month to brand themselves as progressive and market the rainbow flag to a community they seemingly don’t care about in any other month of the year. But digging deeper into some of the most disputed products of 2019 shows that, although there are undoubtedly organisations that co-opt the rainbow to make a quick buck, others are fostering relationships with LGBT+ charities and causes that endure well beyond Pride month. 

One product accused of "wokewashed" marketing this year was the limited-edition "LGBT+ sandwich" from the retailer Marks and Spencer, which sparked debate after someone tweeted a picture of the lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato concoction captioned: "M&S threw the first artisanal sandwich at Stonewall." 

Many might reasonably argue that a themed sandwich is a lazy gesture, the product is linked to a partnership with the youth charity the Albert Kennedy Trust, which is receiving a donation of £20,000 from the retailer to support young homeless LGBT+ people.  

"We have two M&S partnerships, one on the food side with the infamous ‘gay sandwich’, then a range of Pride t-shirts," says Carrie Reiners, head of partnerships at the AKT. "With both, the group has made donations to the charity that have helped us launch a new London youth centre. Members of M&S’s LGBT+ employee network also supported us in person, with a set of employees helping us to paint a new youth safe house."

The partnership, she says, was heavily steered by the organisation’s LGBT+ network: "I was struck by some of the stories from LGBT employees, and the ways in which they had been supported by M&S." 

(Photograph: Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library)

Even with good intentions, there are historical reasons why corporations buying into Pride Month is problematic for LGBT+ people. The Stonewall Riots, which took place in New York in 1969 (see picture, right), were a spontaneous backlash against the police and, more broadly, the society that had discriminated against a marginalised community for decades. 

While many might argue the LGBT+ community is more accepted today, the last month alone saw the number of transgender hate crimes recorded by police in England, Scotland and Wales increase by 81 per cent on the previous financial year; two women fall victim to a homophobic attack after refusing to kiss for male onlookers; and new research reveal that LGBT+ professionals earn an average of £6,700 less than their straight colleagues.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the prospect of gestures like "gay washing up liquid" as a sign of solidarity are met with widespread scepticism, with 45,000 LGBT+ people and allies taking to the streets of New York to protest corporate sponsors and a police presence at Pride last weekend. 

Reiners is sympathetic to the cynicism around rainbow-flag marketing, but she argues that selling a product can be a key way to offer a show of alliance with people not necessarily benefiting from an active LGBT+ community.

"Visibility in shops and big brands like M&S is very important, particularly to charities like ours that work with vulnerable young people," she explains. 

"Families who don’t support their LGBTQ children won’t be at a Pride march – but that rainbow flag on every high street is a show of support that it’s much harder to ignore." 

AKT is one of many LGBT+ charities to benefit from a partnership with a large corporation. Budweiser lager’s Fly the Flag campaign, which raised eyebrows for its somewhat preachy descriptors of the meanings behind each LGBT+ flag used in its limited-edition solo cups, is nonetheless partnered with nine different charities supporting the LGBT+ community. 

Budweiser's Fly the Flag campaign supports nine LGBT+ charities

"This partnership gives us visibility during Pride in London and we are expecting a donation of funds toward our exciting future work for the bi communities post Pride in London," a spokesperson from one beneficiary, Bi Pride UK, said, but added: "We have no current plans for further partnership." 

Switchboard, the LGBT information, support and referral service, is another charity to benefit from the campaign. Natasha Walker, co-chair of the charity tells Third Sector the decision provoked some thought but it ultimately decided in favour of it.  

"We had some apprehensions about the partnership, namely that it’s a big alcohol brand, which can be quite a big issue in our community," she says. "But we thought the proposal around the different flags within the LGBTQ+ rainbow was a really great representation of the communities, and particularly welcome this year with the rise in hate crime we are dealing with." 

Budweiser is not the only large organisations to give to Switchboard. The charity also partners with the Skittles sweet brand for its ‘rainbowless’ packets campaign. Last year, Walker says, the initiative raised more than £31,000 for the charity though the sale of these packets.

In 2018, a Pride Month campaign from Skittles 'gave up' the rainbow

"It costs £90,000 to run Switchboard, so that’s a huge amount of money for us," she says. "We run with two administrators and everyone else is a full-time volunteer. These partnerships give us a voice that is louder than anything we can ever shout." 

There are certainly challenges around ensuring partnerships with corporations are formed in the right way, and being conscious of the relationships and history of the community is vital. The leading LGBT+ charity Stonewall, for example, faced a barrage of criticism last year after partnering with the clothing retailer Primark to release Pride-related merchandise produced in Turkey, a country with a very shady record on LGBT+ rights. 

The heavy marketing of Pride month has also led some members of the LGBT+ community to argue that smaller grass-roots organisations are being priced out of events such as Pride in London, with a team member at the LGBTQ+ homeless shelter and community centre the Outside Project telling the Victoria Derbyshire show they were asked to make their parade bus "visibly appealing" in order to participate. 

Is Pride in London too dominated by corporates? (Photograph: Carlos Calika)

But Polly Shute, a charity fundraiser and former board member of London LGBT+ Community Pride CIC, points out that it is primarily corporate partnerships that facilitate the Pride in London festival operating in a free and accessible way.

"Partnerships and support from brands and businesses are vital to ensuring that Pride in London continues to provide a platform to celebrate and, importantly, campaign for full equality for the LGBTQ community," she says. 

Long-term corporate partners include Tesco, Barclays, PwC and Amazon, which, Shute says, "share the vision and passion of the Pride movement". The board of Pride, she adds, is "incredibly strict" about what corporate sponsors the not-for-profit will accept. 

"When I set up the fundraising and partnerships teams the ethos was always to work only with brands that shared Pride in London's commitment to year-round support for the LGBTQ community," she says. 

"All prospective sponsors have to demonstrate they do this. Every partnership is reviewed at board level and then again by an independent community advisory board." 

Some of the charities Third Sector spoke to also highlighted the opportunities they had to influence the products created by their corporate partners and to open conversations about supporting LGBT+ people from within their organisations. 

"We gain great experience in working with the staff members, providing us with vital insights into how committed they are to diversity and inclusion and a chance to work with passionate people who are committed to driving change within their organisations," says Adam McCann, chief executive of Diversity Role Models, a charity that works with schools to embed inclusive and empathetic attitudes towards LGBT+ people in young people. 

Proceeds from the Disney Store's Rainbow Mickey collection go to Diversity Role Models

This year, DRM partnered with both the Disney Store and with the supermarket Asda, with which it worked  to design a range of limited Pride T-shirts that proved so popular the retailer had to reorder fresh batches. 

As well as opening dialogues on inclusive workplace cultures, the charity was able to get hands-on with the product itself, choosing the t-shirt materials, including the brand on the labels and tags, and encouraging designers to take a gender-inclusive approach by labelling them unisex.

"Although they took the designs forward, we had oversight of that process and the messages they put forward were very much aligned with the values of our organisation and with the overall message of Pride," McCann says. 

Conversations are ongoing, he says, about how the partnership can continue beyond LGBT+ Pride month. 

Some argue that charities should simply produce their own Pride products and cut out the middleman. But Switchboard’s Walker says experiments with this process in the past have rarely proved successful. 

"A few charities bring out their own ranges of merchandise," she says. "Stonewall does, and I’m sure it makes a decent amount of money from it. But we tried that, and when we recreated items to sell from our archives we get just one or two people buying them.

"That’s us selling products for the benefit of us directly. Then you have Pride and, when brands make donations to us, they sell out – that’s a key difference." 

In fact, every charity Third Sector interviewed was clear that, without the partnerships, there was no way they would generate the same revenue. "Bluntly, I don’t think that we would get those same donations," Reiners says. 

"Absolutely not," McCann agrees. "Whether it’s direct or indirect, even by simply purchasing a product we reach so many new people, and that support does go a long way for us." 

The origins of LGBT+ Pride will always make corporate involvement in the month a contentious issue and, in the protest’s jubilee year, concerns from the LGBT+ community about marketing and branding going against the spirit of the month are entirely valid. Large companies that profit from the flag without offering any tangible support to the community or, worse, discriminating against them, should be called out for flagrant hypocrisy. 

But behind the branded products and rainbow-flagged shop fronts there are undeniably more nuanced, longer-lasting partnerships taking place that, particularly for LGBT charities, raise visibility and offer a vital line of support for their services, aiding a marginalised group far beyond a month. 

This, surely, is worth some celebration.

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