By Ernest Owens
Every June, I’m reminded that I don’t have enough money to celebrate Pride the way many people do: by, well, spending money. From Memorial Day weekend until July 4, my social media feeds are filled with gay men traveling from city to city, partying it up without a care in the world. Most of those men don't look like me, and sometimes, feeling left out can leave me bitter. Then, I remember the reason for this celebration: Joy can be an act of resistance — especially for a community that’s often been terrorized for simply existing.
And while my friends and I have opted out of extravagant trips, including a Pride-themed cruise (yes, really), what we agreed upon was this: We do deserve our own designated spaces to dance, love, and be ourselves without surveillance. This is what Pride month is supposed to be — a time for queer people to be as visible and outspoken as we choose, without fear or retribution. That is what every day should be.
But that’s not what Pride month has become. Instead, it has devolved into a capitalistic display of commercial marketing and overhyped branding, and many people have rightly called out the groups who co-opt the rainbow while doing little to uplift the LGBTQ+ community — and especially those who aren’t gay, white men — the other eleven months of the year. And while some community groups promote free events for the most marginalized, these charitable acts are easily dwarfed in comparison to the massive marketing campaigns that do more to sell than to include us.
Today, we have marriage equality, a gay presidential candidate, and more media representation than ever. Congress just recently pushed to pass the Equality Act that would extend civil rights and protections to all LGBTQ+ Americans. But the majority of this progress has continued to benefit the least diverse populations within our community: those who are white, cisgender, gay, and male. Black and brown LGBTQ+ people still aren't receiving any economic benefits from their culture's contributions to, and influence on the mainstream.
Pick any crisis report on LGBTQ+ people, and Black and brown members of the community are often hit the hardest in regards to poverty, healthcare, education, and unemployment. Even within our own LGBTQ+ community, Black and brown people continue to be underrepresented in LGBTQ+ leadership, media, and visibility. Couple that with the reports that the wage gap also penalizes LGBTQ+ people in addition to people — and especially women — of color, and it’s easy to understand the hypocrisy permeating the commercialization and commodification of Pride.
But it’s also easy for those outside, and even within our community to falter, given how LGBTQ+ history is rarely taught in schools, and much of the true legacy of why we celebrate June has often been erased and sanitized. Where is the diversity and rebellion that has gotten us the freedoms we now have today? Where are the Black and brown transgender women who paved the way? Transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were integral to the June 28, 1969, riot at Stonewall Inn that marked the beggining of a deliberate stand against state-sanctioned violence. The two fierce Black and brown rebels had enough, and made their voices and actions heard against the continuous police brutality and harassment that targeted the historic gay bar. Stonewall was a vengeful revolution that inspired countless cities across America to fight back in the name of LGBTQ+ equality. These LGBTQ+ freedom fighters fought for equity, access, and inclusion — not free markets to grossly sell to their community.
Hollow campaigns that only speak to our purchasing power are myopic in scope and harmful in the long run, and Pride month is still one that lacks understanding and purpose in the public eye. At a time when LGBTQ+ liberties are under attack, this financial capital and corporate muscle should be shifted toward advancing policy and dismantling institutions that continue to infringe upon our rights rather than posturing with limited-edition packaging or merchandise while speaking broadly about how “love is love.” Organizations that cater to us during June should re-prioritize what Pride means: It’s a party and it’s a protest.
There are a few notable community groups who are fighting back against this growing trend of a corporate Pride takeover. In New York, the Queer Liberation March movement has been actively centering diverse voices to combat police injustice, transphobia, and classism. In Philadelphia, a QTPOC Take Pride Back movement focused on racial equity and anti-capitalism ways to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. Across the world, activists have disavowed police presence at Pride, and more and more organizations are being held accountable to commit the proceeds from their merch towards activist groups. It’s efforts like these that can actually help to make our visibility more inclusive and reflective of the spirit of Stonewall.
Corporate sponsors need to do more than just use this month to sell to us, and instead make equitable contributions to the stability of our queer-led spaces and the policy that sustains us. I don’t know what the best alternative would look like — and I’m well aware of the fact that promising money away from a company’s bottom line is less a corporate business model than a socialist best-case-scenario — but I do know that the current model of only caring about LGBTQ+ visibility for 30 out of 365 days is unsustainable. Hire us instead, whether it’s behind the scenes or in front of the camera: We’re still here, queer, and have bills to pay come Christimas or Valentine’s day or some random Tuesday in September. We still have money to spend then, too; imagine how radical a pro-LGBTQ+ campaign would be at a time when other corporate sponsors have seemingly abandoned it and us, just because of what the calendar says.
Until then, my Black queer money, time, and energy will no longer fuel a commercial enterprise that exploits the legacy and activism of my ancestors for profit.