CHENNAI: Recently, a popular fast-food chain came under fire for their Pride month post online. In what was supposed to be an attempt to showcase equality, they presented two burgers — one with two top buns and another with the flat bottoms sitting in front of a vivid rainbow background. Needless to say, the LGBTQIA+ (and allies) were not stoked to see this form of representation, flooding the comments with largely disapproving opinions.
Amid these, a few phrases — rainbow capitalism, Pride washing, and rainbow washing — stand out in frequency. These terms generally refer to the capitalisation of Pride month by organisations. “The first encounter I had with Pride, I came across branding and advertisements, everything painted in rainbow colours (in the month of June). I was confused at first but friends in the community explained to me that it’s something that most companies do and is often a facade. What infuriates me is that there is no action or effort into making a change. It’s the same as acknowledging the existence of a person on their birthday and not at all the rest of the months,” shares Krithikase, a queer person.
Krithikase’s frustration can be well understood by people who have seen merchandise, posts and logos ooze rainbows during June. Several brands “jump onto the Pride bandwagon (as mentioned by a few in the community)” for “brownie points” or goodwill of the community, at times exclusively in this month. Examples are aplenty, it seems. Rose Venkatesan recalls the news of an international airline splashing its planes in rainbow colours only to offer no gender options beyond men and women when one books tickets.
Another example came from C Moulee, a gay person working in the space of gender, diversity and inclusivity, who questions the VIBGYOR car visuals presented on the app of a certain cab service provider. “This was done during the month of June. But what does it even mean? As an end user, I see the rainbow but is it safe for every queer person to travel in the cars associated with this company? What kind of awareness have they given to their partners? The issue of how they treat their partners has also come to the spotlight. So, who is benefitting from this?”
A dichotomous dilemma
While several are dissatisfied with the (often nominal) actions of the corporations, there is also a fork in the train of thought — in a country where the LGBTQIA+ still fights for the most basic rights and support, can we afford to lose even the least impressive gestures? It’s a rather difficult position, shares Magizhvan*, a gay person who has worked with the community. “In 2008, when the Pride movement took off (in India), we needed corporate support. Even then, the community was divided in what we wanted. In the past 10-15 years, there have been companies who have walked the talk and there are some who do it just for the sake of Pride month. But we want all kinds of support in any way and so, I don’t know if we are in a position to start criticising brands. There are so few companies (on our side) that we don’t get to pick and choose and call them out so early on,” he says.
The predicament, however, has also come with the small benefit of a warning. As a much larger issue in the West, the community here is watching and learning from those, Magizhvan adds. But at the same time, the pressure in larger metropolitans like Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru is beginning to build. It is important to keep check, however, as Moulee explains, “We are in a tricky position where we need corporates to talk about the community but don’t want to shut them out by calling them out. Even if a company wants to ensure LGBTQIA+ inclusion, there is often no right guidance and strategic plans.”
The pink rupee
Once we explore the side of content consumption, it is also imperative to think of the intention of the content creation. In India, where support of the queer community is a minority opinion, organisations in apparent support tend to form a monopoly of sorts, Maghizhvan informs, and tend to target the ‘pink penny’ or ‘pink rupee’ (purchasing ability of the queer community). “The customer gets caught because the organisation is the only player. If an organisation comes and does a big thing, connects with the community, it will always get goodwill.
Many in the community have no family and so, they have a lot of disposable income. Now, say, of two mobile brands in this country, one decides to support the community and come out with a rainbow phone. Someone like me who doesn’t have a family and much savings to worry about can easily afford it. Take one lakh people like that and that is one lakh phones sold. The business idea definitely works if you know how to tap in,” he says.
However, despite growing content about the queer community, the representation of the LGBTQIA+ is still narrowed down to the middle class, upper caste, well to do, urban, English-speaking gay man or lesbian woman, Magizhvan adds. This comes with the assumption that these customers have money to spend.
“We’re one of the only countries where the LGBTQIA+ movement started from the grassroots. I don’t think any other country can say their movement began with the trans community. It was trans women who led this moment and if they are not being included or targeted (through ads and brand promotions), then it seems like something is wrong.”
Rose, too, dives into the increasing interest in the community. These promotions are targeted towards the elite with supporting, (possibly) rich families, she adds. “But many others are abandoned and do not have a lot of money. I think the trend is catching on because things are changing; families are supporting queer members with money and accepting them, so they become the targets. But what about those who have struggling lives?”
There is much to unravel and sort out when it comes to the involvement of corporations in Pride celebrations but while we have discussed the wrongs, there are some rights expected of companies as well. A general consensus seems to be that support for Pride must go beyond just acknowledgement and recognition and extend beyond just the month of June. “Pride has to come from within.
They’re (the fast food chain) trying so hard that it is offensive. They hire queer designers to design only queer posts and all the money made goes to themselves. They might not hire the same queer people for design if not for June. It is not okay to capitalise on the movement and not give back. Organisations should send money (made from Pride) to queer movements. There should be education for all employees as there can be bullying inside the organisation,” Lakshmi Gunasekar, queer tarot card reader says about giving back to the community; Krithikase and Moulee concur.
“I would like all corporates to include more policies that are LGBTQIA+ friendly and bring up workshops with hospitals to educate them on sexual health,” says Krithikase, while Moulee maintains, “Companies need to assess themselves and see what amount of money (to improve processes, policies, benefits and talent development) they are spending in 11 months vs the month of June. If it is only in that one month, it is wrong. I think what companies can do is use Pride as an opportunity to showcase what they have been doing to make the workplace equitable over the year and then celebrate.” There may be a while to get to this point but till then, there is much to consider the next time you see a rainbow-coloured post.