Feature writing

LGBTQ+ issues

Happy Pride? How about fewer rainbow emojis, more action.

The Daily Beast

June 4, 2021

If companies and individuals are not using their platforms, money, or power to aid LGBTQ rights at a time of urgent need, then all their Pride month rainbow emojis are meaningless.

Here’s one thing you can do, indeed should do, to cast a real downer over brunch or sunbathing this weekend. When someone brightly greets you with a “Happy Pride!,” answer, as witheringly as your inner Dame Maggie Smith will allow, “Is it?”

What else can one say after this first-week-of-Pride-month, featuring social media feeds dripping with rainbow emojis, individual and corporate smug self-congratulation, emails advertising every product under the sun made rainbow-colored, and pat messages of empowerment?

Yet what is the point—apart from self-interest, self-promotion, and the easiest kind of cheerleading—of this orgy of pathetic virtue signaling when LGBTQ rights, and trans rights in particular, are under unprecedented attack? If companies and individuals are not using their platforms, money, or power to actively aid LGBTQ rights and people at a time of urgent need, all the rainbow flags and all the performative right-words are meaningless.

The orchestra playing as the Titanic meets its iceberg is the handiest visual metaphor for how ineffectual all these self-promoting emojis are when Republican legislatures are doing all they can to destroy LGBTQ equality, using trans kids—and their access to health care and sports—as their optimum target. In the U.K. Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has launched an assault on LGBTQ advocacy organization Stonewall—apparently for the group’s advocacy of trans rights. There are no rainbows right now. It’s just pouring rain.

As with so many Pride months, a Supreme Court cliffhanger could either provide a salve, or confirm the horribleness of the present storm. At the time of writing, we await the result of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, focused on a Philadelphia-based organization, Catholic Social Services (CSS), which wants to prohibit same-sex couples from becoming foster parents. The court—now with a 6-3 conservative majority—is considering whether the city may bar CSS from screening potential foster parents given that it refuses to work with same-sex couples.

If the conservative-tilted Supreme Court issues an opinion in support of the agency, then it sets a precedent that “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” trumps all; and that LGBTQ rights are forever vulnerable to those who cite “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” as a rightful grounds to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

Most expect the result to be anti-LGBTQ equality given the composition of the court, but LGBTQ people and advocates are also ready to be surprised as they have learned to be.

Whatever happens with Fulton, Trump’s stacking of the lower courts with judges, and his stacking of the highest court of the land with the same, means only more LGBTQ equality-shredding cases—funded and spearheaded by conservative groups like Alliance Defending Freedom. Even if, miraculously, bigotry does not win out in “Fulton,” it will just come back again another day in another case.

And just what are those corporate behemoths, with their fingers pressed hard on the rainbow emojis, doing doing as this assault continues? Well, saying the right things, and hoping that is enough—even as their hypocrisy is often exposed. Just this week, the Keep Your Pride campaign revealed that Anheuser-Busch, Coca Cola, AT&T, GM, and NBC, all of whom proudly parade their LGBTQ-friendly credentials, have donated $324,250 to anti-LGBTQ lawmakers.

To update those missing-in-action Fortune 500 companies and their rainbow-addled CEOs: There have been more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in 33 state legislatures this year across America. More than 120 have focused on restricting trans rights, particularly in health care and access to sports. A total of 24 anti-LGBTQ bills have been passed into law. There are more pending, ready to return next legislative session.

The right wing is mercilessly targeting trans people, and trans kids in particular. Behold Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ immensely productive week. He banned trans girls from playing sports, then he vetoed mental health care funding for survivors of the Pulse club massacre. Yet still he wasn’t done. He then put the kibosh on state funding for the Zebra Coalition, which plans housing for homeless LGBTQ youth.

You will note that DeSantis, like many Republicans with a lot of power, cruelly uses that power while claiming to be the victim, kind of like the bully who smashes your head in while insisting you made them do it. DeSantis has made it clear that he and his ilk will not be dictated to by “woke corporations.”

This may be a reference to how effectively corporations stood up to North Carolina’s HB2 bathroom ban a few years ago. Now, those same corporations are quieter, and governors like DeSantis aim to ensure their absence on the field by pre-emptively silencing them as they sign discrimination against LGBTQ people into law. Corporations, and organizations like the NCAAA, have so far have been shown to be utterly lacking in fighting back.

Marriage equality may be the law of the land, but the right wing’s intention, ever since it passed, was to kill it by undermining its principles in action. Being able to get married means an ever-diminishing amount if, as people, you can be discriminated against in a number of different contexts. Yes, there was another Supreme Court win last year—the “Bostock” case, which ruled that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Companies cannot now fire people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But Republican states are doing all they can to negate and chip away at these advances.

The Biden administration repealed the ban on trans people serving in the armed forces. Other repeals of Trump-era discrimination have been welcomed in areas such as health care. Yet Biden’s tentpole piece of legislation, the Equality Act, remains stuck, perhaps fatally wounded, in the Senate. Biden and the Act’s supporters remain hopeful, even if the 60 votes it needs to pass the Senate remain elusive. Set into federal law, the Equality Act would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. It would mean that LGBTQ equality could not be denigrated or rolled back—so easily, but of course conservatives would try—by a future Trump or other right-wing administration.

Therefore, it is no surprise that, as my colleague Scott Bixby reported earlier this week, Christian billionaires, including Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy, are funding right-wing efforts to sink the Equality Act once and for all. Right wing-led corporations have no problem or shame robustly supporting homo- and transphobia, so why do supposedly liberal-facing companies, awash with homilies in their support of LGBTQ Pride month, have so little to say in opposition to it?

The nationwide assault on LGBTQ rights is the most visible sign of right-wing panic at the Biden administration’s liberalizing intent—but, so far at least, the administration and Department of Justice have done nothing to fight back against the tidal wave of legislation. Instead, LGBTQ people are left with fine words of support. These words are genuine, but they mean little if not backed up with action.

Perhaps the Biden administration has an Equality Act rabbit to pull out of the hat. But if the Equality Act does not pass, LGBTQ people and civil rights will be in perennial turmoil, dependent and at the mercy of whatever and whoever runs the country; and the whims of conservative-stacked courts.

History is both linear and periodically loopy when it comes to LGBTQ civil rights; its arc, we hope and tell ourselves, points to progress. But the Trump administration and the backlash to Biden show that conservative voices, far from being cowed, are resurgent in doing all they can to maintain inequality—and their efforts are progressing.

The current unpredictable political weather system increases the responsibility placed on corporations to take a stand. Strangely, in the deluge of rainbows of this first seven days of Pride month, I have yet to hear the head honchos of Coca Cola and AT&T speaking out over “Fulton” and religious liberty and religious freedom. I have heard not a peep from liberal corporate America speaking up volubly on CNN as the Equality Act fights for its life, and what their support of the LGBTQ community looks like as that community, and trans kids, experience their rights being stripped away so brutally.

I have heard none of the CEOs of these forward-looking companies—so ready to furnish their employees with floats and rainbow buttons and floats playing ’80s disco—talking about the relentless battery of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ lawmaking in Republican legislatures.

These companies and their leaders may say they have signed up to a petition, or statement of support. They may point to their diversity and inclusion policies, but their support needs to be active—spoken in public on a massive platform and/or with a truckload of cash to support activists.

There is a concerted legislative attack on LGBTQ people, trans kids at the forefront, happening in America—and all the Pride month emojis and merchandise in the world are a pathetic match for them. If a corporation was minded to boast of its LGBTQ support at a moment like this it would do better to stop making the rainbow tote bags, and make a loud and effective stand against DeSantis, and other states and governors legislating against LGBTQ people like him. Prove your pride, don’t just display it.

This doesn’t just go for corporations, but all LGBTQ people, and their allies. It is one thing to do the bare minimum in Pride month, to say all the right things about “acceptance,” and serve up mainstream-friendly tales of bravery and mushy, Good-As-You content. Yes, this has value. Coming out remains as powerful, politically and personally, as Harvey Milk once identified it. People should always know they have a right to be themselves; to never hide; to embrace whatever it is they want to embrace of themselves. Pride month is an essential time to underline this.

But this should not be the only message of Pride month. It should not be the same message, recycled year in and year out. Simply selling Pride as an exercise in brave self-declaration and collective cheer, while eliciting likes on social media and ticking all the right boxes in diversity checklists, is not enough at a time of increased political aggression and animus. If you are an ally of LGBTQ people, they need more than your good wishes.

Instead of numbing emojis and easy, empty words, watch instead a video clip of one of Stonewall’s founders, the actor Sir Ian McKellen, talking about fighting Section 28, which Margaret Thatcher’s then-government introduced to forbid the “promotion” of homosexuality in Britain in the late 1980s. McKellen talks as sharply and eloquently about the malign intent of the legislation (Russia later codified its own version), and the importance of coming out personally to fight it—at a time when such public declarations were far from the norm. This is the embodiment of Pride.

The rainbow flag is a wonderful symbol, but it has also—above its starker, more blatantly political predecessor (sourced from the concentration camps), the pink triangle—come to muffle and pasteurize a month that should be full of energy and anger, alongside the bells and whistles of happy-clappy self-congratulation. The rainbow’s ubiquity, and its use by corporations and people to score easy points, reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s brilliant Harper’s essay about the use of pink in breast cancer-related marketing. It softens and deadens necessarily sharp edges.

If there is cheer to be found this Pride month, it may be found in the inspiration of those who fought in far harsher times many years ago. Read about the astonishing life of Kay Tobin Lahusen—who died aged 91, just as Pride month began. Her activism and photographs were undertaken at a time of even scanter progress, requiring even more ingenuity and bravery. There were no marches, or parades when she and her partner Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny put their heads over the parapet.

They marched in small demonstrations as the Mattachine Society years before the Stonewall Riots at great personal risk. But the presence they insisted upon, and the connections they forged (through groups like the Daughters of Bilitis and The Ladder magazine) with other LGBTQ people—back when the closet was an all-too-familiar place to reside—were enduring, and laid the groundwork for the activists who followed. Lahusen was active herself into her nineties.

In their honor if nothing else, this year’s Pride message should be: Do something. Look away from yourself and out into the world, to the persecution happening at home and also abroad, in countries like Uganda.

Stonewall was an uprising, born not of just saying “This is who I am,” but “This is my space in the world, and I will not be denied it, or removed from it.” Stonewall was an assertion of power and self, of the self and the collective, and of fighting back. Pose—its season finale airs on Sunday—has been the bluntest exposition of this defiance and insistence in pop culture.

Pride should not be passive. Everyone, corporations included, should be engaged in actively doing whatever is necessary to counter the anti-LGBTQ bigotry coursing, and being legitimized in law, across this country and around the world.

Or, to put it bluntly, for everyone having a “Happy Pride!” brunch or sunbathing session this weekend: Fewer rainbows, more action.