By Andrés Muñoz

The summer has arrived, and along with it, millions of members of the LGBTIQA+ community, activists, and allies gather to celebrate Pride Month. Just like Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and other seasonal celebrations that promote the rights and visibility of specific (often marginalised) members of society, Pride Month happens in the United States and many other countries in June. 

Unfortunately, many corporations use Pride to simply change their logo to a rainbow-coloured one, claiming to be LGBTIQA+ allies, when in reality, many don’t take any real actions to help advance the issues faced by those in the community. 

This practice is known as rainbow washing.

But why is pride month in June? Where does the rainbow flag come from? What documented cases of rainbow washing have there been, and how can companies really help make a difference? 

When I was asked to write this article, my first thought was that a community member should write it instead. I quickly changed my mind when I realised that everyone must chip in if we want to have a more peaceful, fair, and just society!

I have now learned more about the history and struggles the LGBTIQA+ community faces. I hope these findings help you broaden your knowledge and help bring more understanding.

The Rainbow Flag

The origins of the rainbow flag as an LGBT symbol date back to San Francisco, the USA, in the late 70s. Artist and activist Gilbert Baker was requested by politician Harvey Milk (subject of the Academy Award-winning biopic of the same name) to create a symbol of the gay community. At the time, people were using the pink triangle, a strategy to reclaim a symbol previously used by the Nazis to identify gay people. 

However, Baker wanted a symbol without the painful backstory, so he used the rainbow flag to represent a sense of unity. Community members come from all races, backgrounds, and identities, so the rainbow flag is meant to welcome and accept everyone. 

Harvey Milk was assassinated five months after the flag was presented in public for the first time, turning it into a symbolic rallying cry for all LGBTIQA+ causes. 

June: A Month For Pride

The Stonewall riots occurred in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of New York between June 28 and July 3, 1969. What began as a raid at a gay bar called The Stonewall Inn quickly escalated to a series of riots, where members of the 1960s LGBT community fought the police. 

Many scholars agree that the Stonewall riots were the pivotal moment that genuinely inspired the start of the fight for LGBT rights in the United States. A year later, the first gay pride marches would be held in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and obviously, New York City commemorating the June event.  

Rainbow Washing

Fast-forward to 2022, and a recent Forbes study shows that the LGBTIQA+ community worldwide has a purchasing power of approximately $3.7 trillion dollars. Economic gain is often behind the decision by corporations to change their brand image to that of the pride flag in June. They want to motivate purchases from members of the community. 

But are they really supporting LGBTIQA+ causes by taking measurable action, or is this just a brand image refresh to bump the June sales numbers? 

“Just because a company slapped on a rainbow doesn’t mean they support the LGBT+ community.” 

-Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Representative for the 14th Congressional District

I interviewed a woman who works in the United Kingdom. While she indicated that the company she works at does change their image to one with a pride flag as a sign of unity, and promotes the use of pronouns when people are introducing themselves, most of the LGBT-related initiatives are carried out by volunteers. 

There are even harsher cases, such as those presented in a Popular Investigation report from 2021. For instance, Walmart features a Pride and Joy section, where consumers can purchase LGBTIQA+-related items. Great. 

But, since 2019, the company has donated just under $450 thousand dollars to 121 politicians with a score of zero on the Congressional Scorecard produced by the community’s rights organisation, Human Rights Campaign.

Another person I interviewed suggested that corporations must adopt a consequential accountability Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategy far beyond mere brand imaging. While many organisations have a collective accountability strategy, it’s essential to realise that consequential accountability impacts behaviour and outcomes for leaders in a more meaningful way. This is because it requires direct progress from them for it to work. 

So, perhaps companies should stop virtue signalling by sending out messages on social media and adopt corporate policies that show they’re walking the walk and supporting the community by creating a safe workplace environment, donating to LGBTIQA+ advocacy groups, and more. Support, love and understanding for the LGBTIQA+ community should be an everyday thing, not just for June.