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Corporate Rainbow-washing vs Nation-state Pink-washing

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

Summer 2021 is coming to an end and so too is a uniquely socially-distanced season of Pride celebrations. With some festivities cancelled and others dialled down, this has certainly been a ‘Summer of Love’ unlike any other.

Despite the special circumstances, there has still been much to celebrate for the LGBTQ+ community this year. Some achievements include: Croatia finally allowing same-sex partners to adopt children, Norway announcing they will prioritise LGBTQ+ refugees, Angola decriminalising sex between same-sex individuals, and the UK government announcing that sexually active gay and bisexual men will be able to donate blood. It is victories like these that remind us why international support for LGBTQ+ individuals is so important.

Unfortunately, this has also been a year plagued by a dangerous marketing strategy. Used by individuals, corporations and, most worryingly, nation-states, ‘rainbow-washing’ or ‘pink-washing’ threatens serious harm to LGBTQ+ causes. A form of ‘performative allyship’ that has become all too common, this typically involves the appropriation of the rainbow flag (as well as other symbols of struggle and solidarity for LGBTQ+ individuals) to appear supportive of the community. Even countries have joined in; portraying themselves as LGBTQ-friendly in order to downplay other more negative characteristics.

‘Rainbow-washing' flooded our social media platforms, advertising boards and almost every corner of Western pop culture during June and is continuing beyond. ‘Proud’ sponsors of summer Pride celebrations donned multicoloured masks both to win increased custom from LGBTQ+ consumers: a survey by Harris Interactive found that “approximately two-thirds of LGBT adults, or roughly 66%, would be very or somewhat likely to remain loyal to a company or brand they believed to be supportive of the LGBT community, even when less-supportive competitors offered lower prices or greater convenience”.

Corporations responsible for these acts of ‘performative allyship’ include AT&T, Pfizer and The Home Depot who all changed their logos to incorporate a rainbow in June as an apparent show of support. In reality, nine of the biggest, and seemingly most LGBTQ-supportive companies in America gave around $1 million or more each to anti-gay politicians in the last election, with AT&T alone guilty of contributing $2,755,000. Slapping a rainbow on a logo does not, and should not, automatically equate to allyship with, or even acceptance of, LGBTQ+ causes.

Corporations engaging in pink-washing is dangerous, but what happens when it goes beyond the boardroom and seeps into legislation?

Nation-states, seeking to boost tourism or curry international favour, frequently engage in surface level support of LGBTQ+ individuals while making very few meaningful changes to support and enrich the community. As the ILGA states, “Pink-washing continues to provide cover and allow impunity for governments’ anti-civil society policies in various human rights arenas”.

For example, in the summer of 2021 Japan became home to the largest number of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer Olympic athletes, despite the fact that the country is not a completely safe place for these individuals; homosexuality is legal in Japan, yet there is no protection from discrimination and gay marriage is unrecognised.

In Poland, the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski signed a declaration intended to support the Polish LGBTQ+ community, which outlined much-needed practical steps to decrease discrimination. Unsurprisingly, this did little to discourage bigotry. Despite the supportive language of the declaration, artist and Warsaw resident Elżbieta Podlesna was arrested and charged with ‘offending religious beliefs’, after they and two other Polish human rights activists distributed posters depicting the Virgin Mary with a halo in the rainbow colours of the pride flag. All three were eventually acquitted earlier this year. Furthermore, throughout Poland, Pride celebrations and Equality Marches have been violently attacked by extremists with the government doing little to deter such acts.

Even politicians in countries such as Israel and Ireland use their apparent support of LGBTQ+ individuals in order to distract voters from their other, less savoury, political ambitions.

Critics argue that Israel’s pro-LGBT messaging is a ‘deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life’. Campaigns present Tel Aviv, for example, as a ‘gay heaven’ and encourage LGBTQ+ Palestinians to flee their ‘homophobic and oppressive’ families, when in fact Palestinians will likely risk their safety and face further racial prejudice in doing so.

In 2015, Ireland was the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote and has therefore come to be viewed as a pro-gay nation state. This has led politicians, even those on the right wing of the spectrum, to latch onto this fanciful image of Ireland so as to encourage emigrants to return and to distract from cuts in government spending.

So, which is worse? While corporate ‘rainbow-washing’ is dangerous and can lead to revenue being generated for anti-LGBTQ+ causes, we cannot deny that the power wielded by pink-washing nations is far more influential and insidious. More work must be done to ensure that performative support of LGBTQ+ individuals does not absolve governments of their sins and, more importantly, that it leads to tangible quality of life improvements for the community whom they exploit.

Article By Lucy Faber

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