June was Pride Month, so naturally, everything was rainbow coloured. I don’t want this to be just another blog about rainbow washing. Yes, it might be an empty statement, but is making any statement worse than no statement at all?
It’s hard to imagine now, but in New York, 1969 solicitation of homosexuality was illegal. Police harassment of the gay community was common. But on the 28th of June, in the early hours outside of the Stonewall Inn, a violent confrontation took place between gay rights activists and police. The clash became known as the Stonewall Riots and as can often be the case, this one incident sparked a global phenomenon; it created a new generation of political activism.
The rainbow itself wasn’t created until 1978. An artist by the name of Gilbert Baker was urged to produce it as a symbol of pride for the gay community by Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the US. Baker chose a flag specifically to be the symbol because he felt flags were a powerful and visible symbol of pride. Naturally, each of the colours stands for something vague but positive, red is for life, orange is for healing for some reason, yellow for sunlight…you get the idea, but ultimately the collection of colours together represents the diversity of the community.
The origin of such things is important. The ‘brief’ for Baker was one of visibility. If the work of Byron Sharp should have taught us anything, it’s the power and value of making something more visible and therefore more familiar. If something like the LGBTQ+ community was more familiar, then it should change the perceptions of those in society who might seek to shun it. (The pitfall I just side stepped was to say it ‘normalises’ the community, by which I mean it normalises the community for those who would otherwise reject it.) My point is that the origin of the rainbow makes it a shortcut to remembering that diversity and inclusivity in society is a good thing. But also, that some people went through hell to get it. When we wear a red poppy, we are doing so in remembrance of all those who fought and died fighting for our freedom. While possibly off-balance to compare the two, the mechanic is broadly the same for flying a rainbow flag every June. In that sense, every rainbow flag has a role to play in making the LGBTQ+ community and the support of what it represents, more visible and more familiar. Rainbow wash away.
But of course, the world is more complicated than that. Like so many societal issues, the Twitter mob will attack even the well-intentioned if they find sufficient daylight between claims of support and tangible actions. Whether you’re an individual or an organisation, if you don’t try hard enough to support the victims of social justice, a small minority of their most impassioned (and possibly misguided) supporters may turn on you. And these days a couple of tweets is all it seems to take for large organisations to crumble under ‘the pressure’.
Many commentators in our industry would support this. And on the surface, it makes sense. Every International Women’s Day there is a list of brands who mean well and despite some good content (no, not you Burger King), end up in hot water because they don’t have enough (or any) women on their board. It appears that the brand is trying to make itself appear ‘better’ than it is.
This is all unfortunate for two reasons. First, attacking organisations who try to support a cause may dissuade them from visibly doing so in the future. We’ve established visibility is essential, so that would be a shame. Claiming they’re only doing so for commercial reasons, is frankly bollocks unless they have no idea how people buy things. There are very few commercial reasons for most brands to support any societal issue. As I pointed out in my previous blog on sustainability messaging, a lot of the time it just gets in the way of actually selling something.
Second, people frequently mix up equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. An organisation might have the best equal opportunities policy on the planet, rainbow their logo in June and come under fire because there aren’t enough people who are either gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans in their organisation. But this is nonsensical because the opportunity for people from the LGBTQ+ community to work there and flourish is entirely equal. The difference between these two types of equality is crucial as it should level the controversy of these social justice issues. But it doesn’t and I fear it never will.
Last year, Baker’s rainbow had brown, black, baby blue and pink stripes added to it to reflect the inclusion of trans people and people of colour. The shorthand abbreviation is written LGBTQ+ to include ‘queer’ and people who don’t identify as a particular gender but presumably also to include absolutely anyone else who might need to be included under the banner. But as I mentioned, achieving equal opportunities for the extended community is unlikely to be enough for the Twitter mob. Brands that stick their head above the parapet will have to demonstrate equality of outcome. I’ll let you decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing.
Gilbert Baker died in 2017. I don’t know what he expected of a brand flying the rainbow flag. But I think if he knew that so many big brands were queuing up every June to fly it, to make his symbol of diversity more visible than ever before, he’d be a happy chap.