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Every year in June, we celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month. Pride is about communities coming together, celebrating diversity, and unity. Pride is also usually the month when Pride parades and marches are held across the globe. 

We could say that Pride is the LGBTQ communitiy’s biggest event of the year, a quasi gay Christmas. As being LGBTQ becomes more accepted, and gay marriage is legalised in more and more countries, corporations big and small have begun to see an opportunity in the exploitation of the topic.

As an LGBT-owned marketing business, we feel like it’s our duty to explain the marketing phenomenon of Rainbow Washing and the unethical business practices that lie beneath it. Here is why you won’t see Reward Agency changing its logo for a rainbow version any time soon.

What is LGBTQ Pride Month & Why June?

To be able to explain the phenomenon of Rainbow washing, first we have to go back in time to do a little bit of explaining about Pride Month. 

LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) Pride Month is held every June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that happened in 1969 in Manhattan. 

The Stonewall riots were a crucial turning point in the Gay Liberation Movement everywhere not just in America. On June 28 1969, armed police raided the now famous Stonewall Inn. Police raids on Gay Bars like the Stonewall Inn were unfortunately not rare during the 60s and 70s, the difference was, that during this raid, the people inside the bar fought back, throwing bricks and rocks at the police officers. Following the riot at the Stonewall Inn, subsequent riots broke out in the following weeks and thus began the new era of LGBTQ activism. 

While the UK’s first pride was only held in 1972 in London, it wasn’t until 1999 that US President Bill Clinton officially declared June as Pride Month. Back in the UK, the LGBTQ community still had it’s own fights to fight, the AIDS epidemic broke out in 1981 and PM, Margaret Thatcher banned the “promotion of homosexulaity” in 1988. 

Fast forward to 2013, gay marriage was finally legalised in the UK, followed by the USA in 2015. Sorry for the brief history lesson here, but knowing what happened  at Stonewall and why Pride Month is celebrated is integral to the understanding of why Rainbow Washing is so inherently bad. 

You could say, ‘Wow, well gay marriage has been legalised now, all LGBTQ issues are solved!’ but unfortunately this is not the case. Just recently in the EU, Hungary introduced a similar ban on ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ like Ms Thatcher did back in ‘88, or what Russia introduced a couple of years ago.  And I could go on and on about the atrocities that LGBTQ minorities face on a daily basis. This is why we need Pride and Pride month, maybe even more now than ever. 

Rainbow washing – why companies who release Pride collections usually miss the point

This brings me back to the point of Rainbow Washing aka the latest corporate marketing trend that began since the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage in 2015. 

But what is Rainbow Washing you ask? Well, Rainbow Washing is a relatively new phrase, as defined by Urban Dictionary, is: “The act of using or adding rainbow colors and/or imagery to advertising, apparel, accessories, landmarks… in order to indicate progressive support for LGBTQ equality (and earn consumer credibility)—but with a minimum of effort or pragmatic result.” 

It has now become the norm for large, corporate entities to change their logos to a rainbow coloured version, see below: 

Image credit: British Airways’ Facebook page
Pride Month - from the viewpoint of an LGBTQ owned business
Image credit: Boots UK Facebook Page

This could be viewed as a nice gesture, but with every marketing campaign, you can bet that there is a hidden marketing objective that the marketing executives are trying to achieve with said gesture. By changing their logo for a rainbow one, these corporations are trying to send  a message of ‘Hey, we support you, come buy our super LGBT friendly products, from our LGBT friendly store and LGBT friendly staff.’ 

But this is where the messages fall flat for me. These companies, that have a proven track record of donating to anti-LGBT organisations and anti-LGBT politicians think that just adding the rainbow will make the LGBTQ community forget their repeated wrongdoing. 

In a recent article, published by The Guardian, they have listed 25 plus organisations that have donated over $10m to anti-LGBT organisations. Companies such as CVS, AT&T, Wells Fargo and more all changed their logos this year, yet studied found that they have all donated to anti-LGBT politicians and organisations.

Pride Month - from the viewpoint of an LGBTQ owned business
Image credit: CVS’s Twitter page

You would think that Rainbow Washing ends with the yearly rainbow logo during Pride Month, but I have some bad news for you. Some companies go even further and release truly hideous Pride Month collections. And by collections we don’t just mean clothes, although they are the most obvious to talk about, in GQ’s list of Best Pride collections of 2021, we can find not one, but THREE rainbow themed watches (by Skagen, Diesel and Fossil), candles, and even a safety razor alongside the usual rainbow-galore of underwear, socks, shoes and t-shirts.

To give you a flavour of how hideous these collections can get, let me show you 1-1 item from Amazons and Hollister’s Pride collections below:

Pride Month - from the viewpoint of an LGBTQ owned business
Image credit: Amazon UK
Pride Month - from the viewpoint of an LGBTQ owned business
Image credit: Hollister 

As if all of us in the LGBTQ community were lusting after neon-rainbow coloured garms to wear to our first kiki with our freshly vaccinated friends. Once again, these collections bring empty promises of support, when in reality, all LGBTQ people still just want equal human rights in all countries and for love to be recognised.

Rainbow Washing 2.0, The Secret Mission Of The Corporation

Reward Agency is proud to be an LGBTQ owned company, therefore our stance during pride is inherently different to those who do not have members of the LGBTQ community in leadership positions. 

From a marketing point of view, we know it pays to jump on trends and bandwagons as they will help your company in talking to your audience. But talking to your audience is one thing, what about your own employees? 

See, some of these bigger corporations that I have mentioned above participate in Pride Month, while actively financing anti-pride causes. There is a dichotomy that needs to be considered here. For the unknowing audience, it’s cool and progressive that the company they like finally supports pride. For those who do their research, it’s just down right infuriating to have to experience the level of hypocrisy from companies during pride month. What about the LGBTQ employees of these companies? How could they feel? I can tell you, they are probably not feeling great. 

Unfortunately, Rainbow Washing does not stop at pride collections and rainbow logos. Some companies are actively Rainbow Washing their companies from the inside out. Incentives they launch, emails they send out might be welcomed by unknowledgeable employees, but deep down, they do more harm than good. 

The Urban List has put together a checklist of activities that you, the employee can use to see if the company you work at is actively participating in Rainbow Washing or not. 

“A company might be Rainbow Washing if during June they:

  • Launch Pride initiatives
  • Use LGBTQI+ team members as props in content 
  • Use the rainbow to push products 
  • Have corporate groups marching in parades 
  • Offer false incentives for queer talent 
  • Underpay queer talent 
  • Change logos temporarily 
  • Make empty gestures
  • Foster an unsafe workplace for queer staff
  • Don’t donate to LGBTQI+ causes
  • Run a Pride campaign while contributing to anti-LGBTQI+ organisations/public figures”

This list is much longer than it really should be, as to show true progression in the workplace could be brought in just by changing a couple of small things. At Reward we are proud that exceptional LGBTQ talent is visible in the company from top to the bottom. It is something we champion with incentives and we continuously encourage our employees to be themselves.

The future we would love to see

The future we would like to see is where in any company a worker does not have to be afraid to be who they are or have to hide themselves for it. 

Most of our staff are part of the LGBTQ community, implementing exclusive policies comes naturally to us. Because we, too, have been on the other end where we were afraid to come out to a coworker/boss, or we missed business opportunities due to our sexualitites. 

What is it that you could actually do as a business owner to be a better supporter to your LGBTQ employess and LGBTQ customers?

Here are a couple of things that you could do: 

Actually champion your LGBTQ Workers

This is pretty self explanatory, but rewarding achievements goes a long way. Whether that’s in the form of a bonus, an extra day off, everybody likes to be appreciated.

Don’t be like Brewdog, take LGBTQ discrimination seriously

We all saw the allegations against Brewdog in March, for firing LGBTQ employees and that 40+ off their employees spoke of a toxic culture of bullying and discrimination that prompted them to leave the company. 

Don’t be like Brewdog. If any of your employees/coworkers raise any issues, it’s best to investigate immediately with a HR representative. It also helps if you introduce a whistleblowing option for those who are afraid to speak out using their own names.

Introduce LGBTQ friendly benefits

This is another one that can depend on the size of your company and what you can afford, but generally, offer equal pay, equal benefits for LGBTQ employees. Plus adding things like, maternal/parental leave that is a norm for non-LGBTQ employees (and a legal requirement btw) can change the mood within the company. 

Be more gender neutral. 

You can start by removing gendered language from official communication to employees from the company, and then further removing that gendered language from company policies, contracts, social media messages etc.

Secondly, if you are back in the office, provide your employees with gender neutral bathrooms, and stock them with free period products. Remember, you can never assume anybody’s sexuality or gender just by how they look.

Celebrate all things LGBTQ

Fighting for LGBTQ rights is not just a June-thing. It’s a constant uphill battle. Make sure you help commemorate other significant days of the LGBTQ community, such as National Coming Out Day, World AIDS Day, etc. 

This also goes for all minority holidays that you might not have considered, such as Juneteenth Eid and more. 

Start an LGBTQ Mentorship program

Last but not least, you could start a minority leadership programme or a mentorship programme, that champions specific communities within your organisation. Or start something like the Reward LGBTQ Mentorship Programme,championing LGBTQ youth. Where you invite members of the LGBTQ Community to be menotred within your specific sector, by LGBTQ mentors. The possibilities are endless. (you can express interest in the Reward LGBTQ Mentorship Porgramme by sending us an email at hello@rewardagency.co.uk)

The Category is: Better future for the LGBTQ Community

If you’ve made it this far through my ranting, thank you. Albeit this article was more on the gloomier side of LGBTQ rights, we are progressing and not everything that corporations do is bad. 

Company culture, working conditions and attitude towards the LGBTQ community is generally changing for the better and we do see some very positive change happening amongst corporations and companies regardless of their size. 

If you’ve read through this, and have experienced some of the Rainbow Washing, I’m sorry, I can only say the very cliche saying of: it does get better. 

And if you are an owner or leader of a company that participates in Rainbow Washing, my plea to you is that you start seeing the challenges that your LGBTQ colleagues face on a daily basis, and that you finally start taking steps in the right direction.

To close off, here is a quote by Tammy Baldwin, the first openy gay US Senator about why it’s worth championing LGBTQ employees and talent: “There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now okay to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly until it’s simply the way things are.” 

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