By Chris Talbot-Heindl, nonprofit laborer and perpetually disappointed queer
Supporting marginalized communities when it’s easy and lucrative to do so isn’t being a true accomplice. When it’s hard to do, and you still do it, you show your accomplice chops…
Rainbow capitalism month is upon us, and everyone is participating.
But what hardly any company, nonprofit or not, is attempting to do is make things materially better for LGBTIQA2+ folks year round. As an out, queer, trans nonbinary individual, Pride has become a headache of faux activism and false promises.
I need us to remember our roots.
The first Pride was a riot. The second Pride was a protest of the conditions that necessitated that riot.
At some point, Pride became the white, cisgender, abled, queer attempt to show white, cisgender, abled, heterosexual folks that we could play respectability politics and be “just like them” but in a gay way. (Which wasn’t great for those of us who weren’t white, cisgender, or abled and would never be “just like them” no matter what we do or how “respectable” we try to be.)
In the last eight or nine years, Pride month has felt like one slap in the face after another as corporations and nonprofits that never lift a finger for our liberation (and often cave in to pressures to negate our humanity) drape everything they own in rainbows for one month, and go back to business as usual the next.
At one point, approximately 30 years ago, that version of “showing up” was necessary. We needed mainstream approval. But today, a decade after we got mainstream approval (well, our white, cisgender, abled queer folks did, anyway), we’re no longer looking for “toleration” or “trans people exist,” we’re looking for allies and accomplices to fight for our diminishing rights to help us survive and thrive.
It’s harmful to have corporations merely affirm our existence and continue to serve platitudes like “love is love” (which we should be so far beyond), as we watch some hard-fought protections and rights being stripped away with violent fervor. (Ironically, as my older friend in my trans and nonbinary elders support group informed me, I feel we need to get back to what Pride was 30 years ago — where corporations’ footprints were sparse, queer and trans people shared their talents and artistry, and direct action and community-based organizations reigned. Notice I said “footprints” and not sponsorship; not all things need go back to how they used to be.).
Rainbow-washing and its impacts
Rainbow-washing, when you have no intention of following through as an ally or accomplice afterward, only stirs hatred and leaves the most vulnerable populations to deal with the aftermath.
At some point, corporations realized that rainbowfying during June was big business. The estimated 20 million LGBTIQA2+ people in the U.S. collectively have a purchasing power of $900 billion annually, according to a report from LGBT Capital. And Pride events are a large part of that purchasing power.
Just ask Anheuser-Busch (Bud Light), a company that, despite being one of the big five highest donors to anti-LGBTIQA2+ candidates, sponsored Pride events across the nation (which often came with the benefit of having a monopoly on the beer sold during them). In 2021, Stonewall Inn boycotted the company for Pride, as did many other Pride hosts, which I’m sure cut into their June profits just a bit.
The problem is, when push comes to shove, if these cisgender- and straight-owned companies could possibly lose money, social capital, or safety (all possible consequences of being a true ally or accomplice), they are willing to leave us high and dry, fighting off the bigots they inflamed by ourselves.
Look at Target. This year, they hired people from communities to represent their communities during their months — a noble pursuit. They curated a Black Beyond Measure Collection from Black artists during Black History Month. They also contracted with queer and trans artists for the 2023 Pride Collection. But when Matt Walsh straight up lied and said their tuck-friendly swimsuit line included child sizes (it does not), Target stores and the queer and trans artists began receiving bomb and death threats, respectively.
These bomb threats need to be taken seriously, of course. But the solution is not to pull the items they do have — again, not tuck-friendly swimsuits for children, because that does not exist — and leave the artists they amplified, who have fewer resources at their disposal, to deal with the death threats without any support from Target. Especially as this “win” to “make Pride toxic for brands,” as Matt Walsh refers to it, only chums the water for the virulent transphobes that made the threats to begin with.
Rainbow-washing, when you have no intention of following through as an ally or accomplice afterward, only stirs hatred and leaves the most vulnerable populations to deal with the aftermath.
I’m not saying Target is straight-up rainbow-washing (like Anheuser-Busch definitely is, as they donate so much money to anti-LGBTIQA2+ candidates). After all, Target has been actively supporting the queer community (read: primarily the cisgender gay and lesbian community) since 2012 with products and donations. (This was after a rocky start where they donated $150k to pay for TV ads to support Tom Emmer, a gubernatorial candidate who wanted to ban marriage equality. But it seems they’ve taken accountability and moved beyond it.)
Supporting marginalized communities when it’s easy and lucrative to do so isn’t being a true accomplice. When it’s hard to do, and you still do it, you show your accomplice chops.
You might be saying, “But Chris, these are corporations, not nonprofits!” But nonprofits are not immune to the rainbow-washing. I think — I hope — it comes from a more authentic place of wanting to be allies and accomplices, but nonprofits fall short just as often.
And I can’t count the number of nonprofits, especially environmental nonprofits since I work in that realm, rainbow-wash their logo for the month but don’t do anything materially at all to make things better for their LGBTIQA2+ employees, never mind the environmental nonprofit industrial complex or the world at large. In nonprofit organizations I’ve worked at over the last 21 years, I’ve had to fight to have my humanity as a queer and trans person matter more than potential donations (not even real-life donations, mind you, but the potential that someone may donate) more than once. And many organizations within my network, when I call them in and point out ways they alienate or other especially trans individuals, become hostile at the correction.
All of these organizations drape themselves in the flag every year. I openly refuse to participate with my organization until we do something real and material for the LBTIQA2+ community. (And as the graphic designer and person with the know-how of the bunch, that’s become our de facto policy. LOL.)
So what should you do this Pride month?
Authenticity matters. If your organization can’t “listen and learn” (the phrase folks most often like to use when I point out harm) when an LGBTIQA2+ person calls them in, don’t let them drape all of your logos and social media banners in rainbows. Rainbowfying should be a way to signify minimal allyship, and your organization isn’t ready to do it.
Here are some (non-prescriptive and non-exhaustive) ideas for what your organization should be pushing for before it starts draping itself in the rainbow flag:
- Listen and learn faster — It often feels like organizations in the “listening and learning” phase of their advocacy for marginalized people only do so when an incident arises and goes back to ignoring the needs of that community in between incidents. That will never be an effective way to “listen and learn.” Your organization needs to include researching and learning justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) principles in its regular operations and have regular training until JEDI principles become just another lens through which you do your work.
Hire an outside consultant rather than relying on your LGBTIQA2+ employees to shoulder this work. Not only is Outsider Efficacy Bias a thing, but they will also burn out; trust me on this.
A good way to start is to consider hiring the people in the community who call you in, if they offer those services. Ask them if you can meet with them to talk more about what they’re telling you, and pay them for their time and expertise. (Looking at you, all the organizations I’ve provided free education to!)
- Get an internal evaluation of your organization — Before we can talk about things that we can implement to improve our workplaces, we have to take an authentic, honest look at where our organizations are. When you skip this step, you end up with optical allyship that puts band-aids (or rainbows) on problems but harms people once they experience the actual culture.
We also tend to want a prescriptive sequence of checkboxes. If you do x, y, and z, you are certified safe for LGBTIQA2+ employees and supporters. But life doesn’t work like that. All organizations are different and will have different needs when it comes to improvements.
There needs to be an internal evaluation of systems of oppression from an outside contractor who is educated in how to do that sort of thing (read: relying on your LGBTIQA2+ employees to avoid paying for this doesn’t cut it). Analyze the organization’s ideologies, determine what biases got operationalized over time, and evaluate how your organization adheres to a white-, cisgender-, heterosexual-, abled-, and Christian-normative culture. We all have things we will continually need to work on — this is not one-and-done work, so make sure you work with a contractor who prioritizes an ongoing relationship. In the environmental nonprofit field, organizations like The Avarna Group, the Center for Diversity and the Environment, and Justice Outside are excellent places to start.
What to look for before you sign the contract: make sure the work is done in conjunction with a team from your organization. If they do it separately and come back with a list of changes your organization should take, how likely do you think the organization will enact those? Prioritize organizations that work with your specific capacity and goals. And be sure that they center the justice, equity, and inclusion of people from marginalized groups rather than the feeling and comfort of people with relative privilege. Since the summer of 2020, too many rubberstamping so-called equity organizations have popped up, and while they’ll give you a rubberstamp after completing their privilege-centered program, they won’t lead to meaningful change, and you’ll have wasted your dollars.
- Support and amplify groups doing this work — If you are a well-resourced organization in your field (or even if you aren’t and just want to show up this year authentically), maybe this month can be spent encouraging your supporters to support on-the-ground community-based organizations doing similar work.
According to a recent report, LGBTIQA2+ nonprofits got 0.13% of all charitable giving in 2019, and this was after a 46.3% increase in giving between 2015 and 2019. The exact amount spikes when something horrible happens to the community — like an attack in a statehouse or a mass casualty event. But if all the giving to our community occurs as a triage measure when we desperately need it to survive, how will we ever get to the point where we’re ready to thrive?
If you’re in the environmental nonprofit industrial complex or work in the outdoor equity arena, you could choose to amplify and ask for donations to Queer Nature, Out for Sustainability, Queers 4 Climate Justice, Pride Outside, and The Venture Out Project.
- Cater your efforts to all queer folks, not just the white, cisgender, and abled ones — If your actions don’t improve the condition of BIPOC (especially Black and Indigenous), transgender, and disabled queer folks, you’ve failed. Too many organizations, especially the most resourced ones, leave the most vulnerable members of the LGBTIQ2+ community to fend for themselves. That’s how we got marriage equality across the nation in 2015, but we still don’t have a prohibition against the gay and trans panic defense, “shield” laws protecting access to transgender health care, bans on conversion therapy for trans youth, or the right to pee in public restrooms in every state. Well-resourced LGBTIQA2+ organizations tend to start and end their advocacy with the most resourced members of the community because of the donation feedback loop.
I have a feeling this is why so many Pride parades still have cops as well — white, cisgender, and abled queer folks and organizations led by them aren’t the targets of police violence, so they trust the cops will protect them and value that security. BIPOC, transgender, and disabled queer folks have healthy social paranoia regarding police, who they protect, and who they target.
If you aren’t sure what BIPOC (especially Black and Indigenous), transgender, and disabled queer folks need, do listening sessions and pay them for their time.
- Modify your programming to meaningfully include LGBTIQA2+ people — Programming at organizations rarely considers our community. Events, like charity walks and runs, are often gendered unnecessarily without a category for those who don’t fit in the categories of “men” and “women.” Silent auction items are often offered in “his and her” packages, prioritizing heterosexual couples. Programs that are meant for gender parity ignore that people other than cisgender women need those programs as well — and statistics show that other marginalized genders need them more.
In 2016, my supervisor at the time created a program that was meant for gender parity in STEM careers that was focused entirely on cisgender women (not even all women, but cis women exclusively, because she wasn’t sure how to meaningfully include transgender women and rather than learn, she was choosing to exclude). I spent years working to get her to understand that other marginalized genders needed to be included. The program was finally shifted when I took a more rigid stance and said I wouldn’t be helping the program until it was changed. (Again, a moment where being the person with the know-how meant I got to determine the de facto policy. LOL. Allies and accomplices, take note and learn to leverage that kind of power for equity!).
If you have a parity program, it’s worth noting that if your pay equity program doesn’t include (really, prioritize) trans, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, or Two Spirit individuals, you aren’t doing pay equity at all. You’re building an even more significant gap between transgender and cisgender individuals.
According to the statistics, full-time employed people in the U.S. had weekly median earnings of $1,001 through the third quarter of 2021. All men had weekly median earnings of $1,100; all women had weekly median earnings of $916. Race played a significant factor, of course, with white women receiving $929; Black women receiving $783; Hispanic or Latiné women receiving $723; and as usual, Indigenous people weren’t considered in this fact-finding. Trans men had weekly median earnings of $700; nonbinary, gender non-conforming, and Two Spirit individuals received $698; and trans women received $600. Race was not considered in this fact-finding.
With these stats readily available, showing the incredible disparity based on gender identity and race, there’s no excuse to have a pay equity program that focuses solely on cisgender women (and especially white cisgender women). Please use this information to pivot your pay equity programs to include other marginalized genders.
- Make Pride an event that materially improves the lives of LGBTIQA2+ people again — For those working at organizations that put on Pride events or those that have the ear of organizations that do, I implore you to ask them to make their events improve the lives of LGBTIQA2+ people again. As we’ve seen with articles in The Hub around sponsorship, we need to revisit sponsorship and what it means to make it more community-oriented.
In years when Target, Anheuser-Busch, and Starbucks (they have at least one incident every year, don’t they?) walk back allyship, give unprecedented amounts of money to anti-LGBTIQA2+ lawmakers, or use transgender healthcare benefits “as a cudgel against unionization” respectively, the community impacted shouldn’t have to watch their rainbow-washing float in the parade.
Maybe the new standard is that these sponsors are mentioned, but they don’t get a spot in the parade or a tent in the park. Perhaps the parade should be full of useful resources for the queer community instead — companies and organizations typically priced out of sponsorship because the minimum sponsorship level favors those with wealth. Maybe the corporate sponsors can sponsor those slots instead. Maybe for slots that they specifically need work in, as the first step towards repair, and they are only mentioned if they have committed to repair. Example: “And here comes the RodeoH float. RodeoH offers a gender-neutral, size-inclusive range of comfortable and stylish underwear (including packing underwear), apparel, harnesses, and more. Learn more at Rodeoh.com. This year’s RodeoH float is sponsored by Target as a first step towards repair for removing their Pride collection this year. They have committed to [input changed behavior].”
I don’t know what your local solution might be. I just know that queer and trans health resources, trans-affirming therapists and healthcare professionals, queer-owned local companies, and on-the-ground community-based nonprofits materially helping the community would be better to see in the parade and vendor booth area each year. I can envision announcers sharing the names of these local community-based companies and organizations and their work. I can imagine myself taking notes and following up once Pride is over. I can envision Pride as a helpful resource connecting people and building community.
How cool would it be if instead of exclusively having your top beer sponsor’s products at Pride (especially if it’s rainbow-washing Anheuser-Busch), there were also local queer-owned microbrews available at Pride? In Denver, this could look like having Lady Justice Brewing, Fiction Beer Company, Goldspot Brewing Company, and I’m sure many other queer-owned breweries I’m currently unaware of. It would keep the money in the family and let folks know that queer-owned microbrews are available in town.
How cool would it be if Denver Pride had a tent for gender-affirming services, complete with hair stylists from Let Em Have It Salon and Above Ground Denver (the two gender-neutral and affirming hair salons I’m aware of) giving quick cuts and fades? And my trans massage therapist (and any others) working in it? Not only would it set those businesses that are actually queer-owned up for life, but it might also take the fear and stress out of trying to find a trans-affirming hairstylist or massage therapist on your own (Which, in my experience, has been an exercise in weathering micro- and macro-aggressions. If you’re in Denver, the Inclusive Guide can help you find places you’ll be safe, welcomed, and celebrated!).
Instead, we are bombarded with miles of corporations in their rainbowfied tee shirts handing out cards about their Pride specials to get their slice of the $900 billion annual spending dollars when they don’t materially do anything (or worse, actively working against our liberation), for the rest of the year.
And I, for one, am tired of waiting for our liberation.
Just to kick a dead rainbow-emblazoned corporate logo, I wanted to share that in 2019, I walked around to the vendors at Denver Pride. I asked them two questions; if they 1. were queer-owned, 2. if not, donated a portion of the proceeds to queer nonprofits or community mutual aid asks. That year, I had decided to only purchase from vendor booths that did one or the other. Despite the plethora of stalls present, I walked away from the event with a handful of Dylan Edwards zines and nothing else.
This is not how we reach our liberation.
So, before you allow your organization to rainbowfy its logo and social media banners in a show of faux support, please sit with decision-makers and decide if you can genuinely articulate anything your organization is materially doing to improve the conditions of LGBTIQA2+ folks inside or outside of it. If you can’t communicate meaningful measures with actual outcomes, consider asking your organization to hold off and work on some of these steps instead.
We don’t need and will never again need “tolerance” or “trans people exist.” We need organizations and corporations to be true allies and accomplices to the community while we weather these unprecedented attacks on our humanity. We need organizations and corporations that will fight for our rights and stand in the way of bigotry that comes from that stance so that we can continue to survive and eventually get to that thriving bit.
Want more on this topic? Check out Carlos García León’s essay “Take your Pride month and shove it.”
Chris Talbot-Heindl (they/them) is a queer, trans nonbinary, triracial artist and nonprofit employee. When they aren’t working the day job, they spend their free time editing art and literature magazines, writing and illustrating educomics to help folks affirm their nonbinary pals, creating a graphic novel to describe what it’s like to be nonbinary in a gender binary world, cuddling their cat, and quad skating in the park. You can find Chris at talbot-heindl.com, on LinkedIn, and Twitter — and tip them on Venmo or PayPal or join as a patron on their Patreon.