By the time I was twenty-five in the summer of 2012, I was certainly a certified radical queer; I had been a veteran of many picket lines both in my hometown of Indianapolis and in Terre Haute where I went to school, I had seen my name splashed across local newspaper headlines and even racked up a few appearances on the evening news for my activism. Pride was something I believed in heart and soul, a high-octane rock n roll sort of pride, the kind of pride that drives a person to say “Enough!” and take to the streets. But despite all my experiences up to that point, I had never made it out to a Pride Festival.
In June of that year, I finally made the pilgrimage to the Pride Festivities in Indianapolis. I hadn’t been able to do it before due to my job as a camp counselor, being at camp during June and all. But that job was over after nine years, so I could finally go. I put on my black beret with all my street buttons and ribbons on it, wrapped my Colors around me and headed downtown.
I didn’t quite know what to expect, I think I was looking for an oasis, a home in a sense if you can dig that. I figured I’d run into other like-minded young radicals and maybe even score a new gig or two. I had been out of street activism for several months and was looking for some action.
Well sadly, I didn’t see any of that. Instead I saw tents and booths hawking cheap merchandise emblazoned with rainbow colors. The closest thing to any activism I saw was the booth of the HRC (Human Rights Campaign). I saw cut lean pretty boys strutting around shirtless, teasing the crowds in hopes of scoring at least a free drink. I saw corporate feces being smeared with our rainbow colors, like a bank or a beer brewery was really gonna be on our side just because they decided to hoist our Colors for the day.
This was Pride, this was our celebration of the Stonewall Riots, our time to embrace each other and keep up the fight. Instead it seemed we had allowed our forefathers (and mothers) vision to be turned into a den of corporate thieves and there was no Christ to drive them away from our temple.
It was a revelatory experience for me, no doubt. But maybe not in the way I had planned. I went in expecting to find like-minded activists; instead I left the events feeling isolated, too heavy and crazy for even my own community. Later that night I went to Rocky Horror and found a haven of radical queers, activists, and just plain weirdos.
This isn’t just a question of advertisers taking over my hometown’s Pride festivities; this is a national campaign of injecting corporate smack into our celebrations.
Consider Oreos campaign in 2012, in “honor” of Pride month; the famous cookie posted a picture to their Facebook page consisting of a big Oreo with six layers of cream, each a different color, forming the famous Rainbow Flag. The text simply read “June 25 Pride”. A Kraft foods spokesperson was quoted in the Huffington Post in regards to the ad campaign saying “As a company, Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness.”
Or Burger King, in 2014, the fast food chain unveiled a special Whopper available only at their San Francisco locations. It was wrapped in Pride colored wax paper. Customers were initially baffled, wondering what the Pride Whopper had on it. Turns out it was just a regular Whopper, a reflection of the company’s then current marketing campaign “Be Your Way”. A senior vice president of marketing told TIME magazine “We felt that [the Proud Whopper] could bring to life a message of equality, self-expression, authenticity and just being who you are.”
While the Pride Whopper was released only during Pride Week and only in San Francisco, images of the burger’s wrapper quickly spread to social media, attracting many reposts and calls of support, claiming that the burger chain was on our side.
Of course, both companies marketing campaigns also attracted a small amount of protest, with many taking offense and claiming that both companies had “abandoned moral values”. Needless to say, there were also calls for boycotts which promptly went nowhere and were ignored. I’m still not sure what moral values these people had attached to their burgers and cookies, but apparently those values had been violated.
These ad campaigns and the prevalence of big corporate advertising in our Pride Festivities mark a strange watershed in our movement. Companies don’t generally like to gamble with their advertising and pissing off a large potential customer base definitely constitutes a gamble. Think about it, would Burger King or Oreo have run such a campaign say ten years ago when the culture wars were reaching their zenith? I doubt it, back in 2004 we were still a viable threat and the conservatives were exploiting people’s fear of us for all the votes they could get (the conservatives were ultimately successful in that campaign, Bush got another term and many states outlawed marriage equality in their state constitutions).
We have struggled for over forty years to be accepted into mainstream America and being a target audience for major corporations counts as a form of acceptance, what’s more American than consumerism? But is this the sort of acceptance we want? Have we wadded through rivers of spilled blood and hail storms of nightsticks and fists just to become corporate mascots of consumerism?
That’s a question we have to ask ourselves at this crossroads and for me personally, it’s not the sort of acceptance I want. I’m not fighting like hell just so that in five or ten years I can see stores offering big sales on Harvey Milk Day. In a capitalist society, one of the tools at the disposal of any activist is the power of the dollar and I say we use that power. We use that power to tell these big corporations to back off. We use that power to tell them that if they really support us then they will cease splattering their corporate vomitus all over our parties and they will cease zeroing in on us merely to line their pockets with our dollars.
Pride Festivals were born out of a sense of community, a chance for us to proclaim to the world that we are here, we are mighty, and we ain’t going anywhere. Corporate advertising has no place in our parades, we are a family, a network forged in the struggle for liberty and justice, and we don’t need our parties to have banners proclaiming “Welcome to Pride! Sponsored by the Big Corporation”.