Frank Washkuch
Jun 9, 2022

Brands forge deeper connections with LGBTQ community, while activists hold them to their word

Running a Pride activation but also donating to anti-LGBTQ politicians? Activists are making sure brands can’t have it both ways.

Retailer Macy's has been a longtime supporter of Pride.
Retailer Macy's has been a longtime supporter of Pride.

The LGBTQ community and its allies could have been forgiven for taking a victory lap seven years ago this month when the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage, making marriage equality the law of the land. 

Far from it. That milestone may feel like it happened ages ago to many advocates, who are celebrating Pride this month amid piqued hostility from conspiracy theorists, governors and legislators and an army of trolls both online and in-person. The LGBTQ community is getting more support from brands, while holding corporations to their word.

Amid this contentious environment, advocates see more thoughtful and connected allyship from brands, which they say are moving beyond “rainbow washing” or just buying sponsorship of a Pride parade float to forming genuine partnerships with the LGBT community. There’s also a growing burden of responsibility for brands to be authentic if they support Pride, with LGBTQ advocates and organizations ready to call them out for support of politicians with contrary views.

Longtime LGBTQ rights activist and communications leader Cathy Renna is noticing the annual “rainbow tsunami” of social media posts as Pride 2022 kicks off with celebrations and advocacy across the country. What she’s also seeing is more year-long support from brands and what she calls “deliberative and substantive” discussions with companies. 

“What I am seeing that is a big difference is more substantive support for organizations: [donation] numbers that have six figures in them and not five and more visible support and more conversations,” says Renna, the principal of Targetcue, an LGBTQ-focused PR firm.

Michael Kaye, associate director of communications for North America, Europe and the Middle East at OKCupid, concurs that brands’ Pride efforts are trending toward more in-depth and less preformative. 

“It’s become a little bit less superficial, a little bit more into moving away from ‘rainbow washing,’ which is what we’ve seen from corporate America, and changing logos and calling it a day,” he says. “We’re seeing brands start to partner with actual experts on the ground who are doing the work and fighting for the equality movement.” 

OKCupid has partnered with equality-focused organizations Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD, and Kaye has also noticed other companies and organizations working with those groups, as well as the Trevor Project, which is focused on suicide-preventiion services for members of the LGBTQ community.

On its own platform, OKCupid was a pioneer in allowing users to post their pronouns prominently and express their gender and orientation options in dozens of ways. More recently, the company added in-app compatibility questions to help users determine if a possible match supports the LGBTQ community.

Allyship is a major opportunity for brands, notes Kevin Wong, VP of communications at the Trevor Project, who cites the organization's national survey of more than 40,000 LGBTQ youth. Its research found that more than half of respondents say brands that support the LGBTQ community positively affect how they feel about being LGBTQ. He also recommends that brands champion helpful behavior, such as being welcoming and kind to LGBTQ youths’ friends and partners; talking with them about their identity and supporting youths’ gender expression. 

Macy’s is a longtime partner of the nonprofit, recently working together on the Styles of Pride initiative, which encourages LGBTQ youth to proudly express themselves through fashion and other methods.

Where are brands missing the mark in connecting with the LGBTQ community? For one, LGBTQ consumers know which companies have been supportive long-term and which have not, yet brands often mistake a quick-hit sponsorship or new partnership for allyship. 

“There have been so many marketers and comms people who have seen some missteps. The reason why is they want to be intentional; they want their brands to succeed and connect with communities and resonate,” says Wong. “I think they have heard our message. If you want to market one month out of the year, that’s not allyship, and brands are coming around to that.”

Brands could also support the LGBTQ community by not only sharing news of their external partnerships, but what they are doing internally for their own employees, notes Kaye. 

“Campaigns are great for visibility, and as someone who identifies as gay, it does mean a lot to see companies supporting the community, but I also want to know what brands and corporations are doing internally,” Kaye says. 

Renna also notes more local businesses getting involved in municipal Pride events. And while Pride-themed merchandise is easy to find, such as “My First Pride” onesies at retailers such as Target, Renna is also noticing more brands on shelves with deeper connections to the LGBTQ community. Case in point: the emergence of merchandise from brands such as gender- and size-inclusive activewear brand Tomboyx and The Phluid Project by designer and futurist Rob Smith at mainstream clothing retailers.

The greater availability of LGBTQ-friendly products reflects more accepting attitudes by the broader public toward marriage equality. In research published this week, the Gallup Poll found that 71% of people approve of marriage equality, up more than 10 points from when same-sex marriage was legalized nationally in 2015. 

Yet that support is far from universal. While Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law has taken up the lion’s share of oxygen in terms of the restriction of LGBTQ- or gender-themed discussion in schools, more than a dozen states have proposed similar measures this year. More than 100 legislative actions nationwide have also been proposed that would limit the rights of transgender individuals. Trolling and abuse of LGBTQ social media users, their allies and often anyone who opposes anti-LGBTQ legislagtion has also surged, as have in-person confrontations, with school board meetings occasionally becoming especially argumentative

In this environment, advocates are ensuring that brands are staying true to their support. Organizations that support the LGBTQ community are going well beyond just checking a company’s score in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which ranks policies and practices pertinent to LGBTQ employees. Advocates are also combing through companies’ political donation records, ensuring they are not trying to stealthily support both sides.

“We’re sitting down and having conversations about donating to anti-LGBTQ politicians. Even if it’s for other reasons, it’s still not ok, and we will have conversations with these folks about the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law or another state bill that would, for instance, deny children gender-affirming healthcare,” says Renna. “It’s no exaggeration to say this is a full-scale emergency in terms of the level of attack.”


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