Jessica Heygate
Mar 20, 2024

Why LGBTQ+ programming dwindled at SXSW this year

Discussions about transgender inclusiveness disappeared at the Texas-based festival as programming avoided wading too deeply into the most hot-button issues facing the LGBTQ+ community.

Why LGBTQ+ programming dwindled at SXSW this year

South by Southwest programming this year reflected a nationwide regression in support for the LGBTQ+ community—especially trans rights—amid a fraught political environment.

LGBTQ+-specific panels and sessions at the nine-day festival dropped by a third this year compared to 2023, from 20 to 13, according to analysis by Do the WeRQ, a nonprofit aiming to increase queer representation in marketing and advertising. This was the first year SXSW collated LGBTQ+ programming in one hub.

Programming at SXSW is mostly dictated by audiences, who vote for sessions they find most alluring using the festival’s PanelPicker platform.

The type of LGBTQ+ topics covered also shifted, with far fewer discussions about transgender rights beyond a session exploring how journalists can report on anti-trans violence.

“Last year, we had a number of panels around trans identity, trans experience, how we can make trans-inclusive workplaces,” says Deleyla Glass, digital media director at GSD&M. “Now we’re not seeing any of those types of sessions.”

Trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney took the stage to address falling support for the community in a broad panel about the role of brands and media in fighting hate, without ever mentioning Bud Light by name.

The backlash that ensued following Mulvaney’s partnership with Bud Light last year highlighted escalating antagonism towards the trans community in the U.S. and caused many brands to retreat from public LGBTQ+ support and avoid Pride in 2023.

Kate Wolff, co-founder of Do the WeRQ and founder and CEO of Lupine Creative, says Bud Light’s behavior “created insecurities among everybody else.”

“[That insecurity] is permeating through everything, not just SXSW programming, but in general how people are approaching Pride in June,” she said.

Trans rights have become a fixation of the Republican Party in the run up to the presidential election. Texas has been the most active state in the anti-trans movement, last year passing a bill, SB14, that prohibits trans Texans under the age of 18 from accessing transition-related medical treatments including puberty blockers, hormone therapies and surgeries.

SXSW’s roots in Texas presented an opportunity to confront shrinking LGBTQ+ rights in the state head-on, as sessions discussing abortion rights did. Instead, these issues stayed at the fringes, “creeping into the edges of conversations,” says Graham Nolan, an Austin-based freelance PR and communications consultant and co-founder of Do the WeRQ.

He says people living in Austin “feel safety in the bubble” of the liberal enclave and don’t have enough discourse about the laws of the state. 

Texas’ anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ laws are impacting business’ ability to retain and attract top talent in the state, according to Keisha Townsend Taitt, chief inclusion officer of Austin-headquartered agency GSD&M.

“It’s come up with our current employees, and it comes up during our recruitment process,” she says. “People who feel like they have less rights in certain communities or areas are less likely to take a position.”

GSD&M’s Glass has personally experienced this growing animosity towards the trans community in Texas as the parent to a transgender son. Now more than ever, she says the community needs a voice and support from corporations.

“There’s a number of things that are happening in the political space that’s making it so that people are taking a step back a little bit, but obviously, that’s when we would want them to actually lean in a lot more,” she says.

“I want to see brands who are willing to feature families that look like mine: Same-sex parents with transgender kids who are happy, who are thriving, who are excited about life, who have futures and plans,” she adds.

Brands may find it easier to support the LGBTQ+ community when it is not under attack, but that kind of thinking misses the point of being a true advocate, says Wolff.

“Our community is hurting right now. This is a time where we’re actually in need—not when we're trending, not when we’re fun, not when we’re being celebrated,” she says. “We need brands to show up and hold the line with us. We stand on that line every day.”

Most Americans think businesses should wield their power to enforce positive change in society— however, many have lost the appetite for businesses wading into political waters. According to a 2023 study by Bentley University and Gallup, only 41% of respondents said they believe brands should take a public stance on current events, down from 48% in 2022. But the results vary widely along party lines. Most Democrats (62%) said they were in favor of businesses taking a stance, compared with just 17% of Republicans and 36% of independents. 

‘You don’t have to wave a red flag in front of a bull’

Ad execs expect brands to remain quiet about the LGBTQ+ community this year, with all signs pointing to another “bleak Pride,” as Mulvaney described the 2023 event during her panel session.

Wolff said her agency, which has built a reputation around creating LGBTQ+-focused activations for companies like streaming platform Max, continues to contend with a decline in work due to brands “being more insecure.” She said Lupine received half as many RFPs for Pride last year than in years’ past.

“In this moment, they’re thinking it’s not worth it to be loud,” she says. “They can be quiet and support or do nothing…until it feels like a safer environment to show up and a more funded environment to show up.”

She describes the current environment as a “really uncomfortable moment in culture and in marketing.”

While public support is quieter, some brands continue their support of the community behind-the-scenes. 

Mastercard’s chief marketing and communications officer Raja Rajamannar says the financial services giant tends not to “beat our chest” but “silently works on what we believe in.” While it has run public campaigns for Pride month, such as 2020’s True Name campaign to promote its self-identifying card initiative, the financial company has also long supported the LGBTQ+ community through grants and product design.

In a “divided world,” Rajamannar says communications strategies “have to be smart.”

“You don’t have to go and wave a red flag in front of a bull if you know that there is a risk,” he says. “You don’t talk about it, but you don't stop doing good things.”

To Wolff, consistent support to the community “is just as powerful as running a Pride campaign—if not more.” Brands fearful of backlash can demonstrate allyship in other ways, she says.

“There is this misconception that doing nothing is the best thing right now,” says Townsend Taitt. “Brands need to understand that there’s risk with being inactive as well as making a statement or taking action.”

“It is not hate that is the main enemy, it is uncertainty in our allies that causes stagnation,” adds Nolan.

The growth of queer storytelling in film and TV

There was a bright spot for the community at SXSW this year, as representation in film jumped considerably. Twenty queer films were screened this year, up from three in 2022. 

The rise of queer storytelling provides an avenue for brands to align with the community without necessarily creating a big splashy campaign, says Glass.

“That’s going to be the way for brands to then find easier ways back in to be able to support us— despite all of the political stuff that’s happening,” she says.

Campaign US reached out to SXSW organisers to understand if the decrease in LGBTQ+ programming at the event reflected fewer panels about the community being submitted or voted for by attendees. The company did not respond by time of publication.


Campaign US

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