It’s a story you likely know already. On a hot night in 1969, during the early hours of the 28th of June, New York’s queer community violently resisted a raid of mafia-owned gay bar the Stonewall Inn. A quickly-growing crowd responded to police brutality by hurling makeshift missiles – bottles, coins, stilettos – at officers trying to bundle patrons into police cars. The event sparked six days of riots, laying the foundations of a global gay liberation movement. And exactly one year later, activists commemorated the riots by marching across New York with placards and gigantic rainbow flags, creating the world’s first Pride parade.
Fast-forward to now, and you’d be hard-pressed to glean this radical history from what mainstream parades across the globe can look like. In London, hundreds of thousands of attendees help Pride resemble a kind of mega-rainbow carnival each year. Logos of corporate sponsors dominate floats (Facebook! Amazon! Barclays!), while brands piggyback onto the buildup by releasing elaborate Pride-themed products in the weeks beforehand. Some might view this widespread commercialisation as an example of just how much mainstream (read: hetero) society has come to accept LGBTQ+ communities since those riots. But for others, it can leave more than a weird taste. Either way, the question remains: who exactly is benefitting who?
The “progressive” values of Pride’s corporate sponsors often fold under scrutiny. Last year for example, Virgin was accused of sexism for excluding drag queen Lacey Lou from its Pride campaign. Budweiser, who sponsored last year’s NYC Pride and is sponsoring this year’s London event, was slammed for funding the World Cup in Russia, known for its state-sanctioned homophobia. Until recently, Facebook, who is sponsoring this year’s London event, upheld a “real name” policy, criticised for how it might affect trans users. Even the Home Office jumped on the bandwagon, slapping a rainbow over its logo while threatening to deport migrants back to countries whose laws put their lives at severe risk.
Finding ethical sponsors presents a challenge for Pride organisers. Brands might wish to outwardly support LGBTQ+ rights, but this doesn’t always mean they live those values. “You have to fully trust these companies and their ethics,” says Dan Brown, programmer of Birmingham Pride. “It could turn out that they aren’t genuinely supportive of LGBTQ+ rights; that then tarnishes not just the company, but the Prides they’re sponsoring as well.”
But Dan also argues that most Pride events wouldn’t be possible without corporate backing. “Even putting on a parade without council funding can be ridiculously expensive, so sponsorship means that local support groups and NGOs have more chance of raising money,” he explains. According to Dan, running a Pride event can “go into six or seven figures” and “money that comes in from brands can be anything from ten percent, to 30 or 40 percent of the costs of the whole festival.”
When I ask about how much it costs to run Birmingham Pride specifically, Dan won't go into exact numbers, but he does say that it’s “around twenty to thirty percent sponsor lead,” adding that “Pride wouldn't be what it is today without sponsors. The figures don't lie. Brighton raised around a £250,000 for charities last year.”
Amelia Abraham, whose recent book Queer Intentions tackles many of these subjects, agrees that overt brand sponsorship can dilute the politicised roots of Pride. “If we look at Pride in London, it feels all about marketing and brands,” she says over phone. “That makes me feel uncomfortable on an emotional level, like it muddies the message of Pride by focussing on corporations, rather than the community.”
But she also thinks it’s reductive to dismiss commercialisation entirely. When we interviewed her earlier this year, she pointed out that “People never consider the other side, which is: maybe Pride could improve brands?” When I ask about the ways in which companies could offer tangible support, she puts it like this: “The common suggestions are put your money where your mouth is, hire LGBTQ+ staff and do something all year round. I agree with that, but I would add: think how to support Pride in places that really need it.”
We tend to ignore these conversations. Just last weekend, the first Tbilisi Pride was postponed indefinitely after violent protests erupted. Ukraine’s Kyiv Pride luckily passed without major hitches (apart from small-scale clashes between police and homophobic protestors), but Conrad Breyer – a spokesperson for official partner Munich Kyiv Queer, which connects activists between the two cities – underlines the importance of taking this context into account.
“In Western Europe it’s not enough for companies to put a logo on their Facebook account during Pride month,” he writes in an email. “The engagement must be real, and have impact on company policy. But the situation is different in Ukraine, due to higher levels of homophobia and transphobia. When businesses advertise KyivPride even with a small rainbow, it really is a big step – it’s courageous, because it always sparks backlash.”
Luckily, this is where NGOs step in. All Out works with activists in countries which persecute queer people, and in the past they’ve successfully crowdfunded landmark Pride events in countries like Uganda and Swaziland. “[In these countries], a national Pride event can cost less than one corporate truck at next week’s World Pride in New York,” explains Executive Director Matt Beard. “LGBTQ+ people around the world want to be part of the global Pride movement; they want to bring the same acceptance to their own societies that Pride has enabled in North America and Europe, but they often don’t have the funding to make this happen.”
Although he credits corporate sponsors with standing alongside this global movement “with solidarity, visibility and strength,” Matt also calls on them to help “communities where it’s dangerous to be gay and not easy to be an ally” by redirecting 5 percent of their Pride budget. This, he underlines, is how “corporate allies could make a transformative difference.”
As it stands, these conversations are being glossed over, and frustrations are being misdirected at volunteer organisers as opposed to big businesses. Amelia remembers speaking to an Amsterdam Pride volunteer who received death threats for 'allowing' the event's corporatisation. “These are usually unpaid queer people just trying to do the best job they can and raise as much money for good causes as possible. We need to be critical of Pride because it is for us, but we can’t be directing that anger at individuals.”
Really, it's important to keep asking for more from big brands, and repeatedly questioning their motives. Brands always have their own interests at heart, but that raises an argument in favour of lobbying them to pump funds into countries whose governments and businesses still refuse to show support for activists.
The collective nostalgia around Pride’s radical, grassroots beginnings remains, though. It just lives on in the growing wave of alternative events (Black Pride, Trans Pride) sparked by communities who continue to fight for the same rights that privileged members of the community take for granted. The same can be said of activists in hostile countries, whose ongoing struggles for visibility often get buried amongst the Western-centric clickbait. Perhaps if we could dig deeper than the usual ‘for and against’ arguments about corporate sponsorship, we could have a genuinely productive conversation about diverting those company’s funds to communities that need them most.