Can a Pride Be Proud with Unethical Corporate Sponsorship?

An increasing bevy of activists say they can't—a conflict that's redefining the battleground of LGBTQ rights.

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Jun 23 2017, 10:06pm

No Justice, No Pride protestors at DC's Capital Pride. Photo via Flickr user kellybdc

The year 2002 marked the first time the Human Rights Campaign released their Corporate Equality Index, an annual ranking of the LGBTQ-friendliness of companies based on their non-discrimination policies and philanthropy. Back then, Lockheed Martin, the aerospace and defense juggernaut, tied for last, with a score of zero, alongside two other companies. Today, things have changed: Lockheed has its own page on Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project and is an outsized presence at DC's Capital Pride. In this year's Index, the company nabbed a perfect score—its ninth in a row.

Whether that represents progress or not, however, depends on who you ask. Protesters from "No Justice, No Pride" certainly weren't interested in the company's transformation when they formed a human chain around Lockheed Martin's float at Capital Pride last Thursday, bringing the parade to a stumbling halt.

Activists are increasingly suspect of what they see as unethical brands latching on to pride celebrations to boost their own public images. In Pittsburgh, outcry erupted earlier this month when it was announced that the city's Pride would henceforth be named "The EQT Equality March," after a fracking company called "Equitable Gas." To add insult to injury, not only had Equity Gas been fined $4.5 million by environmental regulators in 2014 for polluting streams and rivers, the company had donated to the state's anti-gay Republican representative. Hitching a ride on a bedazzled rainbow float must've seemed like the perfect PR foil.

Similar accusations of hypocrisy have even reached some of the gay world's most storied institutions. A small controversy emerged among progressive queers this April when it was revealed that ACT UP—one of the most influential HIV/AIDS activist groups in history, which has long taken an anti-Wall Street stance—was accepting money from Credit Suisse, a bank that pled guilty in 2014 to decades of assisting tax evasion.

Bill Dobbs, a longtime gay activist and one of ACT-UP's founding members, supports the rising backlash against the gay establishment for its tone-deaf alliances. "You can't get economic justice with [LGBTQ equality organization] Human Rights Campaign in bed with corporate America," he said. Because companies only have the vague aim of "diversity," he said, "our movement is no threat whatsoever unless we start realizing these corporations are running a lot of people into the ground."

About 380 corporations urged the Supreme Court to support gay marriage in 2015, including many of the biggest players in tech, finance and, yes, "global security," but Dobbs and other activists regret that marriage equality replaced other, less easily marketable issues that the gay liberation movement once championed, like anti-racism and anti-capitalism.

"The short, elegant word 'equality' has caused endless destruction," said Dobbs. "Equality is just another way of saying 'more of the status quo.' Now that marriage has been installed, many major [LGBTQ rights] organizations are flying paper airplanes in their office because they're not sure what to do."

Corporations, for their part, have long tried to pose as being down with the gays, but some flee at the faintest whiff of politics. When LA Pride rebranded as an anti-Trump march this year, longtime supporters like Wells Fargo, Vegas.com, Bud Light, and Skyy Vodka (which describes itself as being "steeped with the progressive spirit of California") pulled out. "We didn't want to lose focus on what pride is all about," Paul Gomez, Wells Fargo's California media representative, told me for an article for FourTwoNine. The #ResistMarch turned to donations from the community instead. "It wasn't sponsored by Target, it was sponsored by the people, and that's really what Pride is all about," said John Erickson, one of the organizers of the event.

Some wish companies would sashay away from Pride altogether. In 1998, for example, the "Gay Shame" movement called for the de-commercialization of pride while also advocating for an end to queer assimilation and the "abolishment of State-sanctioned coupling—in either hetero or homo incarnations." In lieu of pride, the movement organized a "Goth Cry-In" in 2010, for "basking in our sadness around the current state of LGBT politics and the horrors of the larger world."

A representative from the group said in a 2013 interview with San Francisco's Mission Local that "the current state of LGBT politics is a scramble for straight privilege" and "things like health care... should be available to us all...[but] a queer identity is about challenging institutions of domination, like marriage and the military, not becoming part of them."

Today, groups like No Justice, No Pride are focused on how the current gay movement obscures the needs of minorities—black, brown, trans, and undocumented—within the community, and they say they aren't giving up until major institutions are radically revamped.

"We were told, 'Let's focus on marriage and then we'll get to these other issues,'" said Angela Peoples, one of the organizers of No Justice, No Pride. "Now we see lots of brands have made a calculated decision to align themselves with our cause. But what are we fighting for when we say we want LGBT rights and inclusion? Are we including black trans women who've been to prison or an undocumented queer Muslim man who's being profiled by the police?"

Peoples was on the front lines of the No Justice, No Pride demonstration at Capital Pride. She said she was shoved and saw others get hit by gum, lemons and other objects by spectators, who had anticipated their demonstration. "But for every one or two people that were violent, there were three or four that started chanting along with us and cheering for us," she said.

Her hope is that celebrations like Capital Pride might amend their vetting process in the future, so that military-industrial sponsors like Lockheed Martin, as well as Wells Fargo—one of the banks that has provided loans for the Dakota Access pipeline—aren't included.

Bernie Davis, the president of Capital Pride, said the organization hasn't met yet to decide how they will screen future sponsors. He said he was "disappointed" when No Justice, No Pride attempted to block the parade. By the time the committee had discussions with the activists, he said, Capital Pride had already made a commitment to its sponsors. "Contracts had already been signed and things were underway," he said.

He added that 80 percent of those who registered to participate in the parade were community organizations, not corporations. When asked about Wells Fargo's participation, he said the company had apologized for opening fake bank accounts in a bid to boost performance metrics, and praised the American corporate world for recently stepping up to the bat to defend LGBTQ rights without much prompting—like when companies threatened to pull out of North Carolina over the state's proposed bathroom bill.

However, many activists see a distinction between standing up for gay rights and being an ethical corporation. "It's not just about who is let into these institutions; it's about what these institutions do," Dobbs said.

Follow Steven Blum on Twitter.

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