HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Rainbow capital & the commodification of Pride


Gilbert Baker worked on the first marijuana legalisation initiative, California Proposition 19, in 1972. Baker was a well-known gay rights activist at the time. He was friends with Harvey Milk, served as a medic to homosexual communities and lived as an openly gay man in San Francisco. During that same year, fellow activist Mary Dunn taught Baker how to sew and six years later, he created the Pride flag. Baker hand-dyed and hand-stitched a flag with eight coloured stripes. Today, it remains a symbol of gay Pride that stands tall as one of the foremost symbols of the LGBTQIA+ movement, globally.

It was Pride Month in New York when I was there recently and I couldn’t turn a corner without coming face to face with Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag. The banner flew high on masts around in the city, in parks, on random street corners, it was printed in large-format vinyl and stuck across mile-long walls of corporates and not by protesters or the LGBTQIA+ community but by the companies themselves.

This year was a particularly significant year for Pride in New York. This year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which took place in 1969 over five nights when the LGBTQIA+ community fought back. The unrest galvanised the rights movement as we know it today. In its honour, Christopher Street Park in the Village, NY, houses the Stonewall Inn Monument and this year, the New York’s LGBT Community Centre created Stonewall Forever, a digital living monument that further expands on a 50-year history and reaches a more global community through a website and augmented reality app. Stonewall Forever tells the story of the people who were involved in and impacted by the Stonewall Riots and the LGBTQ rights movement that followed.

New York marked the event by hosting a series of events and celebrations throughout the month of June, from art installations, parades, concerts and lecture and educational series, and the most significant and standout for me, multiple events for children. The theme was One World, One Pride, One New York City, and by the end of it all, over 5 million people came together in Manhattan alone to attend the culminating Pride weekend towards the end of the month.

Even the banks were involved in the roll-out. And there are lot of banks in NY, which basically meant the whole city turned pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue and violet just by virtue of the financial institutions banking on Pride. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citibank all rolled out individualised marketing strategies and campaigns to show support and, we’re not stupid, capitalise on a community that looks a bit different to the average white heterosexual family with two blue-eyed kids. But even with the obvious profit margin in full glare, I couldn’t help but be moved. “God bless this city,” I thought.

Using protest for profit is old hand. In fact, it’s a bit more than old hand, it’s a dirty capitalistic trick. Advertising has and always will be about human emotion. We buy the things we don’t necessarily need because we love what they stand for, what they mean, and how they make us look. Influencers love it so much in fact that regardless of what their knowledge is on any given protest, on Pride for example, that you will find their avatars washed with rainbow flags because it brings followers to their brand. Pink capitalism extends beyond monopoly capital now, it is also available to individual brands who can profit from just looking a certain way.

And we love it. We love what’s being sold, and mostly, more than a type of bank account or a brand of clothing, it’s an idea that we love. We love the idea that’s being sold, and in NY I fell in love with the sale of Pride. And I found myself thinking, is it really all so bad? Well, yes, right? It is. Because at the end of the marketing rollout, there is an empty support and corporate greed. It’s true. What impact does our spend really have when we purchase the Pride Pack from Adidas, when that’s the same brand that sponsored the World Cup in Russia – a country with heavy anti-LGBTQIA+ laws which make it unsafe for citizens and the athletes themselves.

Does branding really beget change, or is it really all as obvious as it looks? That is: Because the general support for LGBTQIA+ rights grows, the incentive for companies to align themselves with this position grows as well. The commercialisation of Pride serves the system and corporates capitalise on this. We’re not stupid. We know it to be true. I knew it to be true and to be honest, I found myself caring less and less about this truth because the other truth was that: Straight people, cis-gender people, homophobes, bigots, racists… those people buy and bank too and now they have no option but to do those things at institutions that openly abhor everything they believe. It was a beautiful thing.

Yes, it’s true, the commercialisation of Pride makes it easier to support an issue and it makes that issue easier to sell. It means that regular people who are allies or who can pose as allies can walk into a store and buy socks or a scarf or a T-shirt to show visible support without having to do the hard graft in terms of understanding the complicated landscape of issues. A hardcore protester will abhor any brand alignment to the cause because it waters down the fire of Pride’s fiery roots and I get it. In many ways, the commodification of Pride turns the battlefield of protest into a stomping ground for posers.

I’ve seen it happen. I see it on my timeline, I’ve seen it some friendships. You know people like this, I know people like this and we all know it means nothing. But while I watched a performance artist on Union Square dance in protest dressed in a tutu made of that rainbow flag, surrounded by a crowd of people whose hands were calloused from their H&M carrier bags with Pride scrawled across the front, I couldn’t help but think, in that moment, maybe cynical capitalism is a price worth paying?

Nike’s Be True LGBTQIA+ campaign that had just rolled out rang as an obvious answer in my head: “It doesn’t matter what you play. Nobody wins alone”. And it’s true, nobody does. The corporates play capital, the influencers play act, the LGBTQIA+ plays the game of struggle and rights and history, and the supporters support in the best ways they know how, and we all buy. I don’t care who you are, or how anti-capitalism or anti-corporate or pro-socialist or pro-actual-struggle you are, we all buy. There is definitely something very, very wrong with how queerness is capitalised, but there is something to be said for how corporate support makes lives more visible and it’s complex and my reaction is complex, but we have to consider this… we have to consider that if pink capitalism can be used as a tool to expose other communities to ideas of diversity and equality that they may not have even otherwise considered, then perhaps pink capitalism is worth the price.

And so, I did. I took myself off to Nike in Soho and purchased the special edition ‘Be True’ collection Tailwinds featuring Baker’s flag and his signature on the shoes that were originally released the year Baker designed the original flag. And anyone else who copped that merch, as the youth say, will effectively be wearing them in the living rooms and in the restaurants of people who have never heard of Baker or Stonewall or any of that. But if you’ve going to walk to walk, then learn to talk the talk.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.