A Celebration or a Marketplace? LGBT Events Mirror Movement’s Growing Pains

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The LGBT movement has always had its roots in progressive politics, sprouting up among the women’s, environmental and civil rights movements. As LGBT equality has slowly and steadily become a reality and acceptance at many levels of society continues to grow, the character of the movement has changed. A corporate and assimilationist tone has been set. Those changes are reflected in the Twin Cities Pride festival and parade, and it has drawn the criticism of many who are active in the progressive causes.

Complaints about the corporatization of pride events are numerous. Lydia Howell examines the corporate takeover of Twin Cities Pride and Juneteenth in the Pulse:

“I’ve begun to wonder if the ‘corporate sponsors’ of Juneteenth and Gay Pride have veto power over how much politics is allowed to be expressed. African-Americans and GLBT people still struggle for basic respect, equal treatment under the law and human rights. Both communities encompass many elements and have produced so much of what is thought of as ‘American culture.’

“Juneteenth and Gay Pride used to be grassroots events, which communicated both celebration and solidarity. We are so much more than consumer markets to be colonized by Big Corporations.”

Phil Willkie at the Pulse echoed Howell’s sentiments:

“What bothers me most about Gay Pride Festivals is that they have become capitalist marketplaces. Twin Cities Pride in Loring Park is no exception, selling Saturn cars with rainbow stripes. It’s no longer a movement, it is a marketplace. I guess it is no surprise that the Queers wanted to cash in like everyone else. As they say, America has the best democracy money can buy.”

Big business knows it pays to advertise, to hire a diverse work force and to build customer loyalty early among niche markets. LGBT people are fiercely loyal to businesses and brands that support full equality and hold a grudge against those who work against us. For example, gay bars, the traditional community space for LGBT people, have long boycotted Coors products because of Coors family support for anti-LGBT initiatives. A patron in a gay bar would find it difficult to purchase a Coors in most areas of the country, despite that company’s increasingly aggressive marketing to LGBT people. (Coors still supports anti-LGBT initiatives.) Many LGBT people choose Target over Wal-Mart. Target’s historical support for LGBT equality stands in stark contrast to Wal-Mart’s policies. Recently, Wal-Mart has begun courting the LGBT market. realizing that embracing all segments of America is good for business.

Each year, more and more corporations offer benefits, offer LGBT employee groups and enact LGBT supportive policies. A large number of Fortune 500 companies provide LGBT employees benefits that far outweigh what their own government would offer them.

These corporations have a large presence at pride events, and they deserve that attention. But how much marketing is too much? Howell and Willkie have a point. Surely there can be a balance struck.

Another part of the LGBT movement that has drawn criticism: same-sex marriage. Twin Cities Pride has shifted focus over the years. The celebration used to be about making a bold statement about being a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individual at a time when that statement was radical. Today the festival is about equality (this year’s theme was “Evolution of Equality”). The parade and the festival provided numerous activities for children and an intentional “family-friendly” atmosphere. The issues most discussed were same-sex marriage, and the Saturday activities were capped off with a mass commitment ceremony, where couples who cannot marry commit themselves to each other.

Most in the community support a push for relationship equality, but some complain that the emphasis is out of proportion to other issues that need attention. One group that challenged hegemony of same-sex marriage in LGBT politics at the Pride festival was the Revolting Queers. A young group of LGBT activists, they held a mock same-sex wedding in the parade. Following the wedding was a funeral procession of coffins, each labeled with issues that are largely forgotten in the heated debate over same-sex marriage. Health care, racism, feminism and homeless LGBT youth are some of the issues that the Revolting Queers say get overlooked as resources are diverted to the same-sex marriage debate.

While Twin Cities Pride has become corporate and family-oriented, we should view these as growing pains. They represent successes and very real changes in people’s lives. There is no longer the threat of arrest for being a homosexual or being fired if an employer gets word of someone’s sexual orientation. These changes reflect the growing equality for LGBT people in Minnesota. As we gather to reflect next year, our community leaders should find a way to balance the issues and needs of the community and to spotlight our corporate supporters without detracting from the grass-roots movement that got us where we are today.