Selling out: Pride festival corporate involvement spurs criticism


Does a deal on aluminum siding advance the cause of equality? It’s a fair question given the vast amount of corporate marketing present at Twin Cities Pride last weekend. As LGBT people and their friends and family gathered to celebrate community and identity, many event-goers are left wondering when that celebration stopped being about queer rights and became a mass marketing event for the Fortune 500.

Perusing the tents at the festival can be a dizzying experience. An aluminum siding vendor handed out magnets, a bank raffled off a flat-screen television, and virtually every business wanted people to put their festival bric-a-brac in their logo-emblazoned bags.

The list of vendors for this year’s event looked more like a shopping mall kiosk than a celebration of diversity. Best Buy, REI, Barnes and Nobles, Wells Fargo, Target, Walgreen’s and CVS Pharmacy were just a few of the scores of businesses marketing to the masses. Indeed, large corporations provide a great deal of equality for LGBT people in terms of employee accommodations, relationship recognition through benefits and corporate donations to LGBT charities — more so than our own government and many other sectors of society. But is so much corporate support a good thing?

“The sense of community can sometimes get lost in the midst of advertisements and marketing,” said Katy Samuelson, a straight ally with gay family members. She’s been going to the festival for 10 years. As for the equality and visibility purpose of Pride, “There’s still a very long way to go,” said Samuelson. “In my opinion, if the festival is getting ‘too corporate,’ it only means that it’s getting more attention, and that cannot be a bad thing here. So, I put up with those Wells Fargo and Target signs and rock on!”

But the community can’t let that attention lose the focus of the event — that a group of New York City queers fought against police harassment at a time when gathering with other queer people was a crime. A single uprising at a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in 1969 sparked a movement that has seen tremendous success in gaining basic human rights as well as the attention of big business.

“The only way Pride can lose its soul to corporate interests is if all of us forget our movement’s very humble beginnings,” said Del Jenkins, president of the Stonewall DFL, a LGBT equality group affiliated with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. “We should not forget how far we’ve come or push away the allies we’ve picked up along the way.” Those allies — big business — are important. “All of these friends to our LGBT community will be crucial to taking us the rest of the way to finding that end of that rainbow we’ve been singing about for almost 40 years,” he said.

And members of the community aren’t letting corporations off the hook in exchange for support. A contingent in the Ashley Rukes Pride Parade on Sunday, called the Revolting Queers, issued a sharp critique of the corporations sponsoring the weekend’s festivities.

The group’s demonstration, dubbed “Airing out the dirty laundry,” called attention to the seedier side of corporate culture — and called for the community to respond. In an email statement to the Minnesota Independent, the group said that the practice of “buying rights” is having a negative impact. “A modern trend in the LGBT movement is to use the market to try to access rights,” the email read. “It is somehow imagined that gays will use purchasing power to shape the cultural and political landscape. In reality, the only outcome is a newly formed consumerist gay identity.”

The group set out to “expose the hypocrisies of so-called ‘gay friendly’ politicians, organizations, and sell-outs like the Human Rights Campaign.” HRC has been a major player in promoting equality in corporate culture as well as promoting LGBT friendly employers.

Dozens of marchers wore dirty underwear while carrying signs criticizing the business practices of various corporations. For example, the group accused Wells Fargo of predatory lending targeting people of color in a handout along the parade route. “The queer community should acknowledge the important roles that poor queers and people of color have played in the gay rights movement,” the flier read.

The mission of the Pride festival and surrounding events “is to commemorate our diverse heritage, inspire the achievement of equality and challenge discrimination.” While many argue that a heavy corporate involvement is crucial to the success of that mission, others will continue to struggle against that notion.

One thing is clear, however. With well over 300,000 attendees each year, big business will always find a way to market at Pride — promoting equality has proven to be good for the bottom line.