Rob Csernyik is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
I can’t speak for everyone under the LGBTQ umbrella, but as a gay man I’m not alone in looking with skepticism at the corporate queerwashing that happens each June. In recent years it’s felt especially hollow, as if there was little substance behind the motions. Whereas first-movers - such as Absolut Vodka, with its promotions in gay magazines - stepped out from the crowd, attempts to affiliate with the LGBTQ market through Pride are now common. Government organizations, financial institutions, multinational retailers and tech giants are among those taking part each year. This shift hasn’t had a dramatic effect on the lives of community members -- it instead has turned Pride into a buzzword-laden marketing gimmick with all the soul of a back-to-school sale.
But because of a fraught political and social climate in North America regarding LGBTQ issues, this Pride month strikes a different note than previous ones. With it comes a new opportunity for allyship, if companies are brave enough. It’s not that there hasn’t been backlash before, but now it’s at a fever pitch.
A non-exhaustive list of current challenges encompasses everything from regional prohibitions on gender-affirming care, protests over teaching about sexuality and gender identity issues through drag shows, and banning LGBTQ-related books in libraries and schools. The culmination of all this leads to a greater need for allyship and support than there has been in the past. Yet some corporate sponsors, amid vocal pushback from critics, aren’t using the opportunity to stand with the community. Instead, they are standing down and, ironically, going back in the closet.
Consider the case of Bud Light. After an April, 2023, promotion with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney attracted backlash and boycotts, the company cowed. Previously known for supporting Pride, it shook up its marketing team, promised to double down on sports and music, and wiped away nearly three decades of goodwill it had earned with previous LGBTQ promotions.
On the heels of this, Target reported customer threats related to its sale of Pride merchandise that it said affected the safety and well-being of its employees. On May 24, it announced it would make “adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the centre of the most significant confrontational behavior.”
Stock prices for both companies have declined since the respective incidents.
Even though Pride month has just started, marketing experts and advocacy groups have told media they expect dramatic pushback this Pride season.
The business world frequently discounts the role of LGBTQ spending in favour of spending by other consumer groups, amid fears of dollars lost to boycotts and brand switches. Yet according to LGBT Capital, a corporate advisory and asset management firm, the purchasing power of queer and trans Canadians was about US$90-billion at the end of 2019. (Globally, LGBTQ purchasing power was estimated at US$3.9-trillion.) Given that younger generations are increasingly openly identifying as LGBTQ — about one in five members of Gen Z Americans, according to a 2021 Gallup poll — this community and customer market is poised to grow.
There are also examples of companies which have stuck by their LGBTQ outreach, even when criticized. For instance, when there was backlash against Hershey Canada for featuring transgender rights advocate Fae Johnstone in a March campaign, the company stood by her and the promotion. The North Face also defended a recent Pride ad which featured a drag queen after critics, including two Republican congresswomen, told their social-media followers to boycott the brand.
This year, companies should turn what have been comparatively empty statements into something more meaningful. That requires making a critical decision that embracing the true values of Pride is more important than avoiding the insults hurled from the peanut gallery. It also calls for exhibiting some backbone.
As Pride month rolls out, consumers should be looking closely at how the corporate world engages with the LGBTQ community. Who takes part, who scales back and who retreats entirely speaks volumes, given the current state of affairs for LGBTQ people across North America. This exercise may, sometimes, confirm the worst: that a company’s LGBTQ support was conditional. I’ll be keeping notes for when I spend my gay dollars.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect amount for total LGBTQ Canadian spending.