Note: This article was originally published on Jun 4, 2019
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There is always something icky about big companies dressing up in rainbow colors every time June rolls around. Social media is suddenly rife with messages of equality, brightly stamped with corporate logos. It’s like witnessing your super straight uncle putting on a disproportionate amount of blush and lipstick and calling it drag. He’s feeling his oats on the stage, enunciating every word to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” It’s amusing, but at the same time off-putting. It’s artificial, similar to the fake plastic trees you prop up during Christmas or the cutout hearts you hang on your cubicle for Valentine’s Day. These are things you do because ‘tis the season to do it. But Pride is way beyond some fixed dates on a calendar.
I’m not demeaning other holidays. They, too, are important in their own way. Christmas and Eid al-Fitr are holy days for a big percentage of the population who are practicing Christians and Muslims. And everyone, regardless of their religion and personal belief, gets government-mandated days off to observe them. Valentine’s Day, though a regular work day, is also celebrated and heavily commoditized because love is a nice thing to be reminded of. Pride, itself, at its core, is also a celebration of love, but there is a significant difference.
Pride, though an often joyous and bombastic celebration dotted by parties and parades, is far more than your typical Hallmark holiday. The reason we observe it, the reason why we paint our faces, raise our flags, and march with overwhelming pride, is because we want to remind everyone that we exist and that we are important and that we demand to be seen and treated equally in society.
To this day, we still do not have the same rights as straight people — not the right to marry; not the right to make medical decisions for our partner or inherit their property without the need of the power of attorney; not the right to legally change our gender marker; and if the Senate doesn’t pass the SOGIE Equality Bill by tomorrow, June 5th, we won’t even have protection against gender-based discrimination. Pride is a public display of our continuing struggle and a call for change. And if brands want to hop on that, they need to go beyond passing greetings and promotions.
Here are three things companies should consider before diving into Pride headfirst.
Tell our stories
Brands acknowledge the power of the pink peso. Over the last few years, we’ve seen more and more companies inject LGBTQ+ storylines into their ad campaigns. We’ve had a carpool meet cute (Uber), an empowering monologue from a trans icon (Pantene), and intimate confessionals from queer couples (Closeup), to name a few.
Last year, Bench released “Smells Like a Girl,” a sweet little ad about a lovesick queer boy getting sniffed out by his dad. The story is simple. Any queer person who’s ever had to keep their sexuality a secret while navigating a same-sex crush in their teens would be able to see themselves in it. It’s no surprise that it got a lot of social media shares and some positive reaction videos on YouTube. The ad even earned its agency, the contentious TBWA\SMP, a Webby award.
These efforts are a noticeable step up from how LGBTQ+ people were previously portrayed in advertising. In the early ‘90s, we were more or less used for comic relief. One example of this case was Joey, the long-suffering gay best man secretly in love with the groom-to-be in the popular PLDT serial “Hello, Billy.” The LGBTQ-centered ads of today are learning to veer away from that. Queer people are now becoming the heroes of narratives, which are more focused on our lived experiences and queer excellence. We can only hope advertisers take this further. They can start by easing up on our coming out.
As queer people, we know that coming out is not a one-time thing but a lifelong process. We always have to keep maneuvering our identity and expression within alien territory every time we meet a new set of people. Having our coming out experiences be turned into heart-warming, rose-colored fluff is well and good, but it’s also jarring to see it utilized for the sake of selling something.
We can buy as many statement shirts as we want and express our queerness through fashion, but at the end of the day, they just take up closet space; they won’t really change our current standing in society.
Everyone who has come out of the closet or is deciding to do so knows the full emotional toll and real-world implications of the act. Not all LGBTQ+ people can do it safely. And even if they do muster up all their courage to finally be themselves in front of other people, acceptance is not guaranteed. Slapping a brand on such a personal event is a tad bit exploitative. To some of us, these ads could be a pleasant reminder of our own happy coming out experience. To others, it could be a sad reminder that it didn’t turn out exactly as we had hoped.
Instead of just coming out stories, companies could opt to showcase other aspects of LGBTQ+ life. Being a community that’s been deprived of representation in the media, we definitely have so many more stories to tell. Father’s day is coming up. Perhaps it may be a good idea to feature a trans dad and his unique take on fatherhood? It may open the eyes of naysayers who can’t comprehend any concept of parenting that isn’t based on the traditional hetero model. Or how about content centered on gender pronouns? How hard is it to use he, she, and they? It’s a simple enough concept with a strong, lasting impact.
Ads are always a good opportunity to educate others about who we are and what we’re really about. If companies continue to use our stories to make profit, we might as well benefit in the process.
Don’t sell — give
Look, LGBTQ+ people are not exempt from the exercise of capitalism. We still go to the mall and buy the things we need and then some. But it’s disingenuous for companies to take our money by taking advantage of an event commemorating our struggle.
Again, Pride is not a passing fad; it’s part of our everyday life. Our community and its symbols aren’t supposed to be treated as mere patterns on limited edition pieces. Just because a product is wrapped in rainbows or doused in glitter, doesn’t mean it’s truly for us. We can buy as many statement shirts as we want and express our queerness through fashion, but at the end of the day, they just take up closet space; they won’t really change our current standing in society.
We queer people are a thinking audience, and a very vocal one. We know when we are merely being pandered to. We approach every commodity and promo thrust our way with healthy skepticism. It’s easy to look up if a company is only riding a trend or is actually extending support to LGBTQ+ causes. If a company is peddling extra special Pride-related merchandise, we look at the designers and ask if they’re queer and if they’re compensated well for their efforts. We look at the fine print and check if the proceeds of these goods benefit LGBTQ+ organizations, and if so, we want to know how big their share is. A great challenge for huge corporations who have decided to cash in on Pride is to not cash in at all.
Indya Moore, the non-binary trailblazer, stated it best: “Celebrating Pride month is giving to queer, not selling to queer.” If a number of small independent businesses have figured out ways to donate 100 percent of their Pride merch earnings to LGBTQ+ organizations, why can’t big corporations? This is not a tall order, especially when they can easily allay costs with sales from other products and services in their extra thick portfolios. People may say that this is an unfair demand. These huge corporations aren’t non-profits. Their end goal is to make money. But if capitalism is truly driven by supply and demand, then we want to be forthcoming with our demands.
As we strive to be our true, authentic selves, we also demand the same kind of authenticity from companies. Do not merely profit from us without giving us anything substantial in return. Collaborate with us in designing products and services that are specifically for us. Make charitable donations to LGBTQ+ rights groups. And please, go public with your support for the community through campaigns that fund further queer initiatives.
Start from within
The ultimate litmus test that reveals if a company is only milking Pride for the coin is checking how it treats its own LGBTQ+ employees. What good are corporate posts about equality when your own staff doesn’t even enjoy equal opportunities and protections within your organization? You have to walk the talk, Brenda.
If a brand champions the trans experience but does not have at least one gender-inclusive restroom in their office, are they really concerned about trans rights? Many people take these restroom stalls for granted because they have never experienced getting threatened with violence by just walking in. Trans women, specifically, often experience some form of harassment regardless if they enter a male- or female-only restroom.
How about brands that use gay couples in their promotions? How many of them are actually willing to extend insurance benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees? How many of these supposed pro-LGBTQ+ companies actually employ qualified LGBTQ+ candidates?
“Anecdotes of LGBT workplace discrimination abound,” says Evan Tan, one of the directors of the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “I personally know people who have been denied employment because of their sexual orientation and gender identity; some of them were requested to ‘tone it down,’ which is basically code for hiding their identity.”
If a company is peddling extra special Pride-related merchandise, we look at the designers and ask if they’re queer and if they’re compensated well for their efforts.
Filipino companies still have a ways to go before they become truly safe spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals. According to the Philippine Corporate SOGIE Diversity and Inclusiveness Index of 2018, only 17 percent of a hundred companies interviewed have anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that are explicitly related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. All companies that belong to this 17 percent are foreign-headquartered or are BPOs. This means that none of the Filipino-owned companies surveyed had any form of SOGIE-related policies in place. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents that do not have SOGIE-related policies in place have even expressed that they are not working to have them in their organization.
To help remedy this issue, the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce launched their #Zeroto100PH program late last year. Their goal is to have at least one hundred Filipino-owned corporations to institute SOGIE diversity policies in their workplace by the end of 2019. Companies looking to change their ways can look up this program, among others.
These basic rights and protections are not special. These demands are not unreasonable. We queer people are not asking for more than what is already given our straight peers by default. The only people who think otherwise are the same people who have no problem with us being deprived of these fundamental protections for so long. This is why Pride continues to exist. If these companies truly, genuinely cared about Pride and about us, they should come out as our allies and help us lobby for equality together.