The Corporate Rainbow: Going beyond Pride Celebrations and Creating Lasting Impact

June 29, 2021
  • Noora Larson

    Former Associate, BSR

I can recall the first time I emerged from the Castro MUNI tunnels in awe, staring up at the biggest rainbow flag I had ever seen. I wore a rainbow bracelet, had hung up a rainbow flag on my bedroom wall, and loved seeing the array of colors in every shop window as I strolled through downtown San Francisco in June. The rainbow had become symbolic to my challenges with coming out and getting comfortable with my identity as a lesbian. I felt accepted by the increasing visibility in my environment.

Today, after a decade of corporate Pride campaigns consisting of rainbow logos featured on social media, parade floats, and banners as well as endless rainbow merch, I find myself needing to see more. I, and the queer community at large, urge companies to support Pride in ways that deliver long-lasting impact for members of society who are still facing social and political inequity and denied basic human rights.

In the last few years, companies have been criticized for both performative allyship and rainbow-washing:

  • Performative allyship is a form of action appearing to promote change but that, in reality, raises little to no impact and maintains the status quo. It is usually acted out by people who have privilege and power and serves as a way to minimize scrutiny and garner approval.
  • Rainbow-washing is a form of performative allyship. It provides optics that suggest allyship, but there is no substantive action behind the visual cues. It serves as a way to co-opt and commodify movement.

These themes are especially relevant to the latest criticism facing companies in the U.S. For example, companies are being challenged for celebrating Pride while also donating to politicians and political candidates who sponsor discriminatory anti-transgender legislation. According to data highlighted by PBS, 2021 has set a record in anti-trans bills in America. With this growth in oppression, allies and advocates—as individuals and companies—can show solidarity and advocacy in combatting increasing transphobia in society, socially and politically.

Pride is not important just because we want to celebrate our right to love and be ourselves—it exists so that we remember the continued sacrifice of surviving in a world that has been systemically and socially structured to repress our identities.

How Companies Can Combat Performative Allyship and Rainbow-Washing

To fully support the LGBTIQ+ community in ways that create long-lasting impact, companies can take several actions across the business:

  • Ask yourself questions to recognize when a Pride campaign lacks impact. What is the transformative impact you seek to have within the LGBTIQ+ community? How can you be inclusive of stakeholders with lived experience? Beyond Pride month, how can you integrate this into regular business operations and culture?
  • Share resources for allyship and advocacy with your employees internally. Check out this Human Rights Campaign allyship toolkit as a start.
  • Celebrate intersectionality in the LGBTIQ+ community. Use the Progress Pride Flag in your graphics and highlight the history of the Black trans women and other LGBTIQ+ people of color who have been instrumental in the progress of Pride celebrations.
  • Invest in your LGBTIQ+ employee resource groups. Provide resources and development opportunities for employees to raise their voices and set up a rewards system for those leading LGBTIQ+ projects in addition to their existing workloads.
  • Select LGBTIQ+ suppliers for your Pride campaigns and celebrations and include them as part of your corporate diversity supplier program.
  • Address LGBTIQ+ discrimination in countries outside the U.S. by partnering with global civil society organizations and local community NGOs, such as the LGBTIQ+ Workplace Equality Index in India partnership or the Tent Partnership for Refugees.
  • Use your influence to combat discrimination in political actions, such as through supporting the passage of the Equality Act, and by incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion work into corporate political spending.

To be clear, I admire the progress in visibility and LGBTIQ+ support that multinational companies and small businesses have made. I appreciate the Pride flags in the windows, the advertisements that include non-heterosexual couples and non-binary individuals, and portions of proceeds that are donated to LGBTIQ+ nonprofits.

However, visibility does not mean inclusion. Pride is not important just because we want to celebrate our right to love and be ourselves—it exists so that we remember the continued sacrifice of surviving in a world that has been systemically and socially structured to repress our identities.

We celebrate Pride because children are still growing up thinking they do not belong in this world, resulting in deep trauma and violence. We need to keep pushing progress forward. Companies participating in Pride cannot celebrate without also helping the LGBTIQ+ community thrive in a world that has historically—to this day—oppressed our human rights. Rather, they have a powerful opportunity to act, enable, and influence to champion LGBTIQ+ rights and generate lasting impact.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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