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Target’s New Pride Commercial Didn’t Make My Queer Heart Sing

John Vitzileos |
June 14, 2015 | 5:37 p.m. PDT




June tips off an important month for queer folks across America: Pride Month. What typically comes to mind is parades, rainbows, lots of partying, even more dancing, and even less clothing. For Target, one of America's largest clothing retailers, pride month means coming out (no pun intended) with their new #TakePride line of rainbow colored shirts, totes, hats, and tumblers - because what really says gay pride more than a rainbow colored water bottle? Together with the new merchandise, Target also released a commercial that attempts to show "inspiring images" and archival footage of "LGBT milestones" telling queer folks that “we aren’t born with pride, we take it.”

Target's Take Pride Line (@HollyTyrer / Twitter)
Target's Take Pride Line (@HollyTyrer / Twitter)

However, for many members of the LGBTQ+ community, including myself, Pride Month is also accompanied by a groan as thousands of heterosexual people and corporations pour into the streets with rainbow colored gear and use it as an opportunity to party.

To me, Pride should be about members of the LGBTQ+ community from all walks of life and backgrounds gathering together to celebrate and embrace a part of their identity that society routinely makes us feel ashamed about. It should be an outlet for celebrating all the work that's been done thus far and a chance to generate power and energy to continue fighting forward.

In fact, Pride originated as a riot, a rich and diverse history that is often forgotten during present-day celebrations. Located in Greenwich, New York, where city ordinances prohibited homosexuality and “cross-dressing” in public, The Stonewall Inn was a popular gay bar that was the subject to constant harassment and raids by the police. In 1969, a group of trans women of color, finally fed up with police intimidation, fought back and protested, which started riots and demonstrations across the city. The following year, celebrations honoring the Stonewall Riots laid the foundation for what we typically think of today as “the Pride Parade.”

However, that radical act of rioting against the police state and opposition to enforced norms of sexuality and gender has somehow morphed into a corporate and police-sponsored party that largely benefits only a select few within the community. One of the most telling indications of this exclusivity is the location of the parades; they typically occur in "gayberhoods," wealthy areas dominated by white gay men. If your gayberhoods are anything like mine in Chicago, they can be a home and source of community for members of the gay community. But these enclaves are not nearly as welcoming for some people. In an article for Mused Magazine, Aaron Talley, a queer person of color describes being a minority in these communities and says that if you are black or trans, "it's not long before you might find yourself being policed. These neighborhoods are usually clear about their message: be gay but don’t be black, or trans, or disabled, or Other."

It comes as no surprise then that "Pride" is embraced by a number of white cisgender people, while minorities do not feel like these events effectively respect or value their identities and experiences. Put simply, the mainstream version of Pride erases queerness in all its different forms while catering to corporations and mainstream dominant culture. When the sponsors of Pride are the same corporations condoning exploitation around the globe or the same organizations supporting racist and transphobic practices, or when Pride is hosted in neighborhoods where police are hostile toward queer people of color, we can start to see why these parades aren’t appealing to many members of the LGBTQ+ community.

SCOTUS Marriage Equality Protests (@HRC / Twitter)
SCOTUS Marriage Equality Protests (@HRC / Twitter)

Pride serves a much larger purpose for the corporate agenda; in fact, it has become a means to sustain it. Many companies use their contributions at Pride to label themselves as “LGBT-friendly” and participate in a process known as “pink-washing,” a PR tactic to label an entity as “LGBTQ+-friendly” in an attempt to distract, cover up, or justify other negative actions they do. Robert McAuliffe fantastically describes this as the way in which politicians, CEOs, corporations and military leaders transform themselves “like wolves with flashy new wool makeovers from their friendly gay beauticians down the street.”

A great example of pinkwashing is the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), whose signature symbol is the blue and yellow equal sign or the red equal sign profile picture. Allison Francis, a journalist and LGBTQ+ ally, points out that the HRC gives companies like Apple, Bank of America, and Nike high LGBT-friendly ratings while they run global sweatshops, violate labor laws, and engage in other unethical business practices. More disturbingly, the HRC itself also indulges in this facade of advocacy for the entire LGBTQ+ community - many of its leaders have excluded trans people from their fight for rights, but their discrimination flies under the radar because of their support for marriage equality.

For many of these reasons, Target’s #TakePride line and accompanying commercials are particularly off-putting and represent just another example of pinkwashing and commodifying the LGBTQ+ agenda for profit. Target has a history of donating money to the Republican Governor’s Association (RGA), which in turn has supported some of the most anti-queer politicians. For example, the RGA has given funds to elect Ken Cuccinelli, who believes homosexuality goes “against natural law” and thinks queerness is “self-destructive.” Target received heavy criticism for these donations as recently as 2013, so it is ironic that they come out with a rainbow-themed line just 2 years later.

Idealists like Curtis Wong from the Huffington Post think this is Target’s way of trying to correct its past misdeeds but to me, it sounds like they are saying, “we will only support equality for the LGBTQ+ community when it benefits us and we can profit from it.” It is acts like these - slapping a rainbow onto a corporation that has been historically anti-queer, violated numerous labor laws, and has a number of environmental infractions with the EPA that allows them to still make it on the list of one of the "most ethical companies”.

Target’s commercial also represents queer people in problematic ways by portraying a typical assimilationist narrative of gay couples who are married with children. This archetype rests on the assumption that queer people are just trying to be a part of mainstream heterosexual culture, which often devolves into tolerance and acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community as long as they look and act like their straight counterparts.

But the ad is only one example of the media's role in perpetuating a culture of homonormativity, or standards and norms of what queer people ought to look and act like. Many representations of queer folks are gay white people that are often married and wealthy. When I asked some fellow USC students who came to mind when thinking of gay celebrities,  the first answers included Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen Degeneres; white, wealthy, married gay couples. Homonormativity can be a dangerous and violent practice in the LGBTQ+ community because for those that don’t within the molds set forth by society, i.e. for those that don’t practice monogamy, don’t want families, live what some people call “unconventional lifestyles” or aren’t white, rich, and cisgender, they are demonized, frowned upon, and discriminated against.

The issues of assimilation, pink-washing, and the emergence of a mainstream queer culture aren't unique to Pride or Target's ad. Pride is just one example of the LGBTQ+ movement being hijacked by an elite few that push for an agenda to benefit only a select group of privileged people. The fight for marriage equality is another great example; queer and trans* people face such an unimaginable amount of violence on a day-to-day basis that the legal recognition gained by marriage equality is a hollow victory that doesn’t rank high in the priorities for the many LGBTQ+ people who are not already privileged by standards of homonormativity. Statistics from the past 3 years have shown an increase in the number of hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community with a disproportionate amount of them targeting trans people of color. Many trans people are also not afforded access to trans-friendly healthcare that will help support their life choices. As queer youth face rejection by their families, they are left homeless and turn to sex work and selling drugs. These people are then criminalized by the police and often end up in the prison system.

Due to limits on time, energy, and resources, a push for marriage equality can sometimes come at the cost of providing for those in our community that need it most. The legal recognition of same-sex marriage does little to change the harsh realities some people face every day, but imagine if we were able to put all the time rallying for marriage equality into rallying to stop the policing of trans people of color? What if we were able to redirect the money spent on lawyers, legal teams, and campaigning into providing for the thousands of homeless youth? For many it starts to become tasteless that the defining LGTBQ+ issue of our time is marriage equality, a right that is only a priority and is accessible to only those who are privileged enough to be in a situation to consider marriage in the first place.

As we move forward with Pride Month and even a larger queer political agenda, it is important to foreground the history of our movement, provide for those that are typically the most excluded from society, and constantly ask who the agenda is benefiting. Aaron Talley hits the nail on the head once again when he says, "it's important to remember that the rainbow is just refracted white light...we need to work hard to make sure that queerness doesn't become synonymous with white, synonymous with rich, cisgender, and able-bodied."

With that said, it's time for those members of our community that experience privilege to stop being defensive and to start listening; if your first reaction to criticism is to defend the status quo rather than attempt to understand, then you are part of the problem.

Target was right about one thing. We aren’t born with pride...we take it. So now it’s time to take back a movement that has been co-opted to ensure our politics are intersectional, so that a fight for queer liberation is accompanied by a fight against patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, the prison system, colonialism, cisnormativity, and larger forms of state-sponsored violence.

Reach Contributor John Vitzileos here.



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