Pride merch won’t save trans youth

ust before the start of Pride Month, Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, began selling a wide variety of rainbow-themed merchandise. A perusal of the company’s website reveals hundreds of such items for sale, like a Queer Eye-branded clothing line and tie-ins from rainbow-themed brands like Skittles and the Kellogg Company. You can even buy a shirt that reads: “I can’t even think straight.”

Walmart earned a perfect 100 percent rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2021 Corporate Equality Index, which scores companies based on their support of LGBTQ employees through HR policies, practices, and benefits, as well as their public advocacy. Earlier this year, when Arkansas — Walmart’s home state and the location of its global headquarters — banned both gender-affirming medical care for young people and the participation of trans girls and women in school sports, the CEO of the retail giant issued a statement calling the legislation “troubling.”

But in fact, Walmart had a direct hand in electing the very legislators who attacked trans kids. A recent Business Insider investigation found that since the beginning of 2018, Walmart had given $58,100 to the Arkansas state legislators who later sponsored the anti-trans bills. The investigation, which examined the campaign finance records of 76 Arkansas lawmakers, uncovered more than $400,000 in total donations to said lawmakers by the political action committees (PACs) behind nine corporations and industries that claim to be LGBTQ-inclusive. A Walmart spokesperson told BI that the political contributions were made before the bills’ introduction, adding that Walmart reviews its “political giving strategy” on an ongoing basis.

Now some families with trans kids in Arkansas are looking to flee the state just to avoid persecution. While Arkansas is so far the only state to fully ban transition care for everyone under the age of 18 (Tennessee passed a bill limiting transition care for prepubescent children, but transition care doesn’t normally happen until puberty), similar bills are still on the agenda in states whose legislative sessions haven’t ended yet. (Comparable proposals in 19 states failed, according to the Guardian.) On top of the push for medical bans, nine states have successfully banned trans girls from competing on girls’ sports teams this year. Trans advocates are worried the attacks will only accelerate.

While companies like Walmart profit off of rainbow merchandise and branding, this recent wave of anti-trans legislation has largely been met with corporate silence. It’s not that corporations have historically stayed apolitical; in the recent past, many have shown up when it matters, influencing lawmakers on LGBTQ equality and having significant impact.

Two years ago, when Bostock v. Clayton County was being heard by the Supreme Court, more than 200 companies — from Disney to Ernst & Young — cosigned an amicus briefcalling for employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity to be made illegal. The Texas Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in keeping the conservative-controlled state legislature from instituting a bathroom bill. And in 2016, large corporations such as PayPal, alongside the NCAA and the NBA, were credited with the eventual rollback of North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ bill, HB 2, after widespread backlash to the law cost the state around $3.7 billion over 12 years, per Associated Press estimates.

“We are really grateful to corporations that have stepped up to support LGBTQ folks in the past,” Viv Topping, director of advocacy and civic engagement at the Equality Federation, told Vox. “But this year we saw a noticeable lack of engagement from corporations as the anti-trans bills have been further introduced across the country.”

The corporate world, it seems, has been hesitant to weigh in on the debates over trans children. This is partially because conservatives have launched a misinformation campaign against trans kids and gender-affirming care that has left many reluctant to jump into the fray. It’s also because companies are often motivated into advocacy as a way to protect their employees — but parents of trans kids are rarer than gay employees. Corporations, their bottom lines, and retention rates have yet to be pushed into standing up for trans rights the same way they do for the larger LGBTQ community.

How Pride became a corporate profit center

Pride wasn’t always a friendly neighborhood parade and festival day blanketed in rainbow gear. Originally, it grew out of a protest.

In the 1960s, outdated state laws banning “cross-dressing” — and various other activities associated with homosexuality — were used as a subtext by the police to raid businesses and bars where LGBTQ people were known to hang out. During the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco in 1966, trans and queer street queens revolted against the police. Then the gay rights movement really solidified at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in June 1969, when queer and trans people struck back at raiding police, sparking riots and eventually leading to less police harassment in the city’s queer bars.

The first Pride parade, at the time called Christopher Street Liberation Day March, was held in 1970 to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Pride parades in cities across the country in the ’70s and ’80s bear little resemblance to the elaborate, corporate-sponsored family days we see now in 2021. And the reason behind that evolution is simple: capitalism.

Over the past 20 years, Pride merchandise has become a big business, presenting a multimillion-dollar opportunity for corporations. The long list of absurd Pride-themed products, from a drag queen Chipotle menu to the gaudy monstrosity that is the Target short suit, stretches the imagination.

It’s also become a rite of passage every June for corporations in the US and Western Europe to change their social media logos and other branding to a rainbow theme. Corporations have become staples at local Pride parades, with even the weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin running a parade float. 

It’s all in pursuit of the gay dollar. According to the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, same-sex married couples had a higher median income than straight married couples, at $107,210 to $96,932, with male same-sex couples earning a median of $123,646. In other words, cis LGB couples, particularly gay men, present a big opportunity for profit.

Come July 1, however, the rainbow Twitter logos and glitter merch promotions are often ditched. Companies go back to business as usual.Meanwhile, queer and trans people continue fighting for their basic rights.

“As a queer trans woman, my life is often misery. So when I see corporations or big-name artists trying to tap into some sanitized version of my identity that’s only about the fun parts, I feel alienated and that huge parts of my experience are erased,” Teen Vogue editor Lucy Diavolo told Vox in 2019. “Being queer is about joy, but that joy is often tempered by a great deal of pain; it is through that bitterness that the sweetness is that much sweeter.”

Anti-trans bills have swept states. And corporations have stayed silent.

This year alone, 41 states have introduced more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills, according to the Human Rights Campaign. At least 17 of those bills have already passed, which the group says is a new record. 

The pace and swiftness with which conservative legislatures moved on these anti-trans bills was overwhelming to LGBTQ advocates. “We were trying everything, and there was just more and more,” ACLU attorney Chase Strangio told Vox. “It was like we would kill one and then it [would] come back to life, and then we would be organizing in one state and another state would file, like, five [more]. And so there was this relentless as to it.”

In the past, Strangio said, LGBTQ advocates used every trick in the book to oppose bills similar to those that passed in Arkansas — including leveraging corporate partners to lobby against anti-equality legislation. “Many [legislators] may not be driven by hearing from trans people, but they are driven by fear of loss, business, or financial and other economic consequences,” he explained. But this year, Strangio said, he has found businesses and corporations reluctant to weigh in.

He pointed to a letter signed earlier this year by 137 companies, including Amazon and numerous airlines, generally opposing anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans legislation, but the corporate world largely has not gone beyond that. In 2016, for example, boycotts were instrumental in overturning North Carolina’s HB 2, and such forceful action could be effective once again. “We wanted direct engagement from companies in individual states,” he said. “It was crickets.”

The contrast between that silence and the annual rainbow corporate embrace of Pride didn’t go unnoticed by Strangio and other advocates.

“Watching all this transpire from such close proximity in February, March, April, even in May, knowing that every company was going to then turn their Twitter profile to a rainbow come June — that’s so hard to stomach,” said Strangio.

He speculated that corporations may be reluctant to get involved this year against bills that are explicitly focused on trans people, rather than the LGBTQ community at large. North Carolina’sHB 2, he pointed out, applied to the entire queer community, even though it was focused on trans bathroom access (it also banned municipalities in the state from passing LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances).

In contrast, the Arkansas bills focus exclusively on trans people, in particular trans youth, and the political debate on trans kids is much more unsettled now than LGBTQ rights writ large were in 2016, when HB 2 made headlines. These days, Republican misinformation campaigns have moved on from bathroom access, finding success in spreading fear over youth gender transitions, even though an affirming approach is endorsed by nearly every major US medical association.

“We are seeing even folks who are on the left actually have questions about transgender youth and have questions about medical care for transgender kids,” said Topping. “People are less familiar with it. That is part of the issue.”

While Strangio cites reasons like a lack of understanding, systemic transphobia, and entrenched gender roles as potential reasons corporations may not be showing up for trans people, it’s also likely that because “trans people are a smaller population” — an estimated 0.6 percent of the US total — corporations can get away with not doing much and have it “not affect their bottom line,” he said.

In other words, trans people make for a much less attractive marketing demographic than their cis gay counterparts. So a bill attacking health care for trans kids, for instance, could be less enticing to lobby against than defending the employment rights of the greater LGBTQ community.

Topping points out that companies often see a direct connection between the need to protect their LGBTQ employees from discrimination and the ability to attract and retain talent, but often miss that connection when the potential children of their employees are the subjects of political attacks.

But not every corporation is sitting out the fight for trans kids. Topping noted a campaign the Equality Federation is running this month with the cosmetics company the Body Shop. As part of the company’s Pride campaign, it’s set up a resource page that directly answers commonly asked questions about thorny political issues like transition care for trans youth. They’ve also set up a petition that allows customers to send a personalized note to their members of Congress asking for passage of the Equality Act, a bill that would add LGBTQ people to existing federal civil rights law. For every signature gathered, the Body Shop donates $1 to the Equality Federation to help fight back against anti-trans legislation.

Topping would like to see more corporate campaigns like the Body Shop’s, and not just during Pride Month. “We don’t need the visibility from you,” she said of companies supporting LGBTQ people. “We need you to fund our work. We need you to fund trans-led organizations. We need you to help lobby for the Equality Act. We need you to help lobby against anti-transgender bills when we ask you to.”