Rainbow capitalism: the dreaded antagonist of LGBTQ+ college-aged socialists. Some people talk about it as though it is a cardinal sin—how dare the Big Corporations use queer imagery and flag colors during the month of June and then completely back off from doing anything to support us after Pride ends? This is a totally fair criticism, I say. My issue with protestations of rainbow capitalism comes from the subsequent complaint that corporations aren’t engaging in it anymore.
Basic economics—really, basic psychology—comes into play here. If someone you want the attention of disapproves of the way you’re trying to get their attention, you will generally stop doing that thing, assuming that you are a reasonable person.
A company, particularly a large business that wants sales, operates on the same principle: If nobody’s buying, then why should they sell? If rainbow merchandise isn’t being purchased due to an outcry about appropriating queer culture without supporting the community, then a company won’t sell those items anymore—especially if it’s already getting hate from homophobes who want this “woke agenda” gone from their local retail chains. If the target audience is uninterested, and other audiences are hateful, it’s a far better choice for the company to just stop selling these products.
Big corporations are not immune to antagonism, and progress does not come all at once. We’ve seen this with queer representation in popular media. For instance, in decades past the media would primarily represent the LGBTQ+ community through little insulting jokes, or as creepy, evil people who were bad-intentioned in every way. Then we had progress with implied queerness, or “word of God” declarations by authors that a character is gay.
Now we have progressed even further. We have “Nimona” and “Priory of the Orange Tree” and games where you can create nonbinary and trans characters without it being a big deal in-world (thank you, Baldur’s Gate 3). There is still more work to be done to get to the point where these things are normal instead of celebrating every time we have a queer character in a piece of media, but these are huge strides from the days of the Hays Code.
All this to say, change and support is a gradual process, however much we might want it to be instantaneous. It was a big risk for big companies to start engaging in rainbow capitalism in the first place—they would have done plenty of economic analysis beforehand, and the fact that it was an option considered at all is huge progress from where we were even 20 years ago.
It means that we are becoming more mainstream and more accepted even when it seems like queerphobia is only growing louder. It means that we’re a demographic that can be marketed to openly, and that’s progress under capitalism.
Am I saying that big companies do plenty by engaging in rainbow capitalism and paying lip service to queer rights and there’s nothing they should do to show support in more tangible ways? To the contrary: If companies feel ready to make the sacrifices that rainbow capitalism entails, they should also gear up to provide more material support, even if it’s something as small as donating some percentage of profits from rainbow merchandise to charities supporting LGBTQ+ people.
Am I advocating for trans folks to go buy a Target-brand chest binder instead of their tried-and-tested, less unsafe Spectrum or Underworks gear? No—I’m not going to tell anyone to buy things they’re not interested in, or that have safer alternatives. That would be terrifically hypocritical of me.
But we cannot engage in booing rainbow capitalism off the stage, and then be surprised and disappointed when it actually retreats behind the curtain again.
Progress moves incrementally, and we need to keep fighting for it. But despising others for putting us out there is counterproductive and we cannot expect everything to become perfect all at once.
Take what you can get, show that those steps are good for everyone and not just you and then keep pushing for more. This is the way we can effect real, lasting change.