Pride is everywhere in 2018. E-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. Not 'pride' in its original, positive and political sense as a visible opposition to fear and shame, but 'Pride' with a capital, capitalist 'P'. Much like feminism and mental health in recent years, Pride (and other catch-all phrases like 'equality' and 'love is love') has become a slogan to literally wear across your chest, supplied by any fast fashion brand you care to think of.
Visibility, and visible support of LGBTQ+ people, is fundamental for us. Seeing people like you on billboards and feeling seen can make a concrete change in a queer person’s life, especially at a young age. That representation can be the difference between isolation and fear, and feeling normal, connected and even empowered in who you are. Likewise, visible allyship from cis straight people has the capacity to be life-changing. And slogan T-shirts can act as a vehicle to communicate allyship in public. It’s a non-verbal communication tool, and it’s powerful.
But when I look at who is making these collections, it gives me pause. Sometimes, it makes me actually really angry. Because it can be hard to thread the needle of how, beyond this easy sloganeering and a nominal donation to an LGBTQ+ charity, these collections are actively supporting us. From intention to manufacturing methods to sizing, many fall conspicuously short.
Having collections designed and modelled by LGBTQ+ people is often a good start. To not only create the clothes but give designers and models a platform for their creativity is supporting people in the most literal way, both financially and in terms of a platform. This can also produce the most interesting, creative collections – take Topshop's collection of T-shirts with Charles Jeffrey, featuring original artworks from five young LGBTQI+ artists. Each of the artworks, personally commissioned by Charles, celebrates one of five rights that have been fought for by the LGBTQI+ community in the UK: the right to gender recognition; to adopt; to marriage; to serve (in the military); and to intimacy. However, other designs range from dull to questionable to actually offensive. The Pride rainbow is lovely but there is little to differentiate one collection from another when the variations are minute and have been made by many others, many times before. I don't want to disparage these designs – they're well intentioned, and would probably be nice to see when walking home – but they don't really inspire you to wear them.
Then again, when a brand endeavours to be more creative, the well meaning behind it can fall flat when it prioritises celebrity names – as has happened with adidas' collection, where supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, musicians Skin, Elton John, Pharrell Williams and Liam Payne, designer Marc Jacobs, global mega-brand David Beckham, and nightlife icon Amanda Lepore each made over a pair of Sambas, working to the 'prouder' theme. Many of the designers chosen aren't a part of the LGBTQ+ community (and Skin, the only lesbian among them, isn't included in the majority of the press release copy); Liam Payne, meanwhile, doesn't seem to understand what Pride means, given his quote in the Evening Standard. And the man behind the campaign says he wanted to show that Pride "is not about feather bowers [sic] or walking the streets in drag" – as though this is something we should be ashamed of. This manifestation of Pride, clearly, is not for all of us.
Incidentally, it's another big sportswear brand whose designs have caused some of the most backlash. One part of Nike's 'Be True' collection is argued by some to be the most tone-deaf of 2018: choosing to feature the pink triangle. The same pink triangle that was used to mark LGBTQ+ people (mainly queer men) who were murdered by the Nazis, and was then re-appropriated and inverted during the AIDS epidemic to draw attention to the murder of those affected by AIDS by wilful and phobic state neglect. This is a symbol that is explicitly political and oppositional, unlike the rainbow flag. As my friend Ben Weil, a PhD student investigating men who have sex with men's blood donor activism, explained to me: "The 'good intention' [behind this design] is replaced by a kind of wilful ignorance, evinced by the appropriation of a symbol (the pink triangle) that requires more than just a brand’s-eye view of queer history (ie. some research beyond the well-trodden rainbow signifier) and, at the same time, a flagrant disregard for this history — the meaning of this symbol, the lives and lost lives it stands for."
Moving beyond the designs themselves, who wears them on screen (and who can wear them off screen) is another area ripe with problems. Oftentimes, it is only one vision of queerness we see in the look books: a slim cis woman with short hair or a slim cis man in lipstick. This vision gets even narrower in product shots. While some collections have diversity of both size and skin colour in their look books and product shots (like the ASOS x GLAAD& collection), they are the exceptions, not the rule. The wealth and range of what queerness is and can be is still, if not completely confined to, then tempered by the narrow, exclusionary and uncreative beauty standards that still dominate western media. And that's only the models – the diversity problem extends to sizing as well. Fat people are queer too, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a straight size thing (no pun intended). When your collection doesn’t cater beyond a size 16 (and several don't), you are reinforcing the idea that there is one acceptable version of queerness, and that fat people are not part of it.
There is also the question of how the brand treats LGBTQ+ people when they aren’t in front of the camera. It’s one thing to create a campaign that supposedly centres us, but how are we treated in your shops? There is a bitter irony to Pride campaigns coming from retailers that have actively discriminated against queer people. Folk like Travis Alabanza, who was subjected to a smear campaign for trying to use Topshop changing rooms as a gender-nonconforming person. Travis says the retailer did little to support them following the incident and has only just apologised – at the end of Pride month – but the brand does, of course, have a Pride campaign. As Travis told us: "I think this is a wider symbol of how brands deal with 'pride' – hollow gestures with no actual follow through."
Then there are the facts of 'fast fashion' itself. The countries where the majority of fast fashion is manufactured are places that have a history of explicit discrimination towards LGBTQ+ people. Take Bangladesh, the second largest garment exporter in the world and where the vast majority of fast fashion companies will have their clothes produced. Homosexuality has been illegal in Bangladesh since 1861 – a law that was actually inherited from the British Empire. Colonialism established a legacy of pervasive discrimination against LGBTQ+ people – and now the same people are making Pride T-shirts for companies that often don’t even provide safe working conditions, let alone support queer communities. It is a bitter irony.
Call me nit-picking, call me joyless, call me whatever you want, but I want the branding of Pride to be fully for the benefit of all LGBTQ+ people. And what ultimately connects a lot of these collections is that they aren’t doing enough; in several cases, they are doing the bare minimum. There’s something to be celebrated in the fact that there are so many Pride collections. Fifteen, ten, even five years ago, it just would not have happened. But that’s because it is no longer a radical act to publicly, outwardly, support our marginalised community. Brands are not sticking their neck out to support us, they’re just aligning their neck with the rest of the market. The fight for rights, acceptance and freedom for all LGBTQ+ people has so many more battles left to win. Battles that could be helped by brands taking an actually radical and courageous stance.
Trans and non-binary people deserve to feel safe when they’re shopping. LGBTQ+ people of all sizes deserve to be fully loved, valued and integrated into our community. LGBTQ+ designers and artists deserve to be celebrated all year round. And we should actively fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ people around the world – not just those in front of us.
This 'celebration' of us isn’t actually a celebration of us. It’s a capitalist strategy to make money out of us, by appropriating yet another political movement. It’s inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask for more. Though some brands are pledging 100% of sales, or even 50%, a donation between 10% and 30% to a single charity (as with most of these collections) is not enough. Pride was a protest, not a party. And the inequalities and injustices that our community were protesting about then still happen now, all around the world, every day. Rather than letting fast fashion provide our party outfits, we must pressure these multinational brands (some of the richest businesses in the world) to give us something to really celebrate.