Every June, the drill is the same: Brands announce their once-a-year Pride-themed collections replete with rainbow motifs. And while they’re often well-intentioned, and aimed at raising awareness about the issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community and funds for organizations like The Trevor Project, the It Gets Better Project, and Phluid Phoundation, they also point at the mass capitalization of Pride month. As such, many people in the LGBTQIA+ community feel conflicted about this phenomenon, especially considering the anti-capitalist history of Pride, and think the efforts often overlook the community’s social and political needs beyond June.
“It's a marketing opportunity for large businesses,” says Eli Erlick, a New York City-based trans activist, writer, and speaker. “And at the same time, there are some really wonderful people, organizations, and groups that are trying to change that.”
Pride Month originates from the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when LGBTQIA+ people in New York City’s Greenwich Village led a six-day stint of protests and clashes with police, following a raid at the popular gay club Stonewall Inn. Today, Pride is a worldwide commemoration month that celebrates resistance against harassment and anti-LGBTQIA+ policies, both celebrating queer communities and highlighting the obstacles they continue to face from society at large.
As Pride has become more mainstream, it’s led to corporations releasing merch and campaigns every June that many consider to be stereotypical and not representative of the diversity within LGBTQIA+ communities, often relying on rainbow motifs, slang, and allusions to the LGBTQIA+ flag. Trans activist and creator Madison Werner says companies need to go beyond these cliché representations of Pride.
“They need to start steering away from these sorts of outdated terms and symbols that we've used for Pride, like ‘Love his love’ and just the rainbow,” she says. “There are so many other ways to represent.” Ziggy Mack-Johnson, a New York-based queer creator and stylist, agrees: “I try to stay away from the [rainbow] flag because I think it looks so cheesy. There’s so much more to my community than just the flag.”
Whenever Werner is looking to partner with a brand for or shop from a Pride-themed collection, she looks for the company’s mission and work within the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I always want to make sure that the models they're using, the language they're using, is very inclusive and reflective of the world we live in every single day,” she says. Werner also highlights that both creators and consumers should pay attention to whether a company only gets involved with the LGBTQIA+ communities for Pride Month. “People like me exist, not just in June,” she says.
When it comes to actual designs, Werner says Pride collections should have something that she’d really want to wear beyond June's celebrations — she points to Alo Yoga’s campaign and collection, which featured people from the LGTBQIA+ community in the brand’s signature sporty silhouettes with a tiny rainbow-hued logo, as one of her favorites this year. Mack-Johnson says that companies should also tap queer creatives and designers to develop these collections, so they are “expressing [their] own lives,” something that brands like COS, Ralph Lauren, and UGG did this year.
While many wonder if these Pride-themed collections are even necessary, others argue that, amid a wave of conservative legislation, harassment, and hate crimes, donations made from the profits of these Pride-themed collections are often a lifeline for LGBTQIA+ organizations to continue offering services.
One of the organizations many fashion brands partner with is The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQIA+ youth, which this year worked with brands like Avre, Vogue Eyewear, Guess, Nautica, UGG, and Dolce Vita to raise funds. “Beyond having a charitable component that supports our life-saving mission, our partnerships must be rooted in the shared vision of building a safer, more welcoming world for LGBTQ young people,” says Kevin Wong, vice president of communications at The Trevor Project. “Brands must be open and willing to boldly demonstrate their commitment to the LGBTQ community year-round.”
Over the years, the organization has also partnered with Macy’s, Lululemon, and Abercrombie & Fitch. While the latter has come under fire for its lack of gender, racial, and body diversity, especially after the recent release of the documentary White Hot on Netflix, since 2020, the brand has partnered with The Trevor Project on a year-round, gender-inclusive Pride-themed collection. (Refinery29 reached out to The Trevor Project for comment but has not heard back at the time of publication.)
Beyond donating profits and working with the LGBTQIA+ community to ensure Pride-themed merchandise steers away from stereotypes, Erlick says there are a lot more companies could be doing. According to Erlick, there’s a pattern in the way that fashion brands partner with larger LGBTQIA+ organizations during Pride month. “These corporations don't want to take a risk on smaller organizations, on organizations that might be doing more radical work and groups that are donating directly to trans people, for example,” says Erlick. “There are other organizations, for example, that have taken explicitly anti-capitalist or anti-racist stances, and those aren't the organizations that we're seeing having the most funding.”
For all the complications of making Pride merch, at a time when LGBTQIA+ people are increasingly under attack thanks to policies like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and anti-trans legislation introduced around the country, Ivanka Dekoning, a queer creator, says that fashion can also be used as a tool to raise awareness.
“I definitely think it is a good thing because we need to keep these organizations running,” says Dekoning. But she says that fashion brands still have a lot to learn when it comes showing up for the LGBTQIA+ community beyond Pride month. “Reaching out to the community and getting the community more involved would be a very authentic way of presenting products in the future for Pride.”