Adweek’s Pride Stars on LGBTQ Advocacy and Marketing

15 LGBTQ leaders on the best inclusive campaigns and bringing their full selves to work

Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall
Headshot of Mary Emily O

Key Insights:

This week, Adweek is introducing a new industry award recognizing LGBTQ talent: Adweek Pride Stars. The 15 leaders chosen for the inaugural Pride Stars honors are changemakers in advertising and marketing, brands, media, tech and culture. They go beyond being out and proud in the professional sphere; each blazes a trail for future generations through advocating for diversity and inclusion, being visible and tirelessly working to lift up others in the LGBTQ community.

We asked each of the 15 Pride Stars about their roots, the work they’re doing now to expand LGBTQ inclusion and what’s in store in the future.

Early inspiration

“Probably Celie in The Color Purple. When I saw her kiss Suge it was a life changing moment for me. I was very young and for the first time in my life I felt seen. I also remember the miniseries The Women of Brewster Place where there was an open lesbian couple. They were fly, black, and gay as fuck. They were proud. True trailblazers.” Lena Waithe, filmmaker and actor

“The first time I saw a Jean-Paul Gaultier show on TV and my mother told me he was gay. I realized you could be gay, be extra and be appreciated for it.” —Benjamin Lord, CMO, Mira Beauty

“I was greatly influenced by Drian Juarez, who had for years been been running a program in Los Angeles devoted to helping transgender individuals find support in the workplace.” —Michaela Mendelsohn, CEO of Pollo West Corp and founder of TransCanWork

“Seeing two men embracing after getting engaged on a Lloyds Bank ad will always stand out. It’s the first time I saw the topic of same sex marriage being addressed in a mainstream ad. However…they were hugging, not kissing. It showed that we’ve come a long way, but there’s a long way to go.” —Asad Dhunna, founder, The Unmistakeables

“Alvin Ailey immediately comes to mind. From my viewpoint, gay culture in the ’80s and ’90s depicted blonde, blue-eyed white men. Clearly, not at all what I see in the mirror. Alvin Ailey not only looked like me, but represented poise, style, grace, and was boldly innovative depicting Black art as simply art.” —Allyn Shaw, president and CTO, Recycle Track Systems

How brands can improve LGBTQ representation

“Authenticity. Sometimes it feels like brands are screaming, ‘Look! We’re inclusive! We included an LGBTQ person in our ad.’ I think it’s important for companies to remember that this is someone’s identity—not just a check-the-box item.” —Randall Tucker, chief inclusion officer, Mastercard

“There has to be a cultural acceptance for gay equality and that includes depicting that on television. That picture should be a reflection on big and small screens, social media content or however you get your news and entertainment.” —Yvette Miley, svp, MSNBC and NBC News

“If companies want to create an equitable landscape for their employees, they can. If they want to implement equality by putting their money where their mouths are, they can. If they don’t, they’re choosing not to. Bottom line.” —Rachael Rapinoe, co-founder, Mendi

“It is a tremendous step forward to wrap your burger in a rainbow packaging and punch through the very fabric that are very heteronormative marketing campaigns, but to have this passion and release echo through every part of your company—even down to your brand imperatives and your decision makers—that is when we will see real progress.” —Kendra Freeman, co-founder, Mendi

Bringing LGBTQ advocacy to the workplace

“The work you do in and for your community should not be your ‘side hustle.’ No more of this talk about my ‘day’ job and my ‘gay’ job. As leaders in our communities, businesses, families and even religious organizations, we have a responsibility to be real and our whole selves.” —Shaw

“I know who I am. People know that I’m a woman who likes women, I mean it’s obvious—I speak about it all the time.” Young M.A., rapper

“It’s not just about messaging or strategy, but elevating the audience itself. That’s how you really make an impact, by shining the spotlight on them, instead of just the product.” —Robyn Streisand, founder and CEO, The Mixx and Titanium Worldwide

“During a four-year period from 2013 to 2017, with the help of local LGBT organizations, we hired nearly 50 transgender employees into our El Pollo Loco franchise restaurants. We were thrilled to watch our new employees thrive in a workplace where they were truly honored for who they were. About 25% made the pathway to management.” —Mendelsohn

“It’s important to me that the Black LGBTQ+ community knows that they get to be visible and thrive in all areas of life. I continue to find myself in meetings pitching ideas focused on Black LGBTQ+ narratives and making sure that a Black queer body is present either in front of the camera or behind the scenes.” —Empress Varnado, producer, The Empress Agency

“I was the first openly gay coach in the NFL, which has allowed me to develop a platform to increase awareness about the importance of being authentic and true to yourself in the workplace and at home.” Katie Sowers, offensive assistant coach, San Francisco 49ers

The best LGBTQ-inclusive campaigns

“When we launched the ‘True Name’ initiative and did away with legally binding names on cards, our goal was to ease a major pain point for the transgender and non-binary community, not to create an ad. When you can help others have a better experience with your brand, the advertisement will come naturally.” —Tucker

“Pantene’s ‘Hair Has No Gender’ campaign. Created in collaboration with the local transgender and gender non-conforming community, the campaign explores the power of hair to express identity and takes action to have a meaningful impact for the local LGBTQ+ community.” —Shelly McNamara, chief diversity and inclusion officer, P&G

“The wedding company Zola [is] not afraid of standing for what’s right and featuring modern families in their marketing and advertising. They remained resolute in their messaging, unlike the Hallmark Channel which pulled their commercials out of fear of losing viewers and advertisers.” —Lord

On future Pride Stars to watch

“Within the influencer space, there are so many underrated and up-and-coming LGBTQ+ personalities [such as] Geo Neptune, a two-spirit artist and performer; Brande Elise, an entertainer and TV personality; Feroza Syed, a trans activist and business professional; Alto Moon, a queer music artist; and Zavier Mason, a black queer performer and activist.” —Rigel Cable, director of analytics and SEO, Astound Commerce

“All 32 of the people I featured in the #BETQueerAF: #29DaysofQueerExcellence campaign. These are all Black queer folk who are doing the work in the community and for culture. They are setting trends, taking up space, healing the community and dismantling prejudices.” —Varnado

“Janelle Rodriguez [senior vp for NBC News Now and NBC Nightly News] is a force to be reckoned with. She is incredibly smart, intuitive and dynamic. She has been an instrumental part of this organization and also a role model for inspiration and inclusion in the LGBTQ community.” —Miley

“DJ aka Shangela is a star. He’s on a cool new HBO show called We’re Here and everyone should be paying attention to him, because he’s amazing. And his star will only continue to rise.” —Waithe

Meet all of Adweek’s 2020 Pride Stars, and check out our interview with Young M.A.

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.