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It’s 6 a.m. on June 1. Your alarm rings. Just like any other day, you reach for your phone to get up to speed on news from the world. From social media posts to shopping websites, rainbows have colored your screen to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. It’s the world of retail consumerism we live in, where brands find ways to stay relevant and integrate into their consumers’ lives.
Corporate landing pages, social profiles and ads for rainbow shirts, merch drops, celebrity collaborations—the list goes on. It feels like the day broadcast TV turned technicolor. For many members of the community, this is how it feels when one finally is able to embrace one’s authentic self—that energy, sparkle and beauty, finally shared outwardly because we’re at peace internally.
The rainbow flag has a deeply rooted meaning that continues to evolve decade after decade. But at its core, it doesn’t lose its luster for the members of the community who have lived through the struggle and the beauty of identifying as LGBTQ+. It has become a powerful design vehicle and symbol representing a diverse community, created by that very same community.
A brief history of the rainbow flag
The original flag, designed by Gilbert Baker, was an eight-color, 30-by-60-foot flag, first flown on Gay Freedom Day, June 25, 1978, in San Francisco—a time when same-sex marriage was not yet legally recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Baker said of the design, “We needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that.” Prior to his design, the pink triangle, which was used to mark and prosecute gay people in Nazi Germany, was reclaimed in the 1970s by the community as a symbol of solidarity. Yet a symbol that took power into their own hands, not dictated by others, was still needed.
Baker’s design evolved from eight colors to six colors to 11 colors today, where, as the Progress Pride flag, it has become more inclusive, with the colors black, brown, light blue, pink and white used to represent people of color and transgender people.
A powerful symbol diluted
At first, there is an overwhelming response of excitement, joy and pure love that you, as an LGBTQ+ member and consumer, feel when you see the rainbow flag: “At last, I am celebrated, welcomed, normalized, seen.”
Depending on your journey and generation, seeing the pride colors painted across every medium can symbolize anything from the years of struggle that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. on June 26, 2015—the first time the rainbow was projected across the White House—to the special time someone verbally comes out to their loved ones to the moment someone sees acceptance and realizes they can finally be their authentic self.
The meaning and symbolism of the rainbow flag are multifaceted and unique for each individual. And this is why, collectively, we must ensure its colors do not fade through commercialization.
It’s no surprise that the LGBTQ+ community is a target audience worth pursuing for brands—global LGBTQ+ consumers spend $3.7 trillion annually. The group is the fastest-growing minority segment in the U.S., where an estimated $1.4 trillion is spent annually.
As the days of Pride Month subside and brands go back to their regular programming, the LGBTQ+ community is left with the reality of their daily struggles: “Was I merely a check box in a DEI agenda? Do these brands really care about people like me? Am I just a walking dollar sign to these corporations?”
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the LGBTQ+ community, though we’re often treated that way during Pride. How does that really contribute to a world where we live authentically on the daily? The community needs more than face-value support: We’ve already dealt with having to wear a “mask,” and we have no tolerance for brands putting on their mask for the month of June.
Turning empty rainbows into fulfilled promises
Brands have power, and power is influence. Instead of slapping rainbows on merchandise, there are other ways for brands to create real impact for the LGBTQ+ community.
The suicide rate is still high among LGBTQ+ youth—45% have seriously considered it in the past year, according to the Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey. Sadly, 14% did attempt suicide in the past year.
Mental health is a serious matter, and it begins with the youth. Rather than spending time and money with rainbow cover-ups, why not invest that time and energy into suicide prevention, as exemplified by brands like Harry’s, where 100% of proceeds are donated to The Trevor Project.
LGBTQ+ employees still feel uncomfortable in the workplace: 40% say they are closeted at work.
It’s important that before companies decide to spend dollars outwardly, they take a closer look at the work environment they are providing for their employees. Is it conducive to employees bringing their whole selves in thought, philosophy and material attire? Does the environment not just recognize the LGBTQ+ community but spend time understanding their needs and struggles?
Do companies communicate globally on an internal and external basis, reflected in the daily working lives of these individuals? How can team members, managers and companies reduce the pressure of an employee needing to come out again and again instead of just being?
Same-sex wedding cards, Hers & Hers gifts and “I Love My Daddies” shirts paint a false rainbow across the daily challenges that LGBTQ+ families confront daily, such as being denied parental recognition and having no access to paid parental leave. Rather than producing merchandise that creates false realities for the community, brands need to turn these dollars into impact.
Moving forward, there needs to be an intentional and concerted effort by companies to ensure the symbol for the LGBTQ+ community carries the weight of years spent learning to embrace ourselves for who we are, progressing the transgender movement, fighting for equality. And that our basic human rights are not diluted by the commercialization of such a powerful symbol through merchandise that lacks any depth.
It’s not to say we don’t want to see rainbows during Pride. But help us keep our rainbows full—commit to the causes that continue to directly impact our community.
This article is part of a special Voice series, Proud Voices: How the LGBTQ+ Community Is Choosing Resilience, intended to educate marketers on what they can learn from the culture about authenticity and pride.