Jordan: This weekend like so many other cities, Toronto will hold its annual pride event, and it will be a party. A party with a lot of help from some of your favorite brands. So many brands, in fact, that I wanted to see if I could map out a day using only pride endorsed products, and it was easy. So you wake up and you brush your teeth with Crest. No coffee today, but you can drink some Esca water before throwing on some of the clothes you bought at Winners and getting on the GO train. You can check social media on your Fido wireless on the way to work. Once you settle in, it’s Pizza Pizza and Schweppes zero calorie ginger ale for lunch. You can read through Toronto Life or NOW during the afternoon and then head back home, stopping at the LCBO to pick up some Bud Light and Summit Vodka. You can hit the variety store for a lottery ticket from the OLG, or some condoms from Trojan, and you can crash out on your Ikea bed and order dinner from Skip The Dishes while watching CTV until you fall asleep. None of that is intended as criticism. Pride is a huge event now. Every huge event needs corporate sponsors. It is fantastic that companies want to be seen as inclusive and supportive allies to the community. But what that list was intended to do, was illustrate what Pride is today and how different it is from where it began. So how did this event come so far? Has it strayed too far from its roots? And what, if anything, do those sponsors owe the community they are celebrating with rainbows beyond simply a check?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Rachel Giese is the editorial director at Extra, Canada’s LGBTQ2 publication. Hey Rachel.
Jordan: Can you start by; and I know this could probably could be a whole other podcast, but just giving us a sense of when Pride first began what was it, and what was it supposed to do?
Rachel: So pride began 50 years ago, 1969 in New York at a place called the Stonewall Inn, where there were several days of rioting following a police raid on the bar. So this was very common in the forties, fifties, and sixties, homosexuality was still illegal. Cops would show up at these bars; These bars were usually pretty shady, often they were run by the mob and they would go in, they would round up the people in the bars, they would beat them up, they would arrest them. Sometimes these folks would have their lives exposed so they would have their photographs of their names published in the paper and the Stonewall Inn that night, they had their sort of typical;It was in June of 1969 their typical very mixed crowd. People of color, white folks, transgender folks, gay men, lesbians sort of everybody in between. The cops came and the clientele fought back, and so there were a couple of days of rioting in protest of police brutality and in protest of state oppression. And the following year, the very first pride march happened in New York to commemorate the Stonewall uprising, or the Stonewall riots, as it’s been called, and this year around the world and in New York, specifically, it’s the 50th anniversary, world pride is happening in New York this year, and in Canada. a ot of our Pride’s are also held towards the end of June in commemoration of Stonewall. But here in Toronto, the first pride happened in the early eighties, and it happened after the bathhouse raids that happened in Toronto in the early eighties, which were a series of raids on bath houses, which is places where gay men go, or men go to have sex with one another. The police went in, pulled the clientele out, beat them in some cases, exposed them to, you know, exposed their names, pictures were put in the paper. The community fought back, and our pride’s here in Toronto began to happen after that. So the history of pride is protest. The history of pride is protest specifically against police brutality and state oppression of LGBTQ 2 people.
Jordan: How different is that? I mean, it’s obviously probably a good thing that today it’s more of a celebration than fighting against injustice. But how different is it today, from how it began and when did it start to change I guess?
Rachel: I think it really started to change, probably about maybe 15 years ago, where we began to see the kind of mass corporate investment in pride. I would say up until about 15 years ago prides in bigger cities were very much grassroots community events. I think the parade was still called a march then, and you know, the language is different when something’s a march there’s a political intention to it, which is why in Toronto, in any case, there’s still a trans march, and a dyke march, which I think speaks to a more political nature of those two events. But I think once the city; Once municipalities began investing money into pride, and once companies realized that these were communities that had money to spend and that there was tourism around pride that happened alongside more widespread acceptance, you know, well into the AIDS crisis. So, you know, during the eighties and early nineties, you know, LGBTQ 2 people were still pariahs. We were still holding die ins because you know so many of the men in our community, were dying, their deaths weren’t recognized. There was a massive discrimination, but probably around the mid to late nineties early 2000’s, as queer people became more accepted, we began to see prides accepting corporate sponsorship. We began to see the big, massive floats and, you know, big companies whether it was alcohol companies, or banks, or airlines showing up it pride, having floats, having banners and being a part of pride events.
Jordan: Could pride have become what it is today without money from corporate sponsors?
Rachel: Well, I think that you have to decide whether or not you like what pride is today.
Jordan: I was going to ask you, but I wanted to start slowly.
Rachel: Sure, so I think that the size of pride certainly;I think that what’s happened is a bit of a, you know, a chicken or egg question. I think as pride’s get larger and larger, and more people come to pride expecting, say, bigger and bigger acts on the stage. So when you start wanting to have, you know, like A list performers like you know, there was a lot of to do about Ariana Grande performing in Manchester, for instance at Manchester Pride. So when you start having like headline performers, that requires a lot of money, when you want to shut down whole city blocks not just for a day, but for a week, that requires a buy in from the city. So the kind of scale that pride has become in big cities like, you know, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, London you know, in the bigger metropolis’, you require that kind of corporate funding. But I would say there’s lots of folks, and I’m among them, who would say that, you know, along with that size, a lot of the spirit of pride has been lost much too, I think, the detriment of LGBTQ 2 communities.
Jordan: What considerations do corporate sponsors buying and bring to kind of the essence of pride on the ground? You know, what does it change how the parade is held? What happens in the parade? All of that stuff.
Rachel: I mean, I think we’re at a point where again, you know, I can speak to Toronto better than any other place, but I think we’re getting to a point where pride has in many ways become mostly straight people marching for mostly straight onlookers. By that I mean that you know, a lot of these companies, like when the big banks get afloat in pride, those boys in spandex like shorts dancing, those aren’t loan managers and bank tellers, those are models and dancers they’ve hired to be on their float. Some of these guys are gay, some of those guys are straight, but that’s not necessarily. That’s just spectacle, being on…. it’s a commercial, it’s an ad. A lot of…. you know;So when you go to pride, you’re going to see you know, any number of companies from, you know, Home Depot or Ikea or you know, Schneider’s…. your Schneider’s meats, you know, showing up at pride. Now a lot of that, I think, is initiatives of LGBTQ 2 employees at those companies who I think take a lot of pride in their companies supporting them. But a lot of times I think it’s companies who feel like it’s good for their brand, it’s good for their image. They slap a rainbow on something, and it gives them kind of the halo effect of looking like they’re tolerant, inclusive and accepting. What isn’t often asked is how deep does this connection to the community go? And does it extend to anything other than trying to sell the community its product? So are they just trying to get the pink dollar, or are they actually really committed to the lives, and health, and safety, and well being, and rights of LGBTQ 2 people?
Jordan: Yeah, well, that was one of the questions that keeps bugging me is when a sponsor signs up for an event like this, what obligation do they have that’s different for when they’re, say, signing up to be the official beer of the Raptors, or the official bank of the Toronto Raptors?
Rachel: I mean, I can’t speak to the specifics of what pride itself asked of its sponsors like that is information that pride would have, not me. But I think sort of more philosophically, what I would say is if any corporation wants to come into the queer and trans communities and shill it’s stuff to us, for me, personally, is what I want to know is what are their corporate policies when it comes to caring for their LGBTQ 2 employees? So what kinds of protections are in place? What kinds of leave policies are in place. for instance, for trans employees who might be having gender affirming surgeries, or for a gay male employee who is going through surrogacy with his partner to have a child? Does that company have gender neutral washrooms? If that company is invested in other…. has investments, or holdings, or business operations in countries with terrible track records on LGBTQ 2 rights, are they advocating in those countries for the rights of their employees? So what I want to know is, is this relationship real or meaningful, or are they just trying to take advantage? Are they here for us not just in June, but the 11 months of the year that aren’t pride?
Jordan: On the other side of that from a kind of mainstream commercial perspective, the one that I’ve been thinking about a lot this week are the displays in Walmart and Target, which you might have seen, there just right at the front of various clothing sections and its rainbow adorned clothing, and they’re on sale during June. So I mean, I can’t figure out if that’s actually an effective way for them to be inclusive because they serve everybody, and just by putting it in front of a Walmart you’re going to reach some people who would otherwise not engage with pride, perhaps, or if that is exactly right, like we’ll put a rainbow on a shirt and we’ll make some money this month.
Rachel: I mean again, I think in that case is that individual company like, what is its commitment to the community? And is it going to turn around the next day and support homophobic policies or transphobic policies elsewhere? I also think that it’s not the job of straight corporations to be advocating for LGBTQ 2 people, it’s up to the our community’s to speak about our issues for ourselves. I don’t think that some, you know, raging homophobe, or raging trans folk is going to walk into Walmart, see a rainbow shirt, and that’s going to change their minds…..
Jordan: But does it help normalize it, like by putting it in their face there. Just be like we put on displays for queer people the same way we put on displays for baseball fans at the beginning of the baseball season.
Rachel: Right, but I’m not sure what they’re normalizing in any case, right? So I guess what I would argue is I do think that the meaning of pride has been so diluted to the point, even where we talk about pride, but we actually don’t say what we’re proud of, right? People just say pride and people know what it means, but we don’t actually use the word’s lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, two spirited, queer. We don’t actually use those words all the time, so pride becomes this safe way of actually not saying something specific. I also think that, you know, a lot of times when pride gets taken up outside of our communities, it’s in a very sort of, it’s in the safest possible, like language around tolerance and love is love. It’s not acknowledging that this is about sex. In many cases, you know, here in Canada, you know, this is also the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of gay sex, and there’s been a lot of conversations in queer communities here in Canada about wanting to be really honest about the fact that things didn’t suddenly change in 1969 which marks when there was the mass changes to the criminal code. You know, when Pierre Trudeau said the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, and one of the things that it did is that it decriminalised consensual sex between two adults over the age of 21 in their homes. But it didn’t de criminalize sex in bath houses, it didn’t decriminalized public queer spaces. So you know, gay bars, and we certainly even this moment, while there are many gay and lesbian folks who live lives that are quite comfortable and enjoy a great deal of rights, and comfort, and safety, we’re seeing an uptick in hate crimes against people who are transgender, and non binary. So when people talk about normalizing pride, I feel like they’re normalizing some vague idea about tolerance and love is love, but they’re not really getting at the reality of so many of our lives, which is we still have higher rates of depression and suicide, LGBTQ 2 youth are much more likely to be bullied, they’re much more likely to be homeless. So again, I think I want people to take up our issues not just when it’s a party, but when it’s actually the hard stuff. When it’s actually about, you know, giving us rights and saving our lives.
Jordan: Are there people in the community this month who are doing work towards exactly what you said, towards making it more political and raw again?
Rachel: Yeah, I think that, you know, it’s interesting we’re seeing In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of alternative prides, or alternative pride events springing up….
Jordan: And what are those? What are they like?
Rachel: So those are pride events that don’t have corporate sponsorship for one, so they tend to be more grassroots, they tend to be outside the kind of official pride. So, you know in Toronto pride, as with other prides, you know, if you want to be part, you have to be sort of vetted by the Pride Committee to be part of the official pride calendar, and with that comes a listing in the events calendar, you get your stamp on it, you get sort of a….
Jordan: And it’s appropriate for sponsors in that sense.
Rachel: Exactly. But for alternative prides, these are often events that are happening in maybe a park, or a coffee shop, or a bar, or a restaurant, or a club where people are coming together to, you know, maybe they have an open mic night, orr maybe they have a picnic, or maybe they have, you know, maybe it’s like a club event that’s happening without corporate sponsorship. So you’re not gonna have, you know, logos of an alcohol company, or a clothing company all over it, and it’s not meant to be sort of some dour, ernest event. The ideas is sort of meant to kind of reclaim a spirit of pride, reclaim a political-ness, particularly for people who feel like pride in major centers has gotten so large, and so overwhelming that they don’t really feel like they have a place in it. They don’t really feel that pride speaks to them, and certainly for me, having gone to prides for, you know, over 20 years, you know, increasingly, I feel distant from pride. I feel like I go to pride, and it’s hard to find the people that I know because there’s masses and masses of people there, and, you know, I’m glad that so many straight people want to celebrate with us, but often they come, and they can overwhelm spaces where you know, they’re overwhelming the beer gardens, or they’re overwhelming the parade route, and actually people in the queer community feel like it’s impossible to get through the crowd, or it’s impossible to get into a bar, or to a beer garden because it’s just flooded with people.
Jordan: Is the eagerness of brands, and I guess also of straight people who want to come for the party. Is that eagerness to get involved a step in the right direction, kind of in general in terms of how far we’ve come? Or is it a sign that pride is kind of losing its point?
Rachel: I think what I would say is if I were to decide whether a company has its heart and its politics in the right place. I would look to a company that has a well established support programming, and an anti discrimination policy for its LGBTQ 2 employees. So I would say, do those employees feel safe at that company? Do they feel supported? Are they in levels of upper management? Are they on the board of that company? Are they decision makers? I would look at where that company is doing business, and where it’s investing. I would look and see whether that company is engaging in boycott say. So, for instance, were seeing you know around a lot of issues you know, similar to LGBTQ 2 rights, there have been a lot of people pulling out of the state of Georgia in the U.S. because of its attack on on women’s reproductive rights, right? So companies saying if we support women, we cannot do business in the state of Georgia. So our companies who are showing up at pride, do they have similar kinds of policies when it comes to who they do business with, and where they do business? I would say a company that where I feel like they’re doing a terrible job, or they’re just showing up to profit is the only thing they’re doing slapping a rainbow sticker on their storefront or coming up with a kind of a cheesy ad. Like in my office, we joke about the number of emails that all of us have received this month from companies saying, you know, we put out a moisturizer for pride, or a shoe for pride, or this for pride, or like and again, often times they’ve just stuck a pink triangle, or a rainbow something, or they’ve hired some drag queen to be in an ad. There’s actually a campaign now for Cottonel flushable wipes for pride that is encouraging people to stay, I think shower fresh, or stay clean for the parade, and it has an eggplant emoji and a cat emoji so I’ll let listeners pick up on what that means.
Jordan: Right. Yeah. Our listeners know what the cat emoji and eggplant emoji are. I’m sure.
Rachel: So I guess it’s sex positive, but it just feels like, oh my god, this is bonkers. You know, the way that people have come in, you know, at my Starbucks by my office, there’s a sign that says Pride in every sip. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how I equate buying my coffee at Starbucks from Pride. Now again, if Starbucks has amazing policies, and really great initiatives, that’s great, but they’re not leading with that. They’re leading with selling us stuff. So I think that these companies have to understand that our communities are smarter than that, and no one is going to be persuaded by Bud Light putting a rainbow sticker on its beer. Gay people don’t drink Bud Light, and they’re not going to just because there’s a rainbow sticker on it. I want to be really careful not to sort of, you know, say one company is better than the other, but I think that was it just Gillette that had the ad with a transgender man shaving for the first time. I think it was Gillette, and that was, you know, that was, I think, a very thoughtful campaign. I think it showed that there was an intelligence behind it where gay audiences, trans audiences, queer audiences, got that ad, it felt authentic. It felt like it had some credibility behind it, and I that’s very different than a company just again, sticking a rainbow flag on something. I think that pop culture has power, so I think that if you have an ad that shows a loving queer family, or a trans man being supported by his dad as he shaves for the first time, and I think that if you have a campaign that has dignity, and humanity, and it starts to change the image that people have of LGBTQ 2 people, that has power, that really, really does. So I don’t want to diminish that because I think that those images are really meaningful. But at the same time, they need to be backed up with real action, and that’s how we know they’re authentic and incredible.
Jordan: Thanks, Rachel.
Rachel: Thank you so much.
Jordan: Rachel Giese is the editorial director of Extra. That was The Big Story. You can find a lot more of them, almost 250 in fact, at thebigstorypodcast.ca, you can find us, all five of us on Twitter @ thebigstoryfpn, and if you want to recommend us to somebody, just point them to your favorite pod catcher, say search for us, subscribe for free, have a listen, and then, of course, rate and review. Claire Broussard is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clark and Stephanie Phillips, are our associate producers. Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, thanks for listening. Have a great weekend. Happy Pride.
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