LGBTQ+ creatives rely on Pride Month income. This year, they're feeling the pinch
By May, MI Leggett noticed that their inbox was curiously empty.
Leggett, the nonbinary designer behind the gender-fluid sustainable clothing company Official Rebrand, said companies that usually reached out to them for sponsored partnerships ahead of Pride Month have not approached them this year.
After talking with their peers, Leggett said they realized, "it wasn't just me."
"It's just been a really stark contrast from years before," they said. "Every single year, my friends and I and my colleagues always get these additional jobs."
In recent years, businesses big and small have seen June as an opportune time to position themselves as inclusive and to show their support of LGBTQ+ communities with Pride Month campaigns. Brand allyship has come in the form of collaborations with queer influencers and creatives with significant online followings.
This year is different. Anti-transgender voices have grown louder as conservatives protest against big-name brands that signaled support for LGBTQ+ communities. In April, after Bud Light's promotion with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney sparked a boycott of the beer, parent company Anheuser-Busch put two executives on leave and distanced itself from Mulvaney. Last month, Target pulled some Pride merchandise from its stores over threats to the safety of its workers.
That backlash has driven many brands to pull back on their more visible Pride marketing efforts, experts say. Queer creatives and influencers say they're feeling the fallout.
"Companies are reevaluating all of their sponsorships and partnerships, and they're trying to foresee those that might cause the most controversy," said Daniel Korschun, an associate professor of marketing at Drexel University's LeBow College of Business, "and I think they're pulling back on those."
Hina Sabatine, a TikTok creator who is nonbinary, says they've also fielded fewer Pride inquiries this year. The brands that Sabatine is working with this year tend to be smaller or "queer-coded," they said, "not as many big corporations."
Erik Gordon, a clinical professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, said companies have found themselves in the middle of the culture war and now risk alienating both their liberal and conservative markets.
"They're scared to death," Gordon said. "I think some companies are whispering their support into sympathetic ears, whereas last year and the year before they were standing on top of the mountain with a megaphone. If that's your approach this year, you need less creative work ... you need a smaller group of influencers."
It's possible that instead of outwardly supporting Pride, brands may be favoring quieter methods, like donations to LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, Gordon says.
"Maybe the money gets shifted," he said. "You work with the influencers and the creatives to create something that's really visible. If you don't want to be so visible, you just give money to the organization."
Brands have faced criticism before during Pride
Before this year, some of the loudest criticism against brands during Pride came from the left, with allies and LGBTQ+ people accusing companies of "rainbow-washing" or "rainbow capitalism" — terms for when businesses support LGBTQ+ communities during Pride month but don't demonstrate a commitment to those same values the rest of the year.
More recently, a vociferous pushback has come from conservatives and anti-LGBTQ+ voices. After the Mulvaney-Bud Light promotion, right-wing media personalities and celebrities called for a boycott of Bud Light that fueled a double-digit dip in sales numbers and dethroned the product as America's best-selling beer. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn called for an investigation of Bud Light.
The conservative backlash falls against the backdrop of a wave of recent state-level anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. An unprecedented number of bills have been introduced this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Seventy-two have become law during the 2023 legislative session, according to a tally by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Leggett said they had been in talks with some companies earlier in the year about collaborations timed to Pride. Then, those companies, which included a well-known hair care brand, suddenly "ghosted" them, according to the designer.
"They just stopped responding," they said. "It just reveals the lack of genuine support."
It's also income they've come to depend on.
"We as queer people in business and in the entertainment industry, all kind of rely on this every year, and kind of counted for our budgeting," they said.
"I don't mean to say that rainbow capitalism and corporate support is queer liberation in any way at all," Leggett added. But collaborations with big companies for Pride collections, they said, is still "an amazing chance for people to see themselves in a larger media landscape."
The creator Sabatine said that on average they make about $120,000 in Pride partnership deals with brands during the entire month of June. This year, they said, that number will be cut in half.
But, for Sabatine, it's not about the money. It's the message brands send when they withdraw their support.
"They do have such an important piece in shaping our culture and the way that the public perceives certain issues," Sabatine said.
The TikTok star said they were disappointed when, this year, a Pride month campaign with a big-chain retailer that they'd worked with for the past three years was canceled.
The company cited the safety of both their employees and the creators who had worked on the campaign as the reason for the cancellation. The company still paid the creators, Sabatine said.
On a call with the company, Sabatine said, creators were given an opportunity to respond to the decision to cancel the campaign.
They said they used the opportunity to send this message: "Rainbow capitalism is all fun and games until you actually have to show up and you actually have to stand firm. To be an ally, you have to be uncomfortable. Because as a queer person, your existence is uncomfortable."
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