World Pride is at its peak in New York. LGBTQ+ activists from all over the world join to celebrate the Stonewall riots 50 years ago when the oppressed finally took their oppressors head on to demand rights of visibility, life, love and security.
The international Pride movement today is indeed impressive partly because the rainbow flag is an open brand that lets everyone fill it with their stories and experiences, but, at the same time, demands that it always stands for inclusivity and solidarity.
In country after country, city after city, we march for dignity, respect, inclusion and the right to be who we are at our core. And so much has been accomplished and done to take us important steps towards that goal, steps that came at great costs for so many.
It is easy to take many of the accomplishments for granted and to see the political support in many countries or the massive joint ventures with corporations that want to support diversity as something natural. It is easy to join in while the wind fills the sail. But what happens if the tides change? Will we all stand up for the same principles then when it is not in fashion and a customer might want us to tone down our support and speak in softer tones?
Because along with the progress we now experience the first signs of a broader LGBTQ+ backlash. If the direction generally has been “2 steps forward, 1 step back” – the numbers more often shift position. We have debated how fast the next steps forward will be, but suddenly we’re having to keep track of what we’ve already accomplished so that this period of progress will not just be a historical parenthesis.
In Europe, far right populist parties are growing fast and taking many more places in national and European parliaments than just five years ago, even in my home Sweden. We see countries in Asia raising their oppression. The Russian regime writes laws that effectively criminalize even talking about the reality of a LGBTQ+ community. And at the opening ceremony of World Pride here in New York on Wednesday we heard witnesses whose freedom to live their lives out loud in the United States now feels under attack, not by simple bigots, but by the administration.
And yet we see it. The rainbow flag flutters in the wind from the official flag poles during pride celebrations. All the rainbow-striped windows of shops and restaurants. And, of course, all employers and corporations that tell the public that they take pride in their support and talk vividly of their policies. Companies, including ours, that even include the rainbow colors in their logo during the celebration.
But what will it mean if the wind turns sharply, making customers and pundits scared that the rainbow flag will harm their reputation or brands? What will the open brand of the rainbow be filled with in another context of slower progress – or a backlash?
At an Interpride conference 10 years ago, I asked Gilbert Baker, who made the first rainbow flag, what his intentions were when he put it together. I asked him what was it supposed to represent, and why didn’t he try to trademark it but instead let it be a totally open brand to use? His reply was just as balanced and demanding as it should be: The idea was to make a flag that could in itself show that diversity is the fundamental aspect of a functional wholeness, that it carried the respect for all identities and different experiences of life, and that it was for everyone to use as long as they respected that principle.
But what if it will be misused, I said? Well – Gilbert replied – I think it will be impossible to get far with it because it would be obvious that the principle of inclusiveness was being violated. If everyone’s stories couldn’t be included, the community would turn its back on that brand in time.
I think he in many ways have been right. The movement under the open flag has been successful in the pursuit of making LGBTQ+ stories become valid for political reforms and social inclusiveness, and now businesses use the flag to demonstrate that diversity is in their DNA. But that agenda still provokes some, and right now it seems they are in growing numbers. As a long-time activist and Pride organizer myself I can hear more voices in the community than before questioning the sincerity and understanding among the businesses flaunting the rainbow colors.
As the LGBTQ+ movement and Pride organizers move forward, many questions have to be answered on how to keep the focus on solidarity alive under a flag that is now used by so many businesses. And how do we really include and celebrate the full spectrum of diversity even when we as of now see increasing questions about rights we thought we’d already won.
And the questions must be just as relevant to us as communication professionals giving advice to a broad spectrum of clients in markets with very different foundations and traditions. Will we maintain the values of diversity and inclusiveness implied by our rainbow co-branding and fly the flag just as high during Pride when the backlash makes our clients waver or question diversity as fundamental for success? Will we still make them understand the implicit commitment in using the rainbow flag, or will we help them mute the flag’s colors?
Now that brands are flying the flag, they are part of the movement. And when the going gets tough – and the evidence shows it is indeed getting tougher – the LGBTQ+ community will need committed allies more than ever. To put it bluntly: will you march with me again next year and the year after that?
Claes Nyberg is an Account Director with Hill+Knowlton Sweden with a lead in Public Affairs and Crisis management. He is a long-time LGBTQ+ activist, former president of Stockholm Pride and a member of the City Council in Stockholm.