All That Glisters is Not Gay Pride: Pinkwashing and Rainbow Capitalism

Raegan Davis
6 min readJun 28, 2019


A viral photo of police officers in pride pins protecting anti-gay neo-Nazis in Detroit

In the years since Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision which legalized same-sex marriage, pride month has become awash with rainbow-printed products and logos. As a community, queer folks are lucky in a sense because supporting us is becoming profitable, so the support rolls in. However, if we aren’t careful, we can be taken advantage of and our community’s characteristic appreciation for anyone’s vocal acceptance could result in our acting against our own wellbeing. Just because a logo turns rainbow or a corporate twitter account states its support doesn’t necessarily mean that company is genuine in said support. It can be difficult to believe corporate advocacy for queer folks is real when it’s only practiced in times of profitability. Is it possible for a corporation to genuinely care for queer folks on principle, profitability aside? Unfortunately, we may never know.

This process of changing logos and releasing limited-edition rainbow products during June has come to be termed “rainbow capitalism” by critics. This process is largely opposed by members of the community who criticize it on the grounds that the support for queer folks is hollow and profit-driven. In many cases, it only began after queer rights stopped being “controversial” and started becoming a symbol of progressiveness and cosmopolitanism.

Rainbow capitalism, however, is only part of a larger phenomenon that we have seen grow worldwide as time has gone on on. Take rainbow capitalism and add the deliberate aim of distracting the public from other negative behavior. Take rainbows and platitudes about equality and plaster it across internment camps, police brutality, or apartheid. That is the phenomenon known as pinkwashing, and once you learn to recognize it, it’s everywhere.

Pinkwashing is the use of queer imagery and language as a wallpaper to hide abuses of human rights. The phrase, modeled after the word whitewashing, is most typically associated with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), but is practiced by organizations and states the world over. For a more localized example, let’s examine the common exclamation “no cops at pride.” Part of the reason queer folks say “no cops at pride” is because the original “pride” was a riot against police raids of queer spaces and it can be seen as disrespectful to the history of the event to entrust our community’s security in those whose brutality inspired the movement in the first place.

However, even in the current state of queer movements, the police as a unit have not been allies. Queer folks are imprisoned at a disproportionate rate compared to the general population and hate crimes in the form of bigoted police brutality are more common than any other kind of hate crimes against LGBT Americans. Anecdotally, I would encourage you to keep an eye out next time you go to a pride event to see how many police officers are stationed to protect queer folks per capita, compared to how many are stationed to protect anti-queer protesters per capita. I’ve been attending pride events since I was in high school and I have yet to see one where the proportion protecting us from protesters who have a documented history of violence is the same as protecting them from us. It makes sense, though, as our community tends to be stereotyped as violent.

Another disturbing example of pinkwashing that one is likely to see in the US is the marketing campaign by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In much the same way that the IDF is criticized by queer Palestinians for exaggerating its pro-LGBT stances and for only supporting certain queer folks while persecuting others based on their racial and national identities, ICE is rife with such rebranded bigotry. LGBT migrants are disproportionately subject to deportation and were even banned from entering the US until 1990. Treatment in ICE’s concentration camps for all those detained are inhumane but especially for queer immigrants, who are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their cis-hetero counterparts. By coopting the imagery and rhetoric of queer liberation in an attempt to appear accepting in the face of legitimate criticism and charges of human rights abuses, groups like ICE and the IDF turn queer folks into a stick with which to beat other marginalized people, many of whom are also queer.

Now, suppose you’re a corporation or government organization who, in good faith, is looking to promote LGBT rights without practicing pinkwashing or its little cousin, rainbow capitalism. There are a couple of really easy things you can do to ensure your support for our community is truly about our community and not about improving your public image.

1. Be there for all queer folks. In the US, queer folks have a higher proportion of people of color than the general population and we are also more likely to live in poverty. Supporting queer people has to be a part of a comprehensive support for marginalized people; that includes groups that are still “controversial” to support. Are you here for undocumented people? Are you here for Palestinians? Are you here for people with disabilities? Are you here for poverty relief? If you aren’t, then you aren’t really here for queer folks: you’re here for some queer folks and, statistically, you’re missing out on a big portion of us.

2. Support queer folks in substantive ways. I’ll be honest, the rainbow cookies at Panera are great and it’s cool to see flags posted at my favorite stores this month, but that shouldn’t be the extent of your support for queer people. Are you willing to fundraise or donate to charities that help queer folks? Do you march in Pride parades (which raise money for local queer organizations)? Do you openly oppose antigay legislation, like REFRA? Are you supporting us even when it isn’t easy?

3. Treat your queer employees with respect. If you’re an organization that has employees, one of the easiest ways to support queer folks is internally. Are you creating a safe environment for us where bigotry isn’t tolerated? Does your healthcare provide spousal benefits regardless of gender? Does it cover gender reassignment surgeries for trans folks? What about mental health care, which queer folks need at higher rates than the general population? What about in-vitro fertilization, which few company healthcare fully cover at the time of the IVF? How frequently do you ask for pronouns at meetings and events? The internal workings of your business or government generally aren’t widely publicized, but if supporting queer folks is truly a matter of virtue and not public image, you should be following those pro-LGBT values inside and outside of the office.

4. Vote with your wallet. This is more something for corporations than government entities, but the American political system is fraught with money in politics and, if you’re a large capitalist corporation, you’re likely participating. Are you funding campaigns for politicians who support us? Are you donating to candidates who vote against our civil rights? Are you using the money we spent on rainbow-colored train tickets to fund campaigns against us?

Now, it’s very unlikely that any corporation and especially any armed wing of the state is going to fulfill all of these requirements in our current system. So, what are we as well-intentioned queer consumers to do? The first thing to remember is the old adage, “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” Nothing you buy will be perfect in every possible way and it’s unrealistic to try and hold yourself responsible for the actions of large companies or governments you had no way of influencing. Your duty is simply to remain unafraid to criticize. A true ally will take constructive criticism and if the IDF really is as much of a friend as it claims to be, saying colonialism has no place in queer liberation should be a welcome critique. If ICE is really an ally to our community, it should gladly welcome queer protestors to call out its mistreatment of our siblings in detention. If the police truly exist to protect us, they should be appalled to learn about ongoing anti-queer brutality and should have no problem hearing us continue to say “no cops at pride.” True allies take criticism from those they claim to support and utilize it to better their activism. Don’t feel guilty expecting someone who says they’re a true ally to act like one.

In addition, be careful who you compliment. Endorsements from queer folks are what feed pinkwashing and so it’s up to us to spread the word to those outside of the community: all that glisters is not gay pride! When you hear someone tell you how great they are for our community, ask yourself whether they support all of us or some of us, whether they support us all the time or just when it’s convenient, and whether they supported us “before it was cool.”



Raegan Davis

DC-based community organizer. IU Political Science Grad @TheRaeganDavis (Opinions are mine, not my employer’s)