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Whether it's rainbow capitalism or bad design, LGBTQ people are calling out disingenuous Pride merchandise

(CNN) Every year, on the first breath of summer, Pride collections emerge like a horde of brightly-colored locusts. They blanket every storefront and Instagram feed in June, promising solidarity and celebration for LGBTQ communities. "Yaas, Queen!" the shirts proclaim. "Love is love," the decorative buttons affirm. Then there are the rainbow-printed suits and shoes, which bear no actual words but are still so very, very loud.

Make no mistake: Visibility and acceptance are rights for which generations of activists have fought. But a growing chorus of LGBTQ voices are ridiculing the way Pride Month is being marketed by large companies, especially as they grow bolder with their use of queer language and imagery. Maybe it's rainbow capitalism -- the idea that some companies use LGBTQ allyship for their own gain. Maybe it's simply bad design. But something doesn't sit right.

Put a rainbow on it

Social media users have been celebrating this year's crop of big-name Pride merchandise with gleeful montages of the most bizarre offerings: A muscle tank that reads "Sippin' on Gaytorade," another that says "Closets are for Clothes," a bottle of Pride-themed nail polish called "Yaaasss Green."

On Twitter, Chris Stedman kept his appraisal of a rainbow blazer and shorts combo succinct: "Ugly as sin." Thousands of people agreed.

Stedman, a professor of religion at Augsburg University and an expert in digital communication, has been watching the ugly Pride merch discourse with great interest. To him, the uncomfortable feeling these rainbow offerings inspire has little to do with taste.

"It feels like a violation in some ways because these companies are taking our language, our memes and our norms and using them for their own gain without fully understanding them or investing in the community," he said.

Pithy phrases and campy glitz may be great for selling things, but that's not what this language was made for. Facing alienation from a culture at large, marginalized communities create their own cultures as a form of protection. Queer aesthetics, even the humorous, glamorous, fascinating parts, are often shaped around a basic instinct of survival.

Once they're indiscriminately slapped on a fanny pack by big companies trying to look relatable, it's no wonder they lose some of that power.

Attempts to cash in on these creations are especially jarring in a reality where LGBTQ people still experience discrimination, where their human rights are constantly at risk of being legislated away and where bills targeting transgender individuals pile up in state governments.

"This language and imagery emerged in spaces that have been a refuge for people who haven't been safe and welcome in other communities," Stedman said. "And I think that's why people are so bothered by it."

Get with the times

A marcher calls out rainbow capitalism during a NYC Pride event in 2019.

So how does a brand become an effective ally, if not through LGBT-themed sandwiches (a once-real thing) and Pride floats?

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis says companies should do meaningful structural work before they come to the table waving a rainbow flag.

"You cannot just market to our community," Ellis said. "You have to join the movement, and that's a social justice movement. You need to speak out when there is bad legislation, especially when you have outsized influence."

A lot of that work begins in-house, with inclusive HR policies and diverse, intersectional representation among directors and leaders, Ellis says. And such efforts should be sustained all year -- not just in June, when allyship becomes trendy.

Part of the reason there seems to be a disconnect between Pride marketing and the people for whom Pride is for is how rapidly public LGBTQ acceptance has spread after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

Before that, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, Ellis points out that brands sold to and connected with LGBTQ audiences in much less targeted ways. Sometimes just running a normal advertisement in queer media was enough to make their stance clear, a stance that was much riskier to a brand's reputation than it is today.

In 2020, GLAAD partnered with P&G marketing to study public perceptions of LGBTQ people in advertising as part of the Visibility Project, which champions LGBTQ inclusion in these spheres. The results were illuminating: Not only was the general population supportive of ads featuring queer representation, but brands that employed such inclusive marketing benefited from a "halo effect," where they were perceived to care more about their customers.

In fact, further research showed brands were generally more worried about inauthentic representation sparking LGBTQ backlash than public backlash in general.

Be real

Authenticity, Ellis says, is another difference between so-called rainbow capitalism and meaningful allyship. And that kind of marketing can lead to real change, especially when people see trusted brands -- essentially tokens of their own values -- trying to educate and include.

"When I was young and in my early 20s, when I knew I was gay, if I were to see a company that was flying a Pride flag, that was accepting and welcoming, I would have been blown away," Ellis said. "The progress has been phenomenal, but we need to work on perfecting it, on tightening it."

In his most recent book, "IRL," which examines how we find belonging in our digital lives, Stedman explores the concept of microaffirmations: small gestures that assure someone they are appreciated or welcomed. (The opposite concept, microaggressions, is a common topic among marginalized communities.)

In this way, he acknowledges that there can be positives to even ill-conceived Pride campaigns if they reach the right people; if an isolated person struggling with their sexual identity sees it and feels a little bit less lonely.

But in an age that is increasingly accepting of queer culture and LGBTQ rights, it's no longer enough to just slap a rainbow on something and call it Pride.

"While it may be comforting to some, it also makes a lot of other LGBTQ feel like we're valued only because the sands have shifted, and that is the only reason we're worth celebrating," he says. "It's as if we're not even worth actually getting to know."