The first New York City Pride march in 1970 was a grassroots affair organized in a gay bookstore to mark the anniversary of a riot. Today, NYC Pride Week has about six dozen corporate sponsors, including some of the country’s largest banks and stores.
The first Chicago Pride protest in 1970 specifically targeted the Michigan Avenue shopping district, as the Chicago Tribune reported, in order to “reach the maximum number of… shoppers and tourists.” Today, retailers and airlines march in the Chicago Pride Parade.
Last year, the LGBT march in Los Angeles took on an anti-Trump theme, prompting longtime corporate sponsors like Wells Fargo to get cold feet, as FourTwoNine reported. This year, as WEHOville noted in their recap of the event, the parade was “dominated largely by floats from corporate sponsors” including, yes, Wells Fargo.
By now, the commercialization of LGBT Pride seems like an age-old topic of debate—even though it wasn’t that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, that none of these companies would want to be seen touching anything queer with a ten-foot pole.
Indeed, as long as companies are involved in big-city Pride events—and so long as they keep churning out rainbow merchandise every June—there will always be discussion about the lost radical spirit of Pride.
But there’s something else that happens, too, when Pride—the time of year when LGBT people are most visible—becomes associated with money and travel and consumerism: We lose sight of the fact that LGBT poverty is a major and largely unspoken problem.
The notion that LGBT people are all childless, dual-income fashionistas living in airy lofts is such a persistent one that researchers have labeled it “the myth of gay affluence.”
But as a 2014 Atlantic article by that title noted, financial problems abound in the LGBT community—problems that often get elided by marketing firm research.
When you hear that LGBT Americans have an estimated purchasing power of $1 trillion, for example, that doesn’t make it seem like they ever want for money.
But if you consult sociological research, as the 2014 Atlantic article recommended—like data published by the Williams Institute at the UCLA school of law—you would learn that “same-sex couples are more vulnerable to poverty in general than are different-sex married couples,” as a 2013 report found (PDF), or that “lesbians in same-sex couples and [black] LGBT people” are especially vulnerable to poverty, as a 2016 report observed (PDF). There is a more depressing and complicated truth, it seems, lurking beneath all the big claims about the spending power of LGBT Americans.
“Research has shown that LGBT people face a risk of being poor that is at best equal to that of non-LGBT people with similar characteristics and, at worst, much higher than that of non-LGBT people,” that 2016 Williams Institute report noted.
A 2015 report spearheaded by the Center for American Progress also found that lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women were “more likely to live in poverty” than were heterosexual woman.
Transgender women, that report found, were almost “four times more likely” than the general population to be making less than $10,000 a year. And 30 percent of bisexual women—as compared to 21 percent of straight women—were living in poverty.
So, where do we get the idea that LGBT people are rich? Pride events awash in corporate money certainly don’t help. Nor do $150 rainbow sneakers or expensive Pride packages advertised by swanky hotel chains.
It’s true that some in the LGBT community can afford the luxury items that now surround Pride Month like a giant costly cloud—those factoids about overall LGBT purchasing power don’t come from nowhere—but the community’s purported wealth is far from evenly distributed.
Even for gay men, who tend to have the rosiest financial outlook within the broader LGBT community, new U.K. Data reported by The Washington Post this month shows that, while gay men tend to land managerial positions at higher rates than straight men, they hit a “glass ceiling” when it comes to breaking into upper management. Gay men of color, as the Post noted, have an especially hard time climbing the ranks.
The reasons for LGBT financial difficulties are manifold. A 2018 Experian survey of 500 LGBT people found that 62 percent of respondents had faced “financial challenges” due to their gender identity or sexual orientation: Thirteen percent said they had been discriminated against at work, 12 percent said they were “passed over for a job,” 10 percent said they had a “lower salary” or a “reduced chance of promotion.”
There are other factors, too, like health issues caused by minority stress—or the costs of adoption, surrogacy, and assisted reproductive technology that many same-sex couples have to bear in order to start or grow a family.
You might not think about those challenges because LGBT financial problems are scarcely touched upon in the media. Think about shows like Queer as Folk, The L Word, Modern Family, and yes, the internet’s beloved Netflix reboot of Queer Eye, the second season of which premiered in the middle of Pride Month 2018.
All of these programs depict LGBT people for whom the idea of going hungry would be almost unthinkable: Why not just whip up some guacamole or some fresh pasta, like Antoni from Queer Eye, or walk down the street to a hip coffee shop full of your affluent WeHo neighbors?
And yet, as the Williams Institute found in 2014–and as The Atlantic subsequently noted—almost a third of LGBT adults said they had “experienced a time in the last year when they did not have enough money to feed themselves or their family,” and that same-sex couples with kids were “approximately twice as likely” to get food stamps as opposite-sex couples raising kids.
It’s hard to square statistics like those with the money that flows through and around Pride every June. On the one hand, companies selling Pride merchandise sometimes donate some portion of the proceeds to LGBT charities, and corporate involvement in Pride events often comes as a result of years of internal advocacy from LGBT employee resource groups.
Many of these companies also score a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, meaning that they offer benefits to employees like transgender-inclusive health insurance. It’s hard to fault every company unilaterally for getting involved in Pride.
But the aggregate effect of corporate involvement in Pride has been to make it more and more a month about travel and consumption, about rainbow-colored marketing and reactions to that marketing. It feels harder than ever to make LGBT financial struggles intelligible to a broader society that has never recognized them in the first place.
This year, as Them reported, activists around the country—including in New York City—will be protesting Pride parades, in part because they don’t want to see more corporate involvement in the event. When an event that started as an LGBT protest now draws protests from LGBT people, that’s a sure sign that something is amiss.
Pride didn’t used to be about money. Now, all too often, it is money.