I spoke to the incredibly impressive Shon Faye as part of a series of talks at Engine. You can watch the hour conversation here, or read Jack Cartwright’s write up of the session below.
Shon Faye, a brilliant write and LGBTQ+ campaigner joined Engine for the latest Engine Presents event.
With David Blackett, Senior Strategist and member of the LGBTQ+ iNetwork here at Engine as host, the conversation flowed effortlessly. Shon challenged our thinking around the relationships brands have with Pride and the LGBTQ+ community.
We’re here to give you a quick overview of their conversation, with an emphasis on how brands can avoid veering into Pinkwashing territory and ensure their activity is making meaningful change for the LGBTQ+ community.
Pinkwashing or meaningful change?
As Pride Month comes to a close and we enter a summer of (COVID safe) Pride parades and events across the UK you’ll notice rainbow flags popping up across brands social media pages, websites, marketing campaigns and products. But what’s behind the rainbow façade? Is the brand actually doing anything to help the community? Or is it just good for business to be seen to be supporting LGBTQ+ Pride?
As a trusted consultant for some of the UK’s most well-known brands, the natural topic of the moment for Engine is Pinkwashing. This is the collective term for performative LGBTQ+ activism, aka sticking a rainbow flag on it and calling it “representation,” “encouraging awareness” and “joining the conversation.”
We’re over the rainbow; awareness isn’t enough
As Shon eloquently put it, the rainbow is a universal symbol of hope predating the LGBTQ+ movement. A biblical symbol that the rain and bad times have passed. The rainbow symbol was adopted into the pride flag by the LGBTQ+ movement in San Francisco in the early 1970s, and quickly became a way to visibly signify an LGBTQ+ area like the Castro or that an establishment is LGBTQ+ friendly in a time where LGBTQ+ people were oppressed.
While most western countries are nowhere near perfect, things have moved on since these times. Same sex partners can get married and it’s illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in job interviews. Awareness, representation, years of protesting and campaigning got us here. But it’s clear awareness can only get us so far.
And while the problems are slightly different, they are still rife here at home with transphobic hate crimes quadrupling over the last five years, homophobic attacks on the rise (22% increase in London) and even after a lengthy reform process the Gender Recognition Act is still in a complete mess.
Brands have a significant impact on the world. They’re able to change people’s perceptions of minorities through advertising messages and representation in creatives, being more inclusive in their services, donating cash and labour to LGBTQ+ causes and fostering inclusive behaviours in their workforces.
But what should brands do with all this power?
David and Shon chatted through some example campaigns to help us get to a list of things brands should consider when aligning their businesses with LGBTQ+ communities.
A checklist for brands
1. Is there any chance we’re playing an active role in harming LGBT+ people?
The saying is true; “actions speak louder than words.” Unbeknownst to many across the business the actions of a large organisations could be playing an active role in harming LGBTQ+ people. Products or services might be isolating or placing LGBTQ+ people in direct harm. Don’t jump straight to comms. Start out with an audit of processes, supply chains and customers and you might well find some ways to make a huge difference to LGBTQ+ people through structural change.
2. How can our business make the biggest impact for the LGBTQ+ community?
Businesses have a cultural role to play for LGBT+ people, both in the workforce where they have a duty of care to as-well-as in the wild. Educating your workforce and your customer audience isn’t just helping a minority community, it’s also good for business. Brand longevity starts young. The younger generation value identity; they are more diverse and open. Inclusive behaviours aren’t just important, they’re entirely expected by this audience. By getting these structural things right early, you’ll be more attractive to this audience as their employability and purchasing power grows.
3. Are there any issues our business touches on that might directly affect the LGBTQ+ community?
Before diving into creating a product or campaign involving the LGBTQ+ community, take a moment to understand the issues they face. The tribulations the community face mean that they are more likely to be affected by alcoholism and drug dependency than the average person. Young people in the community are disproportionately affected by homelessness.
If your campaign involves LGBTQ+ people on the payroll check that they are comfortable with specific parts of your brand, products and services before they commit.
Think about how the campaign can give back with charitable giving built in.
4. How can we prioritise the least privileged and under-represented sections of the community?
We need to make an effort to be fully inclusive of the whole community. Not just the “most acceptable” subsections of the community. A very poignant moment in the event was when Shon explained that (as a trans woman) “when I look around in culture I don’t see people who look or sound like me. There’s an expectation of exclusion from very early on.” Representation is important, feeling seen can radically change a LGBTQ+ person’s relationship with a brand and can also help a young person who is struggling with their identity find their people.
There are LGBTQ+ people who are struggling to find work. Directors, actors and all the people behind the glossy advertising in a business. The best way to build inclusive products, services and comms which feature LGBTQ+ stories is to hire LGBTQ+ people; it’s their lived experience after all.
5. Act consistently inclusive
Honestly question why we’re aligning with LGBTQ+ people. Think – how will we make an impact beyond Pride?
Constantly seek out ways to make inclusive behaviours effortless for our full workforce.
Gender stereotypes affect everyone, check if the stereotypes we’re relying on for product, service and comms planning and storytelling are true or even necessary.
Simple things like including people’s pronouns on casting sheets and in email profiles signal that “we will make every effort to get your gender identity right” and also make it much more difficult for people to accidentally misgender people based on their appearance.
Brands need to not just use words in their communications but also their sustained actions to show their commitment to inclusion. Brands that just say things that aren’t supported by their actions or indeed only do their actions at times of the year when it is seen as newsworthy (i.e. during Pride Month) are, in essence, exploiting a minority community.