Me and Shon Faye

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 yearshomophobic 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.

Pinkwashing in advertising

For Pride Month I wrote about Pinkwashing and how brands can show shallow support for the LGBTQ+ community whilst behind the scenes doing work that is actively harmful. The article ran on Little Black Books and Creative Pool.

Horrendous rainbow suits are on sale, brands have momentarily added some multicoloured pizzazz to their logos and, if you’re lucky, you might get a mumbled ‘Happy Pride’ as the barista hands you your flat white. It can only mean one thing – Pride month is upon us. An incredible time to raise awareness around issues the LGBTQ+ community is facing and raise money for the charities tackling these problems.

It’s also a great time for brands to slap a rainbow on something so they can look inclusive, while at the same time not actually giving anything back to the community other than ‘visibility’ or ‘opening a dialogue’ Even worse, it can mean brands that actively fund political or religious parties that are homophobic or anti-trans can wash away their sins with all the colours of the rainbow. This is the world of Pinkwashing.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community, you’re likely tired. Oh so tired. And not just in that “when will this pandemic end?” type of way, but also in the “when will brands, politicians and gobs for hire stop using my identity and that of my siblings to earn points and money” kind of way Y’know!

Or, maybe you don’t. If you don’t live your life as part of the LGBTQ+ community you’re likely to have your own things going on. Your own worries, passions and activisms that are important and personal to you. So, here’s a quick rundown of what the community has faced recently.

In the past week, major newspapers published derogatory articles targeted at the UK’s leading LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall and its stance on trans issues. Our own government has pulled out of Stonewall’s diversity scheme. Hate group, the LGB Alliance received a blue tick on Twitter the same weekend as its allies doxxed LGBTQ+ activist David Paisley causing him to leave his home. Only last month, Ali Fazeli Monfared, a 20-year-old gay Iranian, was beheaded by his family just days before he was able to leave his country for safety. And then, to bring it all back round to Pinkwashing, don’t get us started on the co-opting of the rainbow to celebrate the NHS on the run up to Pride last year, diluting the messaging and harming potential revenue streams from rainbow branded merchandise.

Over the last year we’ve all learned a lot about activism and the harm that virtue signalling can do for a cause. Brands showing support on a superficial level and without meaningful action not only points to  hypocrisy, it can cause upset and anger, derail the conversation, and act as a distraction from the real issue. This ends badly for the brand and already vulnerable communities get to feel another jab of pain. We’ll just say three more words on this and we feel that’s all you need. Kendall Jenner Pepsi. 

Throughout June you’ll see rainbows everywhere, with brands claiming support for the LGBTQ+ community whilst not actually passing on any of that sweet sweet profit they’re making. It’s like claiming exposure is just as good as getting paid. However, let’s be frank exposure doesn’t fund charities that help LGBTQ+ kids find homes after their families have rejected them (over ¼ of homeless young people identify as LGBTQ+ according to research from the Albert Kennedy Trust). Neither does it support those who need help with suicidal ideation, nor continue the fight against conversion therapy, or stop important institutions like Manchester’s LGBT Foundation from having to close their doors.

We need to get this right. When it comes to how we discuss gender and sexuality it’s not a niche audience we’re highlighting, it’s a growing group that are questioning and accepting a new normal. The number of young people identifying as transgender has increased dramatically. A study from Gay Times and Karmarama showed that around 1 in 10 of 18-24 consider themselves transexual and only 35% of the same age group consider themselves to be 100% heterosexual.

That said, there are brands out there that are getting it right:

LEGO released their Everyone Is Awesome set on 1st June in partnership with Workplace Pride, Stonewall and Open for Business. This rainbow set with gender neutral mini figures was not only a cute way of celebrating diversity, it also gave LEGO the chance to show how they support diversity in the workforce.

Barclays is Pride in London’s main sponsor. It was also one of the first banks to feature a same-sex couple back in 2012 and has actively listened to and improved the workplace for LGBTQ+ colleagues.

And, Paddy Power, which could be considered a “lad brand”, has been one of the most imaginative supporters of the LGBTQ+ community. We worked with Paddy Power to create the From Russia with Equal Love campaign, where they committed to giving £10,000 to the Attitude Magazine Foundation for every goal Russia scored during the  2018 FIFA World Cup. They not only highlighted Russia’s history of violence towards LGBTQ+ people but the homophobia in football, all while raising £170,000.

So, what can you do?

Advertisers, marketers and communications specialists are in a very powerful position to guide brands into doing the right thing. These questions might help steer conversations and make valuable changes:

  • Is this activity only for June, what do you have planned for the rest of the year?
  • Does the brand have internal structures that help support and reflect the lives of LGBTQ+ people e.g. equal allowance for LGBTQ+ people needing to take time off when starting a family?
  • Who else do you donate to or sponsor, do their views match those of the Pride movement?

We have moved beyond discussing, providing visibility and “normalising” the community. It’s time to take action. Donate to charities, make real structural change, add value to the communities that are spending money with you. If a brand isn’t willing to fully show its out and proud support, then maybe it should sit back and listen.

David Blackett (me) in The Guardian talking about Disney World!

A few years ago (just before I took a break from writing) I was commissioned to write a travel piece for adults about to visit the happiest place on Earth. I love Disney, adults and the amount of attention that getting published in The Guardian gave me. Ideal work really. I was also commissioned to write a quiz about Marvel Cinematic Universe for The Guardian but it seems to have been lost to the sands of time which is a shame really, there was a great Doctor Strange joke in there.

A wedding that shouldn’t happen (or should it?)

I was given a brief to write a best man’s speech for a wedding that shouldn’t happen. This is what I wrote. I did not hear from the brief giver again. Enjoy!

Sally. Jack. I am so honoured to be here today and to be able to give you this speech. 

I can’t tell you how nervous I am. I’m not a fan of public speaking but I would do anything for you. Literally. Do you need me to grab you a drink before I go on? An extra cushion? Anything?

What a year it’s been. So much happened. So many changes. In all our lives. But this here today is a moment of light in a year of darkness. We’re the ones who survived. The ones you’ve chosen to celebrate this day with you.

We love you both. 

I love you both!

This is such a beautiful setting. A stunning, really astoundingly gothic castle. The decorations are just perfect. So many goats. Lots of goats. I can’t stop thinking about them.

Let’s all take a moment to look around this room [gesture at the room] and breathe it in. So many beautiful smiles radiating peace. Our tribe. So much love. Whatever you’ve done, or will do, know we love you.

But it’s not just those here with us today that’ve made you who you are. I want to take a moment to talk about those who can’t be here. 

Your parents who died in a car crash leaving the family fortune to you and your sister. So sad. 

Jolene, your sister, who was found hanging by her feet, her inner meat on the outside. Just all over the place. Who would have thought so much intestine could come out of someone so two dimensional?

Jim and Tommy. Hurled down a pit.

Ronny and the goat

We love you so much more than they did. They were disgusting.

We want to thank you for cementing a union which from its very beginning has been a glorious force for blood and murder across the world. Some of us remember when you were merely names on message boards. Back then you were ideas and ideals, on the cusp of action. Together you propelled each other to make your nightmare come true.

We bask in what you have created. This cult. This joyous, murder cult. 

Tonight you must choose two of us to die and wet your wedding bed. I just want to say it should be Kasandra, her coke habit’s made her intolerable and I can’t listen to hear speak about emotional vibrations one more GOD. DAMN TIME. 

Second, I really think, with all my soul that belongs to you, that Tom is another great choice for a sacrifice. Just look at him. He’s a shit. Totally unnecessary. 

Finally lets all raise a glass to you, our true leaders, the perfect couple for maiming and madness. We are eternally grateful you have come together to show us this new way of living and all of us that make it through the night [remember to look pointedly at Kasandra and Tom].

To the happy couple! All hail the goat. 

Where will you die in the office?

I threw these words together after reading far too much Click Hole showing that I am both adaptable and HILARIOUS.

We’ve all considered taking our lives before, during and after a slog at the office. But where is the best place? Thankfully HP has the answer.

A recent survey commissioned by HP and conducted by The International Funeral Society has found that the printer is most people’s preferred location of office death.

After extensive research it was discovered that employees no longer wanted to pass away in the peaceful dignity of the toilet cubicle as was previously thought. It was also discovered that more violent acts such as carrying a Ruger LCR into the office and ‘taking the team with you’ is now considered passé. Surprisingly it is also now thought ‘uncool’ to fall asleep in meetings and die whilst mumbling all the reasons you hate Jeanne from finance.

In a day and age where paperless offices are helping the fight against global warming the printer has become a a place of solitude. Printers, once the heart of every office are now a location where colleagues and senior management alike can stand and reflect on their terrible life choices alone until death eventually takes them in its cold lonely grasp.

Tessa from HR said ‘Yes, we’ve found a greater number collapsed decomposed meat sacks over the printer. Thankfully it’s a wipe clean surface and we’re not back in the dark days when team members would bring a sword to fall upon, the carpets were ruined.’

‘On a HP Officejet Pro X476DW, that would be going out in style.’ Tory from reception.

In a close second was making the stationary cupboard into a Matilda inspired ‘chokey’ and at third place was lift sabotage. In China the classic roof jump is still in vogue.

A representative from HP ‘We are always happy to discover that people are still using our products. However HP is committed to to decreasing the level of on printer deaths and has  partnered with Facebook so that pictures of loved ones will also be printed alongside your usual printer needs.

We have discontinued the MFP 8610 after a substantial reports of pictures of ex lovers getting married increased in office mortality rates.’

What straight people can learn from gays

In response to “Six sex and love lessons straight couples can learn from gay relationships,” by esteemed sex column veteran Tracey Cox I wrote about the seven things straight people could actually learn about from us gays for Vice.

Read the full article here and if you speak Danish and really wish it was accessible to you in this fair language then you’re in luck because here it is!

A very edited history of places I’ve been published

Is this a page I want to publish? Is this a page you want to read? I don’t think anyone has the answer. No one.

Here is where I’m going to post all the links to the dregs of my writing I find across the internet. Some bits are not great and other bits are.

FS Magazine is a sexual health publication but with swears. I had a blast writing for them even though the topics included the gay mental health crisis (this was written a number of years ago and thankfully feels out of date now) and how to stay safe on Grindr.

Vada was (is?) a gay lifestyle website that was (is?) set to rival the big boys like Attitude and Gay Times. I loved writing reviews and silly think pieces for them and when the editor decided to move on the pastures new I followed him on his journey across the internet to now defunct websites. Some highlights included the still relevant Animal Crossing bit, an adorable little insight into why I love Zelda so much and this oddly prescient take on Batfleck (yes we’re going back that far.) It also includes my take on a Bake Off recap that I was really proud of at the time but might not have aged well and I don’t dare look.