Major brands scaled back Pride Month campaigns in 2024. Here's why that matters.

 


At Pride parades and protests, adults often voice a sentiment of hope for young generations: “The youth are the future.”

Forget about the future, Alyssa Wainaina would tell you – youth are doing the work right now. The 24-year-old community organizer with the non-profit Advocates for Youth has been in activism for 10 years, securing gender-neutral bathrooms in Idaho public schools, attending protests and advocating for reproductive rights and gender-affirming care. A 2022 survey from research firm Edelman found that 70% of Gen Zers are involved in a social or political cause.

“Young people have consistently been at the front of movement work,” Wainaina said. “Saying ‘youth are the future’ is … not the full story. Youth are the past and the present and the future."

But their efforts can be even more fruitful with the support of adults, said Faith Cardillo, a 19-year-old member of the nonprofit Queer Youth Assemble and the founder of Bulletproof Pride, a gun violence prevention nonprofit.

"Are we going to use our voice? Yes, should we have to by ourselves? Absolutely not," Cardillo said.

Wainaina understands that forward-looking sentiment often comes from older activists who know how long it takes to bring about change.

But the future focus also drives long-time activists, like Cathy Renna, director of communications at the National LGBTQ+ Task Force, nuts. She finds it “a little bit insulting."

"I say that as a near-60-year-old," she said. "I can’t imagine how it makes young people feel, it’s patronizing.” She prioritizes working with young people, not because they are the "future," but because that’s “where the energy is,” she said.

With social media, Gen Z is certainly shaking up how activism is done. But that doesn’t mean youth organizing is new.

After the 1969 Stonewall uprising, the LGBTQ+ movement became less about respectability politics and more about liberation. Several youth groups emerged in the following decade.

These youth groups grew out of necessity, said Eric Denby, a history and social sciences instructor at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. Young people were often left out of the mainstream because older LGBTQ+ activists feared being associated with minors would lead them to be labeled predators, a troubling concern historically wielded against the LGBTQ+ community. Rather than just focusing on the fight for legal rights, LGBTQ+ teenagers wanted peer-led spaces to support an array of pressing issues, addressing their housing and employment needs and providing emotional support for youth experiencing homophobia, Denby said. 

In fact, many present at the Stonewall riots were young people. The legal drinking age in New York was 18 in 1969, and Stonewall had a reputation for letting in even younger patrons, Denby found in his research.

“They’ve got that energy and the naivete,” Denby said. “They haven’t been beaten down by a system that’s designed to beat them down.”

Pluto Fitch, a 17-year-old member of Queer Youth Assemble, said that energy is what makes youth activism so successful. In the past few years, Queer Youth Assemble members have hosted walkouts across the country, offered peer support, and created educational materials to share on social media – all while juggling high school and college responsibilities.

“There have been so many recent bills that have been trying to shut us down and we’re not having it. We’re completely going against it and we want to be ourselves,” Fitch said. “We’ve got the energy, we mostly have the time and we want to get it fixed before we are old enough that it can’t be done anymore.”

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Young people want activism to look different

In peer-led spaces, young activists don’t have to ask permission to fight for what’s important to them.

“We’re not treated as people who can be leaders,” said Queer Youth Assemble Co-President Alia Cusolito, 18. “There are very full human beings existing right now who are young and have dreams and hopes for their own lives that they want to fulfill and they should be able to do that.”

Queer Youth Assemble hosts a National March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in D.C. in 2023.

Being a young activist means thinking creatively.

“Obviously, we’ve seen that systemically, the old way doesn’t work,” Cardillo said. “Just hosting a rally once or maybe twice in a few areas that may be hubs for queer identities – that doesn’t work.”

On a video call with USA TODAY, Queer Youth Assemble members between 14 and 19 described hours-long Zoom hangouts, the thousands of TikTok comments they sorted through when organizing a national walkout and the birthday cards and postcards they sent to queer youth across the country. Only a handful of them have met in real life, but they've created a safe space online.

Social media is in part to thank for this. But that much visibility online can lead to safety concerns. Queer Youth Assemble marches and protests have received several “mass violence threats,” Cusolito said. It's not uncommon for social media discourse to lead to real-life threats. In November 2023, a USA TODAY investigation confirmed dozens of bomb threats, death threats, and other harassment after popular conservative social media channels posted about LGBTQ+ events.

But the threats will uphold their vision for the future. They prioritize lived experiences over statistics. They don’t care about aligning themselves with corporate allies who sell rainbow merch during June, Cusolito says. And young people are emphasizing intersectionality, an interconnected understanding of identity and oppression.

“Our generation is working hard to radically decenter whiteness in our organizing work,” Wainaina said. “We focus on the most marginalized communities so that all of us can benefit.”

More than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in 2024, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, many of them targeting trans and nonbinary individuals. Trans people are more likely to be in poverty than their cisgender counterparts, even more likely if they are people of color.

Queer Youth Assemble members at an annual "Let Trans Athletes Play" event in 2022.

How Adults Can Support Youth Activists

The older generation can do the most for youth activists by being present, Wainaina said: “The most important thing is to be a ride or die for these youth activists.” Adults need to let young people create new ways of organizing. To let them lead and even fail on their way.

Generations working together is key to success, Denby said. He explained that some of the longest-lasting youth groups from the 70s and 80s were peer-led but had the assistance of experienced, adult activists who could navigate bureaucracy. 

“The whole world is run by adults,” Cusolito echoed. “So expecting young people to take on the burden of changing everything when they don’t let us actually have the power to do those things is completely unfair.”

It’s also the responsibility of adults to create safe spaces for queer youth as their autonomy is threatened on state and federal levels, said Kazz Alexander, a co-chair of NYC Pride. NYC Youth Pride, for example, is a free event with music, carnival games, educational resources, food, a glam tent, and a wellness tent for reflective moments.

“It’s a reflection of the time that we’re in – folks are trying to remove the safety of young people under the guise of providing it,” Alexander said. “But this is actually what providing a safe space looks like.”

Fifty-five years after a raid on New York City's Stonewall Inn sparked riots that catalyzed the gay liberation movement and became a cornerstone of modern LGBTQ advocacy, Pride celebrations are bigger and bolder than ever. Meant to commemorate the Stonewall uprising each June, Pride Month in many parts of the world has grown into a four-week extravaganza marked by parades, parties, concerts, and an array of cultural events that pay homage to its roots in free expression and identity.

Corporations have cashed in on the festivities, especially since the U.S. legalized marriage equality in 2015.

But this year, public-facing Pride campaigns at some of the world's largest brands were quieter than usual. At other companies that previously had them, they were completely absent. Fewer public campaigns mean less visibility, which LGBTQ advocates and consumers in the community say can be dangerous in myriad ways.

Last year's conservative backlash

"Corporate Pride" entered mainstream conversations last summer as a flashpoint in the political debate over LGBTQ rights and, specifically, rights for transgender students and young people. To that end, 527 bills to limit those rights were introduced between 2023 and 2024 in legislatures in all but nine U.S. states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Dozens have already passed.

In the shadow of that legislative trend, and as the mounting election cycle continued to polarize the country on issues around queer and trans rights, a handful of the world's most prominent brands contended with a firestorm of backlash over their Pride campaigns leading up to, and during, Pride Month last summer. 

Some Target Stores Move LGBTQ Items To Lesser Seen Areas To Avoid Conservative Bashlash
Pride Month merchandise is displayed at a Target store on May 31, 2023JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES

Attacks on Target and Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of Bud Light, were among the most visible. At Target, which had been releasing Pride-themed collections for more than a decade, some customers took aim at a swimsuit labeled "tuck-friendly" that was intended to be trans-inclusive. Social media users claimed the swimsuit was designed for children, even though Target only sold it in adult sizes. For Bud Light, a longtime supporter of the LGBTQ community, a collaboration with trans social media star Dylan Mulvaney stoked conservative fury.

What began as disapproval from loud and impassioned fringe groups on the far right quickly spiraled into a wider crusade that at one point involved some Republican leaders, commentators and even some celebrities. Along with fierce calls for boycotts against both companies, Target said customers angered by the Pride collection had knocked over displays in some of its stores and gone so far as to threaten employees. In a viral video, one customer was seen confronting a Target worker over the brand's "Satanic Pride propaganda."

Target initially responded to the backlash by moving Pride collections to the backs of its stores in several Southern states, while Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth addressed the controversy indirectly in a statement that said the company "never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people." Leading LGBTQ organizations accused the brands of caving to conservative pressure at the expense of queer and trans people, in a moment where the allyship those companies claimed to value was being put to the test.

Bud Light and Target each reported a drop in sales in the aftermath of the controversies, with one Target executive attributing the decline to the "strong reaction" to its Pride merchandise. 

A toned-down Pride Month

This year, Target announced it was cutting back on the number of stores that would carry Pride Month-related merchandise, after previously featuring the annual collection at all of its 2,000 or so locations. The Minneapolis-based corporation said the 2024 Pride line would be "in select stores, based on historical sales performance," but available in its entirety online.

"Target is committed to supporting the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride Month and year-round," a Target spokesperson said in a statement to CBS News in May, noting Target's programs to support queer employees and its internal plans to celebrate Pride in 2024.

"Beyond our own teams, we will have a presence at local Pride events in Minneapolis and around the country, and we continue to support several LGBTQIA+ organizations," the statement added.

This was also the first year since 1999 without a Pride collection from Nike, which was historically a vocal ally. The company found itself facing criticism over a collaboration with Mulvaney leading up to Pride in 2023 and said it was turning its focus this year toward programming and ongoing support for the LGBTQ community in place of its traditional apparel line.

"Nike exists to champion athletes and sport — and for us that means all bodies, all movement, and all journeys," a Nike spokesperson said in a statement to CBS News. "Nike has a long history of standing with the LGBTQIA+ community, which focuses on uplifting, inspiring, and educating through community grants, employee engagement, athlete partnerships, public policy, powerful storytelling, and products that celebrate the community."

"While there is no global Be True product collection for 2024, Nike remains deeply committed to this work," the spokesperson said.

A survey of executives at major corporations, including Fortune 500 companies, conducted earlier this year by Gravity Research found that one-third of the responding brands labeled "consumer staples" — like retail companies — planned to change their engagement strategies for Pride Month in 2024 compared with the approaches they took in 2023.

LGBTQ organizations are taking a hit

Advocates say Nike has built up its allyship behind the scenes — which, they emphasize, is what matters most — and it isn't alone in doing so. 

Still, as public-facing brand campaigns for Pride have partly fizzled, the consequences have trickled down to LGBTQ nonprofit organizations and LGBTQ influencers. Nonprofits have received fewer material resources from their corporate partners this year, according to Paul Irwin-Dudek, the deputy executive director for development at the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLSEN. And influencers said they've seen fewer commitments from clients since the 2023 controversy. 

Around the time that Target announced its plans to scale down Pride displays in retail stores, the company also ended a decadelong partnership with GLSEN, which runs a huge network of programs centered around queer and trans youth as well as workplace inclusivity, said Irwin-Dudek. GLSEN helps companies shape their Pride campaigns, among other things.

Irwin-Dudek told CBS News that other corporations took a step back from previous partnerships with the organization — and from Pride Month — this year because they didn't know how to engage with it without becoming part of the Target narrative or facing additional blowback themselves.

"At the end of the day, nobody wants to be part of that narrative," said Irwin-Dudek. "I think, and I can say this across the entire landscape of queer organizations, we have all taken a hit to our revenues this year because of the setback that many corporate partners have done in June."

Members of the LGBTQ community who spoke to CBS News — and who aren't affiliated with any political or advocacy organization — were largely disappointed by this year's diminished corporate Pride displays, but they weren't surprised. It was evidence, several people believe, that companies will only be allies for as long as it's comfortable and convenient for them.

"We already had our criticisms of Pride being a hollow thing, and I think that's what pushed brands to actually put more material support behind it and that meant that brands were listening to the queer audience about Pride, about how they could make Pride more inclusive or more reputable or legit," said a 30-year-old queer and trans writer living in New York who asked not to be named. "So, the fact that they're now listening and kowtowing to the right is very scary. Because suddenly we're not in the demographic that they're catering to. Regardless of whether the demographic they're catering to is about money, it shows how they see our identities as being financially conditional."

"Rainbow washing" and corporate values

Some research has shown that American consumers are twice as likely to buy from a brand or use its products if that brand publicly supports and shows commitment to the LGBTQ community. A December 2022 study from GLAAD, a prominent LGBTQ nonprofit that focuses on media monitoring and representation, and the Edelman Trust Institute, a think tank, found that most Americans expect businesses and their leadership to stand up for LGBTQ rights.

For some companies, outward displays of support for LGBTQ rights and inclusivity during Pride are an extension of their support over the other 11 months of the year. 

Other companies, however, roll out flashy Pride campaigns once a year without making sincere commitments to the people and issues they impact — drawing accusations of opportunistic advertising, virtue signaling, and profitable exploitation. Some critics believe that launching arbitrarily Pride-themed product lines offends and belittles the cause that the merchandise claims to defend. 

Some corporate attempts to make sales off of Pride Month with fleeting, and, by some accounts, haphazard, campaigns have fueled skepticism from LGBTQ consumers frustrated by the prevalence of "rainbow washing," where Pride regalia is used as a profitable marketing tactic by brands that don't offer lasting or meaningful support. Also called "pinkwashing" and "rainbow capitalism," the practice is widely considered exploitative, and, with the rise of social media, it's also becoming well known. Comedian Meg Stalter's impersonation of a small-town butter shop employee who opens an ad with "Hi gay," and says her business is "sashaying away with deals" for Pride Month, has been viewed almost 2.2 million times.

"We know that our community is critical of companies who pop in to be supportive for one month out of the year and then leave," said Meghan Bartley, the brand engagement lead at GLAAD. "It feels like we aren't cared about as a community."

The British retailer Marks & Spencer's notorious "LGBT sandwich" — a BLT with guacamole — is one example of the seemingly random array of goods that brands tend to refurbish in kaleidoscopic packaging come June, stamped with logos and taglines linked to Pride despite being evidently unrelated to it. Items that get the seasonal Pride treatment run the gamut from special edition lattes to Johnson & Johnson's line of rainbow-packaged Listerine, and the list goes on. This year, iHeartRadio listeners in New York City who tuned in on June 1 would have heard a commercial for toilet paper tenuously crafted under the banner of Pride.

Yet as imperfect as corporate Pride marketing can be, critics of rainbow washing or trivializing Pride displays largely agree that the opportunity to critique LGBTQ brand campaigns is a privilege, and many say the fact that those campaigns exist is usually better than their not existing at all.

Many members of the LGBTQ community who talked to CBS News say that even rudimentary Pride displays, like rainbow flags or graphic T-shirts in a storefront window, provide some level of visibility that can help normalize LGBTQ identities and, ultimately, move the needle in terms of acceptance among people outside of the community. 

Bartley, with GLAAD, echoed their sentiments and said the visibility that public Pride campaigns offer can have a measurable impact on the daily experiences of people who are closeted, or who've come out in an environment that doesn't welcome who they are.

"Greater visibility for Pride campaigns has allowed more and more people who are in our community, and maybe not comfortable coming out, understand that there's a space for them to be accepted when they see more and more visibility and acceptance in their lived spaces," said Bartley.

The future of Pride campaigns

Some corporations that push Pride campaigns have made an effort to be allies beyond Pride Month alone.

Johnson & Johnson's thematic Listerine bottle was released in 2019 as part of its ongoing "Care With Pride" initiative, which partners with LGBTQ advocacy groups to foster an inclusive workplace and has so far donated at least $1 million to LGBTQ nonprofit organizations, according to the company. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, has also ranked Johnson & Johnson as one of the best places in the U.S. for queer people to work.

Disney, Hollister, REI, and Proctor and Gamble are a few more brands that advocacy groups have commended for taking steps toward consistent allyship — both publicly and behind the scenes. 

When looking at the overall landscape, the LGBTQ advocacy groups that talked to CBS News don't believe corporate Pride campaigns will disappear in the long term.

Both Irwin-Dudek and Bartley said companies can change their ethos by ensuring LGBTQ people are at the table whenever marketing plans are conceived and developed for Pride, whether they're employees of the company or outside resources. And Eric Bloem, vice president of programs and corporate advocacy at the Human Rights Campaign, told CBS News in a statement that the organization's own research shows "that the business environment, despite the best efforts of fringe groups to derail long-standing principles of inclusion, has and always will be pro-equality."

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