Rainbow Capitalism or Socialist Revolution: Which Way Forward for LGBTQ Rights?

In June 2021, a study found that 25 major corporations which had undergone a rainbow transformation for Pride Month had also donated over $10 million between them to anti-LGBTQ politicians. Walmart, for example, donated $30,000 to Arkansas lawmakers who helped pass a law banning gender-affirming treatment for trans youth. At the same time, the corporation was selling rainbow merchandise on the “Pride and Joy” section of their website.

This is a typical example of “rainbow capitalism”: corporations embracing LGBTQ-friendly branding during Pride Month, while at best doing nothing and at worst actively undermining the struggle for LGBTQ rights. In general, capitalists have largely been successful at transforming Pride from a radical demonstration against an oppressive system into what is essentially a month-long marketing campaign full of rainbow branding and affirming taglines. Meanwhile, the vast majority of LGBTQ people continue to be crushed by the weight of capitalism. How did Pride end up this way, and where do we go from here?

Rainbow Capitalism LGBTQ Struggle Fightback
In order to achieve true liberation, it will be necessary to overthrow the capitalist class. / Image: Fightback

Pride started as a riot

On June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gathering place for the LGBTQ community. Patrons were rounded up and arrested. Such a raid was not an uncommon occurrence—homosexuality and gender non-conformance were still criminalized, and gay bars were raided frequently. At Stonewall, though, the community fought back against the police, throwing bricks and debris at the cops and drawing a crowd from the neighborhood. The uprising lasted several days and was a galvanizing force for LGBTQ activism in the United States. The following year, the first pride parade was held in New York to commemorate the uprising. This is the origin of Pride Month, which is celebrated each June across North America. At its inception, Pride was about LGBTQ resistance against the repressive bourgeois state, and about celebrating sexual and gender identities which have been oppressed within class society, asserting their continued survival against attempts to stamp them out.

It was clear to many that the main struggle of LGBTQ people was against the capitalist state, with police harassment providing vivid proof of this. Layers of the movement became very militant, seeing the link between the struggles of LGBTQ people, of Black people, and the antiwar movement, and drawing anti-capitalist conclusions. For example, following its foundation, the Gay Liberation Front said in an article:

We are a revolutionary group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature…

We, like everyone else, are treated as commodities. We’re told what to feel, what to think… We identify ourselves with all the oppressed: the Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the blacks, the workers… all those oppressed by this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked-up capitalist conspiracy.

However, as with other struggles of the era, while there was a strong anticapitalist trend, the movement was far from unified around socialist ideas. This lack of agreement around what they were fighting for, lack of organization, and ultimately lack of revolutionary, Marxist leadership disorganized and undermined the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Eventually, the capitalist state sought to demobilize the movement by granting certain reforms and fostering a layer of the ruling class from oppressed groups. In doing so, they were greatly aided by the ideas of identity politics.

Identity politics and tokenization

While there are many schools of identity politics, what they have in common is that they all focus on questions of identity over questions of politics, or at least equate the two. Hence, we see an emphasis on narratives, paradigms, language, and subjective experience. At its base, this approach stems from postmodernism, especially the notion that reality is shaped by ideas, and therefore can be molded through discourse.

A common expression of this is the debate around “representation.” A typical assertion among those layers of the left who have taken up identity politics is that “progressivism” is tied to identity—the more oppressed identities someone holds, the more progressive they are. The argument goes that having people of oppressed identities in positions of visibility and power will necessarily be good for all oppressed people, because of the unique experiences and insights they bring.

However, having representation has yet to bear fruit for oppressed groups. There is a long list of LGBTQ celebrities and politicians who not only don’t help LGBTQ workers, but are actively reactionary. Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic gold medalist and parent of Kylie and Kendall who made headlines when she came out as trans in 2015, is an avowed Republican. RuPaul, drag performer and host of RuPaul’s Drag Race, profits off of fracking operations on his 60,000 acres of land. When it comes to politics, one needs only to look at figures like former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne or ex-Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, both of whom were run-of-the-mill center-right bourgeois politicians despite both being gay. While they could use their identities to present a sheen of progressiveness, that had no impact on what they actually stood for. The cuts that Wynne made to education and healthcare in Ontario hurt working class people just as much as if they’d come from a straight premier. It’s self-evident that someone’s identity as a member of an oppressed group does not determine their politics.

What actually plays a determining role is class, as Marxists point out. Members of the ruling class will defend the system that they rule, no matter what oppressed group they come from. Far from helping the struggle for liberation, what these figures actually do is help to deradicalize it. They allow the capitalists to say, for example, “A gay man can run for president, the system works!” Never mind the fact that the vast majority of LGBTQ workers are exploited and will never come close to political power under capitalism.

Not only does identity politics fail as a basis of struggle, it’s actually an obstacle. The current state of Pride further demonstrates this.

Rainbow capitalism

Wherever you look throughout Pride Month, you are bound to see a multitude of rainbow logos. Everyone from the banks to the U.S. Marine Corps rebrands at the stroke of midnight on June 1, proclaiming across social media that their business believes that #LoveIsLove. Pride parades across North America have been overtaken by corporate floats. Major businesses fall all over each other to express their “allyship” with the LGBTQ community.

“We will continue to focus on inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community… I look forward to the work that we’ll do together to ensure all feel welcomed, appreciated, and supported to make an impact.” So said Walmart vice president Donna Morris in 2021, as her company was bankrolling attacks on trans youth.

The apparent contradiction between what corporations say and what they do can be explained very easily. The capitalists are only concerned with one thing: profit. They throw their weight behind whichever politicians and policies will allow them to make the most money, while their “corporate values” dissolve behind them like cotton candy in the rain. These corporations only took up their rainbow branding in the first place when popular sentiment became so clearly pro-LGBTQ that rainbow branding would help sales and not hurt them. We should be clear that they are in fact tailending popular support for LGBTQ rights, not spearheading it. This is made easier by the logic of identity politics. A movement that’s based on changing the system is a threat to capitalists; but one that’s based on changing narratives is something that they can profit off of.

The shallowness and hypocrisy of corporate pride is obvious to more and more people. Many young LGBTQ people have lost patience with rainbow capitalism. They see that corporations do not have their best interests at heart, and that rainbow logos and #LoveIsLove ads do nothing to address the material problems facing the community: homelessness, conversion therapy, violence and discrimination. Social media is filled with popular memes mocking these cynical rainbow-plastered advertisements, and the frustration with corporate pride is clear.

In response, the arguments of identity politics are now being mobilized against this growing discontent. A recent editorial in the Washington Post does this explicitly, saying, “This Pride Month, I’m embracing ‘rainbow capitalism’.” The columnist writes, “Yes, it’s capitalism at work, and it’s soulless. But it’s there.” This writer points to the recent past, when pride parades were community events met by hecklers, to say that these corporate “allies” are proof of how far we have come. He adds, “But if you never see yourself represented, you are most likely to believe what others say about you. Representation matters even if it comes in the form of a rainbow shirt on a dog. Somewhere that dog shirt is helping someone.”

According to the logic of identity politics, this is entirely correct. If the path to equality runs through good representation and ideas in public discourse, then lip service, as part of the discourse, is more than just lip service; it’s a means of changing the world. Corporations, which control the media and therefore representation, have a valuable role to play by turning that power towards good, regardless of their role in society as exploiters of the working class. If one accepts the premises of identity politics, then the view that rainbow capitalism is a good thing is the natural conclusion.

The problem is that the corporatization of pride is not a small step forward. It is not even a neutral development that’s just “there.” It is a step backwards, supplanting the goal of liberation with that of “inclusion,” and creating the impression of progress while LGBTQ people are being attacked. In the United States, 2021 was the worst year for legislation against LGBTQ rights in recent history. The ability of trans youth to receive gender-affirming care and to participate in sports is being attacked. Mentions of any sexual orientation are being banned in schools. In the U.S., 22% of LGBTQ people live in poverty, compared to 16% of straight people. In Canada 25–40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, and LGBTQ people are more likely to be targets of violence. “A rainbow shirt on a dog” does not solve any of these problems.

Identity politics is a dead end. What we need instead is class-based politics that recognize the capitalists as the enemy and exploiter of the oppressed and working class, no matter what flag the capitalists try to wrap themselves in. We need revolutionary politics that’s not aimed at changing discourse, but aimed at overthrowing the system that oppresses the vast majority of LGBTQ people around the world. That system is capitalism—we need to fight for socialism.

Somewhere over the rainbow?

The radicals of the 1970s were right that the fight against LGBTQ oppression is linked to the struggles of other oppressed people, and that all of these struggles are linked to the fight against capitalist exploitation. They understood that the issues that impact LGBTQ people the most—state oppression, access to health care, housing discrimination, job discrimination—are broad problems that cannot be addressed without taking on the question of who controls the wealth and power in society: the workers or the capitalists. This is particularly true in times of crisis, like we are experiencing now, when the ruling class is trying to claw back the gains of previous decades and make the working class pay for the crisis. Moreover, these are issues that affect all working class people to a greater or lesser degree, and that workers can unite around to fight for on a class basis.

Of course, prejudice exists within the working class itself, but that too can only be fought on a class basis. As Engels wrote in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, gender oppression first arose with the advent of class society and private property. Private property means inheritance, and inheritance requires guaranteeing the paternity of children. This in turn requires societal control over women, and the reification of the heterosexual family unit. There is a material, class-based reason why this kind of oppression began.

Stonewall Riot
The radicals of the 1970s were right that the fight against LGBTQ oppression is linked to the fight against capitalist exploitation. / Image: public domain

There is also a material, class-based reason for why it continues: a working class that is divided by hatred, fear, and inequality is easier to exploit. Homophobia and transphobia have been carefully shaped and nurtured by the ruling class and its institutions, and while the specifics of this oppression have changed as society itself changes, it has not yet been eliminated. That is because changing opinions and ideas are not enough: the only way to end oppression completely is to get rid of the material conditions that have given rise to it, and to get rid of the ruling class.

Workers have no material interest in oppressing each other—and most LGBTQ people are workers, facing very real working-class problems like poverty, housing shortages, and unemployment. Divide-and-rule tactics can work not because workers are innately full of suspicion and hatred towards each other, but because they are afraid of losing their benefits, their standard of living, their ability to feed their families. The way forward is not to play to these divisions, but to make the argument that we are stronger when we fight together.

Divide and rule is an increasingly difficult tactic for the ruling class to use. The recent anti-trans legislation being passed in the U.S. is unpopular among two-thirds of the population, across all age groups and voting habits. The ruling class is just using it to try to distract from massive inflation and declining standards of living, and they are failing. Straight workers have much more in common with LGBTQ workers than with their bosses, and that is being recognized more and more—just as more and more LGBTQ workers are realizing that the way to fight their oppression is through class struggle, not through pride-branded products.

In order to achieve true liberation, it will be necessary to overthrow the capitalist class. Then, with the wealth of society democratically controlled by the workers, we can implement a program of social housing, including for homeless LGBTQ people. We can provide truly universal and accessible health care, including gender-affirming treatment. We can dissolve the police forces that harass and assault LGBTQ people. And, incidentally, with media and education under workers’ democratic control, we can combat prejudices, and give true representation to LGBTQ stories and perspectives—for the sake of enriching society, rather than for the sake of profit.

Socialist revolution, not rainbow capitalism!

Fight LGBTQ oppression through class struggle!


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