Rainbow Capitalism & the Harmful Contradiction of Corporate PRIDE Gestures

There have been great strides in supporting the LGBT community in the workplace and through society that deserve a light shed upon them. For example, in 2017, as part of Fortune 500, nondiscrimination policies had been developed for sexual orientation in 91% of the companies and for gender identity in 83% of the companies within the list. This represents the positive impact that companies have adapted toward LGBT inclusivity whether through practices or policies. However, rainbow/pink capitalism and pinkwashing through workforces and corporations have created an empty ‘acceptance’ for the LGTB community. The incorporation of pinkwashing, the LGBT movement, sexual diversity, and gender into the corporate world has created a fake image of advocacy for the rights and well-being of the community. Entering June, which globally is ‘Pride Month’ – the month of LGBT acceptance, integration, and visibility – corporations take it upon themselves to vaguely support the community by adapting it as a marketing opportunity. It is much easier to place a rainbow flag background on any logo than to develop new strategies and frameworks to fit the cause.

For example, Adidas had a special section of its site called the “pride pack” selling rainbow merchandise to honor Pride Month. However, it was one of the major sponsors for the 2018 World Cup in Russia – a nation with anti-LGBT laws and practices which made it unsafe for athletes and fans. This should make consumers and the general public question what these brands and corporations are exactly supporting and where the profits are going. Are companies truly in support of the acceptance, integration, and visibility of the LGBT community?

These empty gestures undermine the intentions of Pride Month and continue to be an essence of barriers the LGBT community faces. However, there are ways that companies, regardless of whether through the month of June or throughout the year, can ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and show consumers and the public their genuine pride and support for the LGBT community. Essentially it is crucial that corporations engage with the LGBT community through the initiation of policy frameworks. These frameworks are intended on outlining the company’s positions and behavior expectations targeting mainly employment. This may be adapted through the use of gender-neutral language in corporate policy (singular they/them pronouns when discussing a hypothetical employee rather than saying he or him/her). This also includes issues such as dress codes and guidelines that are not gender-specific. Instead of offering dress code guidelines specific to only men or only women, the gender-neutral guideline may state that employees are expected to wear appropriate business attire. Policy framework transformation also includes implementing LGBT inclusive policies such as health benefits and healthcare coverage that is more inclusive or such as nondiscrimination policies that protect LGBT people. Whether policy developments or corporate initiatives, there needs to be the space to evolve with the needs of the corporation, society and the employees. Hence, the concept of continuous development is necessary to consider when discussing policy transformation and general corporate initiatives.

Through monitoring and evaluation within any corporation or organization, incorporating the LGBT community and LGBT diversity is essential for LGBT inclusion as well as for corporate development. Therefore, by incorporating LGBT diversity metrics into senior management performance measures and implementing performance measures, companies/organizations can continue to improve their workplace performances. Internal modifications, as part of the responsibilities of corporations to increase LGBT inclusivity and inclusivity practices, create a safe space for employees and customers or consumers. 

In some (if not around half) U.S. states, state law does not explicitly prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This means that being out as an LGBT individual at work in those states may be grounds for dismissal. Yet, through continuous practices such as diversity training throughout the company (review discrimination/harassment policies, harmful language, etc), fostering inclusive leadership teams, and engaging employees who identify look over diversity and inclusion training materials, a safe workplace environment is consequently developed, with the support of legal or policy changes. The Arab Institute for Women would not be considered as successful support for the LGBT community if it had not been applying such practices into its planning and framework. Supportive organizations, institutes, or corporations function on the basis of addressing the issues of rights, representation, and justice. Having panel discussions and speaking series throughout the years represented by leadership, members, and experts within the field of gender, vulnerable groups, well-being, and the LGBT community has led the Aiw’s practices to be recognized as successful toward awareness of the LGBT community and marginalized groups in the MENA region. This direct representation implemented into an educational scope has led to transparent acts of genuine support far away from pinkwashing capitalism.

Particularly, through merchandise and marketing, a beneficial practice includes having individuals who identify as LGBT involved with planning events or merchandise for pride and taking their input in the planning process. The goal is not to use pride as a path to benefit a business’s financial goal, but rather to emphasize the goal of celebrating Pride Month and continuously showcase the amount of support throughout the entire year. Through such practices, it is important to also address intersectionality in advertising. Hence, including more members of the LGBT community than just white, cisgender, affluent gay men as it is mainly portrayed. Having the LGBT community in the plan designing incorporates hiring LGBT photographers, writers, designers, etc., to highlight the essence of Pride Month and being queer, going beyond the rainbow representation through engaging other symbols, and using wide scopes of coverage and voices to educate and change perspective. Pride month is the perfect timing for brands and corporations to use their platforms and scopes to create a change. But change within the corporate scope also includes an emphasis on where corporate money is put. 

Those advertising pride merchandise and making a profit out of them is simply an empty message when they support other corporations, individuals, or group entities that are anti-LGBT. Great harm os caused when the money given or donated ends up being used against the community in manners that continuously harms their acceptance, integration, visibility, and attainability to rights. 

So ultimate transparency as to where corporate money is taken, allows the consumers and the public to judge for themselves. But transparency also falls into partners of a corporation. The Arab Institute for Women has long-term partners such as HELEM and Mosaic who are civil society groups that not only focus on the rights of all marginalized and vulnerable groups but specifically members of the LGBT community. These partnerships share identified values and lead the path to breaking barriers specifically for women, vulnerable and marginalized groups, and the LGBT community. The values of any corporation or institute are meant to be in line with investors and partners. Hence, if the Arab Institute for Women did not follow its values and those of partners, it would not be capable of continuing its bi-annual journal al-Raida. The research the institute does emphasizes the importance of LGBT inclusivity and integration in areas aside from simply brands and advertising. Al-Raida’s consists of a full published issue and various articles published throughout the years that target LGBT issues within a major scope of interest. Hence, showcasing integration, engagement, and visibility through research, the institute’s public image, and the benefit of the LGBT community. The Institute serves as an example when considering best practices to apply in order to engage the LGBT community in a corporation. However, it is still very important to consider the ground on which the AiW stands – Lebanon. Within the legal limitations within the country, the institute still uses its platforms, the partnership, and funding of embassies and organizations to continuously have LGBT voices heard, have LGBT members through the work itself, and have a safe space (virtual or physical) that sees and embraces the LGBT community.

Following the engagement, it is crucial for corporations to be capable of staying informed on LGBT issues because ultimate support does not end when June ends nor when profits might not appear as desired. This may be implemented through gaining input and updates from internal human resources staff, LGBT organizations, business networks, employee resource groups, media, internal corporate/public/internal affairs staff, and consumers. The general shift in focus from using Pride and LGBT inclusion for only capitalistic benefits may be considered within short-term advancements, however, the true business and social advancements include concrete and efficient developments as those mentioned earlier. There is not merely one department or one individual within a company to create a change, but rather requires the entire entity of the company to be involved. It has never been a one-person job. But the essence of social influence is possible through this integration. It may not only be about what to do and what not to do as a corporate, but rather as consumers, where do we go from here? Do we remain blind to the rhetoric joke capitalism has made onto Pride Month through pinkwashing? Or do we start to educate ourselves and others on the limited change taking place? Is there any change that takes place through June and the rest of the year from corporate?

LGBTIQ Community in Times of Crisis in Lebanon & Syria

In a society where restrictive conceptions of masculinity and femininity pervade all aspects of one’s life, as most societies in our world today do, navigating queer identity can be a complex and emotionally challenging experience. Existing outside of the role one has been prescribed in their society is made particularly challenging within historically oppressive contexts. In a webinar hosted by the Gender, Justice, and Security Hub on January 26, 2021, entitled “LGBTIQ Community in Times of Crisis,” Charbel Maydaa, Becca Potton, Caroline Chayya, and Henri Myrttinen discussed their research on the impact of the Syrian Civil War and the Lebanese Revolution on LGBT people in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey.  

Over the course of the webinar, the researchers gave two slideshow presentations, which highlighted the background and key findings of their research, showed two documentary films they had created, and held question-and-answer sessions so that attendees could inquire about the presentations and documentaries. The first presentation explained how the Lebanese Revolution was halted inorganically by the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing those who were calling for change from achieving their goals. The queer community played a large role in organizing protests, and during protests, many queer individuals found that those with whom they were protesting protected them and wanted to learn about their identities. However, they felt increasingly unsafe as more and more police officers infiltrated protests and began harassing individuals who they believed were not cisgender or heterosexual.

In Syria, the researchers found that queer individuals faced a great deal of violence at the hands of both state and nonstate actors. It was found that in Syria, there is a significant demand for individuals who are assigned male at birth to perform normative heterosexual masculinity. Often, at military personnel operating checkpoints gay and bisexual men, as well as transgender women, will be attacked for appearing “soft.” LGBT Syrians also face the threat of being kicked out of their homes and losing their inheritances if their families discover they are not heterosexual or cisgender.  Some Syrian families will also report queer family members to militias, endangering their physical safety.

An individual who was interviewed as a part of the second documentary that was shown commented that he felt he had a better opportunity to explore his sexuality in Turkey as a refugee than he did at home in Syria. An important element of his ability to discover himself, he mentioned, was the internet access he had in Turkey, which he used to engage with others in discussions of sexuality and queer identity. Online spaces are a valuable resource for people who are discovering or trying to discover their sexuality or gender identity, as they provide access to information about queer identity and connection with individuals who are having similar experiences with gender and sexuality.  

For young people in particular, web resources are highly practical because one does not need physical transportation to access a community or information.  Recently, the Arab Institute for Women launched a web platform to support LGBTQ youth in Lebanon and the Arab world, called Shabaket el Meem.  This platform, which can be reached at the web address www.shabaketelmeem.com, creates spaces for young people who are learning about and growing into their sexual orientations and gender identities to learn terminology they may not yet be familiar with, ask questions about queer identity, share personal experiences, and learn about topics of gender and sexuality from both podcasts and animated videos. With the use of online queer spaces such as Shabaket el Meem, young people throughout the Arab region can learn about the LGBT community and their place in it without the stigma and negativity that might accompany such discussions in other contexts.

The documentary films that were showcased in the webinar brought up the significance of community and the presence of elders in queer spaces as a demonstration that one can exist truthfully throughout their life regardless of their environment.  In discussing this, one documentary subject powerfully stated, “it is nice to know they exist here.” In the second documentary, another subject brought up the exploitation of LGBT individuals in the job market, mentioning that LGBT people face sexual exploitation from superiors and are often forced to work more hours and receive lower pay than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts.

The event closed with the researchers reiterating their findings during a final Q&A session. They mentioned concerns that the discussion of war as it relates to gender rarely includes conversations or discussions of sexuality or gender identity, as LGBT people face risks, violence, and vulnerability that others do not experience. They also noted that it is important to pay attention to seemingly smaller issues that affect the queer community, as daily microaggressions, homophobia, and transphobia have a profound negative effect on the mental health of LGBT people. To the dismay of the researchers, while there is an academic interest in the issues that face the queer community, policies are not being implemented to protect queer people and little is being done on the ground.  Above all, and despite the numerous barriers in place for people of diverse sexualities and genders, the researchers stressed that the strength and resilience of the queer community be highlighted, as the community has worked tirelessly to bring about change throughout the Arab world.

Open Closets, Closed Doors

By Ayyad El Masri

The performance of being myself has suddenly absorbed a new layer of oppression.  A lethal threat has made its way through my corporeal reality. On any other day, I am reminded of my queerness through my interactions with the world; the receptionist who frowns at my eyeliner, the cab driver who shrugs at my “non-masculine” temperament, my colleagues who compliment my earrings, and my belly that shrinks to hit my spine whenever anyone walks by as to hide its curvature… The performativity that comes with being who I am had become paramount in the ontology of being myself. 

Weeks into living in the confines of temporary housing in the midst of Beirut, the feeling of unity under one common fear is well-founded. There is a visceral unity among different people with diverse narratives. The feeling of ostracism, however, is still there. From behind the blinds of privilege that my fellowship had offered me, I am still hearing the stories of queer people who have no spaces of their own. Those who had taken the streets on the 17th of October to revolt, and basked in the glory of being heard, are now voiceless shadows under the justification that their oppression is less important now that this fear unites us. In the most typically conservative manner, everyone is forced into trusting the narrative that we are now all equal in the face of a global pandemic. Our facades are no longer our instantaneous form of identification. Now that the aesthetic performance of queerness is no longer an indication of queerness – what is? 

I am reminded of my queerness by knowing that it took a national lockdown for some queer people’s parents to finally call them and offer shelter. I am reminded of my queerness by the realization that loneliness has been systematically programed into the experience of being queer. Natural kinship failed to free itself from its gender expression prejudice. I am reminded of my queerness when I see a lifeless Beirut and I remember those who have called us deviant sinners. The ones who wouldn’t recognize the city without us. Most of all, I remember my queerness when I realize that the significance of who I am is now intensified by a specific form of loneliness that comes with the struggle of being queer at atime when fear is universal but love is conditional. 

As queer people, we stand on the intersection of economic, social, religious, political and familial disadvantages. The short ends of these sticks have always been the prized location of queer individuals; those who chose not to live in a world of dichotomies and binaries matched with privileges and advantages. The freedom of queer individuals is jeopardized because the intersection on which we stand does not have a safety-net option. As such, the longevity of a queer person’s well-being, in many cases, relies on impermanent forms of support that one yields from the shaky nature of their surroundings. With virtually no opportunity to harbor stable forms of sustenance, we fall into the entrapments of vicious cycles of mental health challenges and trauma. Adding a viral invasion, forced isolation and, what might as well be, eternal damnation to the mix – the stakes grow higher and the act of being one’s self transcends from being a form of rebellion to being a form of survival.

Claiming a room of one’s own is an impossible goal for many. The spaces that were once ours are now risk-ridden. Thus, answering the question of queering the quarantine remains a matter of collective effort. This is the time to ask ourselves how we can push the queer conversation to the forefront of social discourse at a time when people with money and heteronormative convictions steer the debate. This is the time to look back at the time we chose to come out because we believed in the validity of our identities. We stepped out of the closet to seize a world that sees us – now what about those closed doors?

Talking Gender: Fluidity, Pronouns, and the Arabic Language

On February 4th, Lebanese American University (LAU) in New York hosted an evening of discussion around gender entitled, “Talking Gender: Fluidity, Pronouns, and the Arabic Language.” 

What began as a panel quickly evolved into a large discussion full of audience participation, at times fraught with tension, frustration, urgency, collaboration, and laughs. The panelists were Dima Ayoub, expert on Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic literature, Daina Rudusa, Senior Communications Manager at OutRight Action International, a leading international LGBTQ rights advocacy organization and Omar Fattal, co-founder and board member of LebMASH, the leading LGBTQ health advocacy organization in Lebanon. Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, Emmy-nominated journalist, had the privilege of moderating the discussion. A consistent tone and practice of the night was a willingness to learn and to admit a lack of knowledge when applicable. The lack of pretense and false lecture was refreshing and made for an interactive evening. 

Without an official survey of the audience and participants, it was evident that the crowd spanned multiple industries and entry points into the discussion. There were Feminist Studies and Middle Eastern Studies professors, UN Arabic translators, PhD students, medical practitioners, linguists, people who identify as queer or non-binary, people of the Middle East diaspora, and more. The nearly full room spoke to the necessity of this conversation and its ongoing knowledge building for people of all fields.   

As the hour and a half conversation unfolded, a few primary themes came to the forefront, all of which overlap and relate to one another.

The Arabic Language & The Potential for Gender Fluidity

Daina spoke to the power of a name, using her home country of Latvia as an example. The first year the LGBT community had a public day of celebration and visibility they called it ‘Pride’ and there were large numbers of protesters at their events, intimidating and performing disdain. The next year, they called it ‘Friendship Day’ and there was little to no opposition. The potential for an already heavily connotated, Western word to spark strong opposition was much greater than borrowing a more universally accepted concept. One that completely de-centers the LGBT identity.

Dima, the expert linguist in the room, wanted to make a point clear from the beginning: Arabic as a language is not inherently patriarchal or exclusionary of alternative gender norms. Dima says people tend to ‘over-masculinize’ Arabic, meaning that with new formations and effort, we can stop the perpetuation of this pattern. She insists there are spaces for creativity, for new constructions of gender to match the growing movements to recognize gender as a spectrum, rather than a binary. There are even efforts from some groups to create a more ‘middle’ Arabic that can circumvent gendered words. 

Entering the conversation with the urgency of a practitioner, Omar said plainly, ‘how can people identify with your preferred gender identification if there is not pronoun available in Arabic? There is no ‘they’ as is more frequently being used in the English language as a type of catch all for gender queer people wanting to express themselves outside of the binary.  

Mr Nadim Shehadi, the Executive Director of the LAU New York Headquarters and Academic Center, wondered whether ‘ent’ is being used as a proper pronoun alternative, having heard it used previously. There were some nods and sounds of agreement in the room that indicated potential. 

One PhD candidate in the audience gave an anecdote around their thesis project. They were interviewing a person in the Arab region and they identified themselves as a ‘she-man.’ The audience participant posed the question: how are they to discuss this person in their thesis when this identity category is considered inappropriate and offensive in most spaces? Dima encouraged them to discuss it directly in the paper, suggesting that it would add a deeper complexity and truth to the thesis. Dima, throughout the evening, seemed to call for a lack of fear in engaging with multiple narratives and multiple identifications, as an alternative approach to streamlining or taking on an authoritative legitimacy to categorize, especially when it is not your own identity.

Western Influence & Imposition of Identity

How do we engage with Western imposition of gender identity and the LGBT movement? As Omar questions, how can we make sure the movements around ‘LGBT’ needs and rights are not as a solely western phenomenon, potentially creating an aversion to the subject altogether, particularly for those who oppose the imposition of the West more broadly? 

Ahmed identified transliteration as a potential issue, clarifying that ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ is often transliterated from English to Arabic, functionally identifying the origin of meaning and the legitimacy of definition in English without a full translation occurring between languages. Ahmed brought up some of his experience speaking with men in the region who exclusively sleep with men but do not identify as ‘gay’, a mostly western identity articulation. 

The need to be clear and inclusive was apparent throughout the discussion. Nobody wanted to be misunderstood in their work or opinions, especially if it insinuated a practice rooted in western exceptionalism or bias that could curtail access to gender expression and protection in that expression. Maya, a Feminist Studies and Middle Eastern Studies professor in the audience, put into question a program that Daina works with, involving the training of journalists. Maya questioned whether training journalists in western notions of gender sensitivity, ethical reporting, and interaction is a good use of time and resources in the overall fight towards holistic gender advocacy. Daina responded quickly to defend the training programs, explaining that the trainings are led and influenced by people in the area, using resources, knowledge, and rhetoric from people in their communities.

Another professor in the audience spoke on imposing categorical identities. They referenced their work in an organization in San Francisco, where they were required to categorize and count the people they helped, ie ‘black women,’ or ‘trans men’ for the purposes of appealing to donors and proving the success/outcome of their projects and programming. Identity categories are then perpetuated because of the positionality of the organizations rendering services. While the conversation did not continue around this subject, it is an important topic in regards to the processes that can legitimize identity.

Vocabulary & Standardization

One of the few major sticking points throughout the conversation was this instinct by some, particularly Omar, to push the need for an agreed upon set of terms, for the purposes of medical scenarios. Ahmed pulled back our scope and asked us to consider what the priority should be when it comes to gender advocacy – should we enter from the perspective of language? Rights? Omar answered first, confirming what I think most of us would consider a consensus, which is that all entry points are not only valid, but critically interconnected when it comes to advocating for the LGBT community. He explains his reasoning for insisting on a need for language resources by discussing some of his encounters in his medical practice. There will be a document explaining gender expressions, pronouns, and other topics and someone will say ‘this is great’ but do you have it in Arabic? I want to share it with my mother.’ Omar says this proves the need to engage the older populations, making translation and vocabulary all the more critical. From a health need standpoint, some sexual acts like ‘topping,’ ‘bottoming’, and ‘rimming’ do not have Arabic words and make ensuring patient health difficult.  

Dima, while recognizing the need to have a toolkit for language around these subjects, feels no necessity to consolidate or standardize the language. She sees no need to use the ‘UN’ approach of standardization at the potential sacrifice of erasing local identity building or allowing western imposition. A person from the audience, who came to the US as a refugee about ten years ago and identifies as gender queer, weighed in, contributing a helpful and necessary voice. They first said that they felt stressed being in this room, which I took as a critical moment of catharsis and a vulnerable honesty. It grounded the conversation, reminding us that people who are affected by this topic everyday, at the root of their notion of self. The vulnerability, effort, and compassion required to discuss this topic was evident in the seriousness and collaboration of the discussion. The audience member told Omar that it is ok if there are multiple words, adages that people use to describe themselves, claiming that identity shifts and there should never be an assumption, but rather a requirement that medical professionals check in with their patients about changes.

All to say, as a practitioner, Omar is frustrated by what he feels to be a lack of a toolkit. What this person is saying also holds a universal truth and is a necessary contribution: it should be normal to have regular check-ins with your patients, approaching without assumption, as identity does in fact shift and change. The individual should have autonomy over the words and categories being used to describe their identity.

Privilege, Class & Diaspora

A reiterated point from several people in the room, panelists and audience members alike, was intentional recognition of the privilege of everyone in the room. We must always remember that people in spaces of academia, of diaspora, of people outside of the region, are likely to have more freedom to discuss these issues. They may also hold different understandings of these notions altogether. For these reasons and more, especially when it comes to advocacy for LGBT communities in Arab countries, we must center communities doing this work in the region and actively support their knowledge building, asks, and needs. Dima gave us a list of organizations that work on issues surrounding these subjects that everyone reading this should check out and consult: Qorra (running on a budget of $4,000), Transat, and The Knowledge Workshop (a Beirut based organization) which are all primarily locally funded, and Jeem which is funded by the Goethe Institution in Germany.

A question came from Maya: How is intersectionality being dealt with in this discussion? Particularly when it comes to class. The queer population is not homogenous and being able to access medical care is a class privilege. Is LebNash working with any feminist organizations on the ground around these issues? She pointed out that the conversation up until this point of the night had mostly centered men’s experiences. Ahmed attempted to make light of the serious and valid point, ‘I’m happy I don’t have to answer it.’ The comment was met with some laughter from the audience. Omar assured Maya that LebMASH does work with community organizations around gender and sexuality to ensure best practices. Beyond this response and the question posed, there was little discussion around class, intersectionality and diaspora, though it was recognized as a crucial, central part of advocacy, study, and service provision.  

Closer to the end of the evening, Ahmed paused to pose a fairly common question that comes up in conversations around gender identity. On the topic of identification rhetoric and categorizing gender, ‘At what point does this get too carried away? What if I wanted to identify as a unicorn?’ It is my hope that we can move beyond these types of questions that inherently operate on the assumption that people’s gender identities are in some way illegitimate or beyond the acceptable societal boundaries of how people should view themselves. Gender performance and identity should not be associated with mystical creatures, but rather accepted as truth and legitimate self expression. In a world where people face discrimination, oppression, physical harm, ostracization, and fear due to their (in)ability to express their gender identity, a much more productive conversation focuses on our role in facilitating the ability to ensure rights, services, and support to these communities. Rather than questioning whether the conversation around pronouns is becoming unpalatable.

In reading about the event, what are pieces of the discussion you feel are being left out? How can we make sure that these talks around gender identity are grounded in the real needs of people in the Arab region?