Floats and Flags: Activism or a Capitalist Demand?

This Saturday as I was walking down Whyte Avenue in a float with altView, Camrose Pride Community, and the John Howard Society it was hard to contain my emotion and goosebumps as I was bombarded with support, applause and encouragement. The loud cheers and wide smiles coming from a rainbow painted crowd couldn’t help but make me feel warm inside.


Edmonton’s 36 Annual Pride Festival is upon us. This past Saturday (June 4), the parade took place during a beautiful and sunny day. People were dressed in fabulous outfits, the floats were creative, and the stores were decked out in their best rainbow items and punny slogans.


As amazing as it may seem to see all of these stores on Whyte Ave carry the Pride spirit unapologetically, I believe this topic deserves closer attention. Are they promoting and marketing LGBTQ*-friendliness as a way to improve the business’ image (pinkwashing)? Do they deserve to be glorified as examples of inclusion and visibility, or criticised for appropriating the LGBTQ* cause as a means to make money?


Yes, visibility is incredibly important. Having a space where people can be themselves without fear and be among those similar to them can create a safer society for all. When these efforts for inclusion are embraced by institutions (such as the government, education, businesses, etc.) the LGBTQ* movements gain a sort of validity and power. So, when stores across Old Strathcona display their support for Pride, it shows that efforts are being made to create a more accepting society (which encourages other businesses and institutions to show their support as well). We should by no means underestimate the value of this type of representation and visibility as a way for the LGBTQ* equality movements to gain momentum and show the larger population that society’s larger acceptance is increasing.


We do, however, live in a capitalist society. That means that making a profit is a necessary condition for the existence of all businesses and corporations. Like an animal who will not hesitate to turn against its owner when it gets hungry enough, businesses will not censor their actions if they prove to be fundamental for their survival. This way, stores have been finding innovative ways to ensure a secure money making strategy. Relying on current events and trends is their best bet: modernizing operations through the use of social media and hashtags, and even using fairtrade and organic products are examples of corporate adaptation to modern customs. The question is: does the fact that these strategies have the goal of making profit make their actions less valuable or less ‘activist’?


Perhaps. It is hard to not place some mistrust in businesses who put rainbows on their windows given that they require money to continue existing. Is it a case of pinkwashing? Or are stores simply adapting to a wider acceptance of LGBTQ* people in public spaces? In order to make that judgement, a study of each business’ history, policies, and practices becomes appropriate. Have they (at any point) supported or partnered with any businesses that discriminate against LGBTQ* people? Have they ever not hired someone based on their gender identity, expression, or sexuality? Have they ever kicked somebody out of their store because the customer did not meet their expectations of what looks ‘normal’? Do they have comprehensive, explicit policies of inclusion for LGBTQ* people? How do they support Pride or the LGBTQ* cause?


If anything, though, the efforts of businesses in Whyte Avenue (and Old Strathcona at large) are not to be trivialized. The fact that they have beautifully created an environment where many feel accepted and celebrated is still real and cannot be taken away, and for that it deserves recognition. Also, many establishments do take measures to promote inclusiveness besides raising flags during Pride (some hold LGBTQ* events and many even put safe space stickers on their doors year-long). However, many do not, and still claim the title of inclusive and supportive businesses during two weeks of one month as a way to adapt to capitalist demands of profit making.


It is also worth noting that Whyte Avenue still has a large amount of local and smaller businesses when compared to the rest of the city. An increased number of small businesses does make a difference when it comes to Pride. I am not claiming that the profit motive is less significant, but any efforts made by local establishments are more personalized and humanized, rather than distant. Given the smaller size of certain businesses, efforts for LGBTQ* inclusion are more likely to represent personal beliefs in the cause, rather than come from higher corporate ranks.


This is what I leave you with: as consumers we have the responsibility to spend our dollars wisely. Supporting a business because of its apparent support for Pride is simply not enough. Ask them about their hiring policies, demand that a gender neutral washroom is created, ask to which LGBTQ* organization they are donating part of their profits. Do not settle for anything less than what Pride should be about: a political and social celebration of LGBTQ* accomplishments, and, most importantly, a critical demand for improvements. And let us not allow profit-seeking businesses make it something other than that.