It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall riots went down at Christopher Street’s Stonewall Inn. Now — during the event’s historic anniversary — the iconic gay bar is displaying a banner for airline JetBlue almost as large as its own sign. Hung prominently on the front of the bar is a sign reading “Raising the bar together,” with “JetBlue [hearts] Stonewall” in smaller text to the side. It’s not huge, but is relatively conspicuous, placed right above the main window. A little higher up is another, even bigger banner for Brooklyn Brewery, incorporating the Stonewall name into its regular beer logo.
Both branded banners were not hung specifically for Pride — they’ve been there for a couple of years, due to the companies’ sponsorship of the Stonewall Gives Back Initiative, which focuses on securing LGBTQ rights. JetBlue and Brooklyn Brewery “work with us all year long to help bring visibility and funds to our community,” writes Stonewall co-owner Stacy Lentz in a statement to Eater. “They are actually great authentic partners and both are good examples of how corporate sponsors should be... giving money directly to LGBTQ nonprofits and supporting our community the other 364 days of the year and not just on Pride.”
That Lentz calls them “authentic partners” shows the awareness of the cynical way brands have been increasingly bandwagoning for Pride. The Corporate Branding of Pride has rapidly spiraled in recent years, with everyone from drug companies to mouthwash manufacturers getting into Pride month celebrations in some capacity. Usually that’s achieved by slapping a rainbow theme on a product as “signal of inclusivity” that can be more accurately side-eyed as a cash grab for the dollars of the LGBTQ community.
The Reclaim Pride Coalition, which is organizing an alternative march at the same time as New York’s Pride march on June 30, is critical of the official Pride parade for becoming an “advertising showcase” for big corporations. The presence of brands like T-Mobile, Target, and Diet Coke, they argue, distracts from the message of Stonewall: that 50 years ago, a group of LGBTQ patrons (predominantly people of color) — including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — fought back against police violence and harassment, kick-starting a larger fight for LGBTQ rights, and the work to end homophobia and transphobia still continues. Reclaim Pride, according to its mission statement, wants to bring that history of resistance back to the forefront, and fights back against “exploitation of our communities for profit and against corporate and state pinkwashing, as displayed in Pride celebrations worldwide, including the NYC Pride Parade.”
The presence of a major airline’s branding on the iconic queer building feels about as odd as the possibility of a Domino’s Pizza Pride float, even if JetBlue might be a better corporate citizen. The airline donates to a range of LGBTQ nonprofits from the New York Gay Men’s Choir to the Association of LGBT Journalists, and has a decent reputation in terms of its relationship with queer employees and customers. (In 2018, JetBlue scored 90 points out of 100 in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index, which calculates LGBTQ workplace equality; for the record, Domino’s received a 50.)
Of course, JetBlue (or any other corporation) could quietly donate without announcing it in a press release or getting its branding on Stonewall, but then it doesn’t gain any public goodwill or brand recognition out of the deal. This is partly why most companies only recently started affiliating themselves with Pride — in the ’80s or ’90s, bigotry against LGBTQ people was more the social norm, so making donations and sponsoring LGBTQ causes could hurt a brand’s image. Now, times (though not all minds) have changed and companies want to reap the benefits of appearing progressive.
Pride isn’t the first or last political and cultural movement to be co-opted by brands: feminism and Black Lives Matter have both been used as marketing tools in recent years, and companies have never been shy about commercializing whatever will get them the most positive attention from the mainstream. But when brands only want to be associated with the glossier aspects of a movement, history is erased, as are identities that have yet to find mainstream acceptance. In Pride’s case, this continues to apply to trans people and people of color, the very community that first fought back at Stonewall.