Queer activism has a long anti-capitalist tradition. Many queer activists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s understood that the community’s most pressing issues find their origin in capitalism: homelessness, poverty, material exploitation and the lack of accessible healthcare (especially during the AIDS crisis) were – and still are – a harsh reality for many queer people, especially those marginalised by multiple identities. Queer activism became even more radical and powerful after the Stonewall riots in 1969, which are often seen as the start of Pride. Stonewall was a gay pub in New York City that was frequently raided by the local police. One night, the patrons of the bar finally decided that they had had enough of the harassment and intimidation by the police and they took action: glasses were thrown, windows smashed and tires slashed. For days after that first night, queer people gathered to protest for queer rights in Greenwich Village. Since then, Pride events are held annually across the world to commemorate the riots and to continue the fight for queer liberation.
Contemporary Pride celebrations across most cities could not be more different from the militant and radical protests at Stonewall. Taking Amsterdam Pride as an example, it is clear that Pride has become a mainstream event: last weekend, Amsterdam’s canals were filled with Pride boats dedicated to the police, the VUMC and many conglomerates like Booking.com and Amazon. Representatives of big business and the state seem extremely eager to support Pride now that it has become fashionable and, more importantly, profitable. Come every June, conglomerates change their social media icons to a lazy logo overlaid with the rainbow flag and issue a cheesy statement about the importance of diversity. The fact that corporations and institutions want to be seen as supporters of queer rights is – of course – a huge sign of progress. For centuries, queer people were seen as vile, degenerate and perverted while now it is generally more profitable and better for one’s image to support them. However, these organisations and corporations have never actually been on the side of marginalised peoples. Amazon is infamous for its extreme exploitation of low-wage workers, the VUMC has drawn a lot of criticism for their gatekeeping of essential trans healthcare and the police has failed to protect vulnerable citizens like transgender people and sex workers if they were not actively their oppressors. Many corporations supporting Pride events also donate to conservative politicians supporting homophobic legislation (Disney funds politicians backing the Don’t Say Gay Bill in Florida and companies like FedEx and Pfizer donated millions to anti-gay politicians).
I could not possibly make an exhaustive list of all the ways these organisations flaunting their support for the queer community have time and again failed us, the list would be endless. More importantly, that is also not the aim of this article. Instead of listing individual incidents, I want to argue that these organisations are inherently part of queer oppression – even if they donate to good causes or sell merchandise made by queer designers. A queer activism that allies with capitalism and state authorities will never be successful, it will only end up reproducing homophobia and transphobia within the existing system. What is needed for queer liberation is not cops on boats or queer Amazon ambassadors. We need real systemic change. There will be no real liberation without abolishing capitalism and ending poverty, exploitation and homelessness. Queer people have always been one of the populations most exposed to the exploitation and horrors inherent in capitalism. In the Netherlands, 60% of transgender people are out of or unable to work and 50% of this population has a low wage leading to financial insecurity and poverty. Young queer people are especially vulnerable: queer teenagers and young people are more likely to be unhoused, for instance. Transgender people living in the US are twice as likely to be unemployed and queer people in the UK are struggling with poverty. Economic inequality should be a core focus of queer activism and Pride events.
Of course, many forms of homophobia and transphobia take on a more cultural dimension rather than the material or economic issues I have mostly focussed on in this article. I certainly do not wish to dismiss how important cultural issues of representation, visibility and identity affirmation are. However, I think that the types of contemporary queer activism that are most visible during Pride completely conceal material inequality in their focus on cultural affirmation. In her book The Fortunes of Feminism, feminist writer Nancy Fraser calls these different types of activism a politics of recognition (focussed on cultural equality and affirmation) and a politics of redistribution (focussed on material equality and wealth redistribution) and she stresses that the former without the latter will be ineffective. Disney issuing Pride merch with pride flags overlaid on the logos of their intellectual property will not do much for queer people if they also buy up smaller production studios working on queer representation only to shut them down and lay off hundreds of employees. There will be no cultural equality without economic justice and vice versa.
Any Pride that is organised by the authorities and capitalism will never be part of real queer liberation. Corporations and the establishment are trying to co-opt Pride for their own public image, but we can never expect any meaningful action from them as they benefit from the system that keeps queer people in the margins of society. It is high time we take back Pride. Pride is for us: an event where the marginalised, the poor and the weird remind the world that we want justice, both cultural and economic.