L.A.’s LGBTQ+ consumers on Pride merch: enough with the ‘rainbow-washing’

Pride month merchandise displayed at a Target in Daly City, Calif.
Pride Month merchandise displayed at a Target in Daly City, Calif. The company came under fire for pulling part of its displays in late May, after it said employees had received threats.
(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)
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At the end of May, Elizabeth Keller went to her neighborhood Target to check out its low-cost section of Pride merchandise. Keller, a 24-year-old film assistant who lives in North Hollywood, picked out a pair of shoelaces dyed to look like the lesbian flag.

But a week later when she went back to the store, she was shocked to see that the Pride display had been dismantled. “They just got rid of half of their Pride collection before June even started,” she said.

The move happened after the brand came under fire for some of its merchandise, notably a gender-affirming swimsuit for trans women, which outraged some right-wing shoppers. (When the backlash began, some customers inaccurately described the swimsuit as being manufactured for children.)


“I keep getting a different vibe this Pride Month,” Keller said. “I guess it feels like things are a little more hostile.”

Tongue-in-cheek critiques of corporate Pride Month initiatives are nothing new. Companies that switch to rainbow logos on June 1 and quietly replace them when the month comes to an end have been endlessly memed, and campy rainbow merchandise is often met with eye rolls from LGBTQ+ consumers.

Target is removing items and making changes to its LGBTQ+ merchandise ahead of Pride Month, after some customers engaged in violent confrontations with its workers.

May 24, 2023

But in recent weeks, as major companies including Bud Light, Target, and the Dodgers have backpedaled their displays of support for Pride Month after conservative outcries — mostly against trans individuals — many are newly looking for brands with influence to take a stand.

Many members of Los Angeles’ LGBTQ+ community are skeptical that corporate activism can move the needle in a meaningful way. Sometimes, Pride Month marketing just feels silly — or worse, empty.

“It’s very weird seeing, like, Frito Lay, say, ‘We love gay people!’” said Trevor McMahan, a 27-year-old film and video editor who lives in Mount Washington. “And it’s like, why, OK, thank you Frito Lay.”

Such superficial actions have become known as “rainbow washing” or “rainbow capitalism,” shorthand for companies using rainbow flag imagery to sell their products to queer customers without using their power to advocate for LGBTQ+ equity in a more sustained way.


Alex Schmider, the director of transgender representation at GLAAD, the LGBTQ+ advocacy nonprofit, describes rainbow washing as “a disconnect between what is being conveyed or indicated about a company’s values and what that company is actually instituting in practice.”

Consumers expect corporations to align with social causes perhaps more than ever. Fifty-three percent of Americans expect business leaders to “shape conversations and policy debates about LGBTQ+ rights,” according to a December report by GLAAD and the research arm of the communications firm Edelman.

A Times reporter and photographer interviewed attendees at West Hollywood’s longstanding Pride celebration. At a time when states are implementing legislation targeting LGBTQ+ communities, some said they came to Pride for fun, some to find community, and some to be heard.

June 7, 2023

The report also found that consumers are more likely to buy from brands that support LGBTQ+ rights.

“We’re a growing population who have significantly more support and allies than we’ve ever had before,” Schmider said. “And so corporations should take into account if they are wavering in supporting our community, they’re doing so by bending to a minority of bullies and extremists who ultimately won’t win and neither will their bottom line.”

When those actions feel more like following the pack than taking a stand, LGBTQ+ consumers notice.

“There’s nothing really to be said for just changing your logo to be rainbow, or whatever,” said Keller. “I feel like companies need to demonstrate that they are materially supporting their LGBT employees.” For Keller, material support means making sure transgender employees can receive gender-affirming care under company insurance, or using employees’ preferred pronouns.


Or, not hiding your Pride merchandise after anti-trans backlash.

“I think queer people are extra good at sussing out authenticity because it’s, unfortunately, a muscle that is developed living in a world that doesn’t necessarily accept you,” McMahan said.

Mariah Carey, stars from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and a queer comic-book convention merit a mention in our curated list of ways to celebrate Pride Month in SoCal.

May 30, 2023

For some, the representation that has felt shallow in the past has taken on renewed importance this year.

“For me seeing a rainbow Chipotle bag does nothing,” said Joseph Pineda, referring to the fast casual burrito chain’s collection of Pride merchandise.

Pineda, a 31-year-old marketing manager who lives in South L.A., admits he benefits from “queer privilege” growing up in L.A. and going to college in San Francisco, two cities he felt accepted as a gay man. But a few years ago, his perspective changed. Maybe an act that doesn’t resonate will be meaningful to someone else, he thought, and that should count for something.

Now, Pineda is watching all the companies that proudly turn their logos rainbow every year to see if they will take a stand as the political climate gets more hostile.

“I think for me, the most shocking thing was when the whole Dodgers situation happened with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” he said, citing the controversy around the satirical group of charity drag nuns. “I think that’s when I truly felt, OK, something’s up here.”


Action from local businesses or influential individuals can feel more powerful and authentic than that from a large corporation. Local comedian Beth Greenman loves when musical artists bring drag queens on stage during their performances, especially in states that are trying to clamp down on drag and larger LGBTQ+ rights. “Art is meant to take a stand, at least in my eyes,” she said.

Greenman, 25, also appreciates when local businesses have a Pride flag in the window. It’s a signal that people like her can come visit and feel safe.

“It makes sense to me why younger people now maybe aren’t as impressed as I would be by seeing a Pride flag at a bar,” she said. “But, I think it’s good that they don’t have the experiences that I’ve had where that means something significant.”

Many say they’re skeptical of larger corporations’ motives for participating in Pride Month, and as such, expect more from them.

Schmider says that companies should design programming with LGBTQ+ people in mind throughout the year, put members of the community in positions of leadership internally, and show up for their LGBTQ+ consumers at all times, “regardless of what the cultural context is.”

Still others are of the mind that they should temper expectations regardless — after all, capitalism, they argue, is an imperfect method of advocacy.


“A corporation is never going to actually be 100% materially supportive,” Keller said, “so I guess you just kind of have to get as close as you can.”