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2019.06.27

Pride 2019: As Companies Celebrate More Than Ever, Why Do Brands Keep Queerbaiting?

This month marks World Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots –– and walking down the streets of NYC and scrolling through Instagram, it’s immediately apparent that brands are publicly supporting LGBTQIA+ rights and communities more than ever.

In the weeks leading up to Pride, we’ve already seen a lot of articles on how brands can show up in real ways for the community, for example, by donating their profits, or advocating for change the other 11 months of the year. But I want to talk about how brands visually show support for the LGBTQIA+ community and why, despite there being more visibility than ever, some are still getting it wrong.

Undoubtedly now, you’ve heard of the recent queerbaiting scandal between Calvin Klein, Bella Hadid and a certain virtual insta-celeb by the handle of @lilmiquela. The ad depicts a scene of the self-proclaimed heterosexual supermodel kissing a digitally-rendered (female) influencer. How, many asked, is this increasing visibility for the queer community? And why, in a world where LGBTQIA+ talent is becoming more represented, did they cast a straight person for the role?

As social advocacy begins to fill our feeds, brands are scrambling to find an in with this historically and commercially underrepresented community. They have started to recognize that to stay relevant and top of mind in this competitive cultural zeitgeist (now also populated by personal brands also vying for audience’s attention), brands must be quick to take a stand on social issues. However, in their hustle, brand managers and eager companies have started to trip and stumble in the race to get out their point of view first. Messaging gets lost or misinterpreted in a sacrifice of substance for aesthetics, leading to content created in poor taste and just as pride month is beginning to queer bait.

For those not yet familiar, queerbaiting is a ploy used by creators to hint at or suggest LGBTQIA+ romance without actually depicting it. Although celebrities and brands have been hinting at queering their identities for years (think Britney, Madonna and Christina’s infamous MTV kiss and, of course, Katy Perry); queerbaiting has also saturated our branded world of social media of late.

You might be thinking, what’s wrong with depicting queer relationships, even if they’re not exactly with queer people? Films have done it time and time again with critical acclaim from outside and within the community. But the problem with branded queerbaiting is that it is done purely as a marketing tactic, one that specifically and strategically chooses romantic depictions that appeal to the queer community while avoiding any offense to heterosexuals by taking a low-profile stance on gay rights. Queerbaiting never fully embraces or explicitly expresses a queer identity (ahem, Ariana), or shows any tangible, lasting (into July and beyond) support. Here lies the root of our problem: many brands do not want to commit to fully supporting an LGBTQIA+ agenda, for fear of the straight agenda. They are creating this perceived “queer” content with the appeasement of straights in mind — a performance of the heterosexual understanding of queer bodies and assumed gender roles: disembodied hand holding; definitively gendered couples (i.e femme + femme lesbian couples and masc + femme gay couples, with few depictions of people in between); the list goes on. To not fully support a social issue like this works against the cause, because it excruciatingly highlights how homophobia, even passively, influences how brands perceive themselves, their audience, their external messaging and the greater commercial climate.

Now that Pride is here, we can expect brands to come out swinging with all their rainbow realness. I can’t wait to see how brands position their campaigns and have been pleasantly surprised by Ralph Lauren, Melissa, and H&M, whose most recent pride campaigns feature real-life casts of diverse, intersectional LGBTQIA+ talent.

Here are some tips (from an actual gay person) on how to navigate Pride, the right way:

Listen, I know rainbows are gay, but simply slapping a rainbow or multicolored gradient on your logo without any representation does not acceptance make. Looking at you Under Armor, and your history of making ugly rainbow shoes while also supporting outspokenly homophobic politicians. (Also, it’s just lazy branding.)

  • Talk to a gay person

It seems pedantic, but it’s also a good gut check. And while I’m definitely not saying that all LGBTQIA+ people are the same, or have the same viewpoints or experiences, we have all been the victims of homophobia or oppressed at some point in our lives. Because of this, we are conditioned to be hypersensitive to how queer people are messaged to and addressed. Running copy (even if it’s an inane Instagram post) by someone LGBTQIA+ identifying can go a long way.

  • Employ companies who have a history of working with the community

Casting agencies with LGBTQIA+ talent, PR agencies with LGBTQIA+ publicists, the list goes on. Not only are you supporting queer businesses, but you’re also getting real queer people to represent your brand’s own message of representation.

  • The Golden Rule:

If all else fails, think about this: If they’re not gay, and they’re doing something gay for commercial reasons, it’s probably queerbaiting.

Whether good or bad, consumers are hugely influenced by brand campaigns. And I need to stress that putting LGBTQIA+ visibility (which is still very much threatened) in the mainstream continues the effort to normalize and empathize with us and our identities in the eyes of the public. Brands need to do better, pay more attention, and be held accountable to help create safe environments for their consumers –– every single one, all year round.