For me, it started with a gay sandwich. British high-street chain Marks & Spencer launched the “Lettuce, Guacamole, Bacon, Tomato” (LGBT) sandwich this past March as part of a broader Pride campaign to support the LGBTQ community, simultaneously donating $12,600 to the Albert Kennedy Trust, a charity that focuses on LGBTQ youth homelessness. The sentiment was great: Your current sandwich isn’t doing anything for the queer community, and we have a way to fix that. But the sandwich looked disgusting, which must be a crucial misstep in a campaign urging people to buy, then presumably eat, said sandwich.
I visited my local M&S and looked at the gay sandwich in question. The guacamole was browning and looked unctuous, slimy almost, but the bread was seeded, which seemed to suggest a basic level of diversity involved in the creative process (gay men love—and I cannot stress this enough—fiber). The bacon was objectively the strongest part. But as a whole, it didn’t sound, or look, appealing in the slightest.
There’s no doubt in my mind that decades or even a century from now, philosophers will reflect on this moment in our culture and ask the following: Is it right to buy a gay sandwich—for a good cause, to raise money, to be an ally—if said sandwich tastes bad?
As Pride has become more commercial and corporate, it’s raised questions about what supporting the LGBTQ community looks like for straight and queer people alike. Now clothing and personal style have been pulled into this, too; every brand seems to be releasing a Pride collection, the subtext being that the best way to be an ally is to wear the sentiment, literally, on your sleeve.
Brands are, for the most part, putting their money where their mouth is, donating to or supporting LGBTQ organizations as part of these capsules. So even if it does carry a whiff of corporate overkill, it’s soothing to think that, for example, Levi's is donating 100 percent of proceeds from its Pride collection to Outright Action International, which campaigns for better LGBTQ rights across the globe.
But huge, blown-up logos rendered in every color of the rainbow, or BIG AFFIRMATIVE STATEMENTS en masse…does it all have to be so lurid? When our personal tastes and our deep investments in style become a formative part of our identity, the merchification of Pride—and our queerness—feels ill-fitting.
This comes from someone whose associated wardrobe of chore jackets and neutral-on-neutral layering is something I feel strongly about. So when I see Reebok’s Club C 85 shoe rendered in laser-fine color accents and a subtle embroidered flag, I see something I’d love to incorporate into my wardrobe. Ditto Nike's and Ralph Lauren’s more low-key baseball caps. (The latter brand is relatively new to the Pride merch game, but it's been supporting the LGBTQ community for almost 20 years behind the scenes.)
But rainbows do not an ally make. And branding a consumer isn’t the same as supporting the LGBTQ community. Not every queer person wants to be adorned in rainbows, and when hate crimes in public are still shockingly prevalent (at London Pride in 2018, one gay man was attacked so violently his spine fractured), you can understand why people are hesitant to stand out—if not during Pride, then almost certainly during the other 11 months of the year.
If the merch is for us, and not our straight allies, then the implication is that we as queer people have different tastes and a different way of dressing than everyone else, and should therefore take this time of the year to make ourselves as physically distinctive as possible. This merchification of Pride, in other words, only serves to make consumers feel better by doing even less than usual. It’s emblematic of an attitude that says looking like you’re making a difference is better than actually doing something.
For me, Pride is about celebrating my community and about realigning our relationship to our own queerness. It’s about figuring out how to do some good. It’s a quiet period of reflection as much as a chance to get wasted and scream until my throat is sore (NB: I plan on doing both). I don’t know how much the increasing prominence of brands during the month of June is a good thing if it’s conflating activism and allyship through surface-level support. And yet we are often told that we should be grateful that brands care enough to even pander to us. These tonal misfires come from a well-intentioned place, ultimately, and any money going to the LGBTQ community is better than none. Sam Smith didn’t throw the first brick at Stonewall for us to turn our noses up at straight allies doing their best. In other words, perhaps feeling conflicted is healthy.
Still, execution aside, isn’t it telling who isn’t doing anything for Pride? You can practically count them on your fingers. Maybe the real distinction should be in the detail: not who is and who isn’t, but who is doing well and who is just phoning it in. Case in point: Calvin Klein’s Pride-accented jockstrap five-pack. I can’t help but love the absurdity, the campiness, the fact that they’re actually quite a good value. The whole thing feels kind of subversive and silly, and also pretty sexy, and no, I didn’t get any because they keep selling out. We call that leaning in.
Originally Appeared on GQ