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LGBTQ+ representation deserves more than a yearly nudge

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Stonewall’s legacy lives on today. Peaceful marches of Gay Pride movements all around the world, from Europe to the US and beyond, echo the days of riots and violence which erupted at the dawn of the Seventies. The LGBTQ+ community has come a long way since that fateful night in June 1969, and many could argue that change has been under way for decades. Just as many as those who could say the road ahead is still paved with obstacles.

To those saying that LGBTQ+ representation is still far from where it should be, you are absolutely right. Just yesterday, perfectly in time to wrap up Pride Month, a survey from Karmarama has shown that LGBTQ+ representation within advertising has dropped. The portrayal of gay and queer communities by brands is still viewed as tokenistic and only 32% of marketers engage with the LGBTQ+ community throughout the year, despite 84% of LGBTQ+ consumers calling for it.

It is quite glaring to me that there is a problem.

As widespread support for social responsibilities and underrepresented communities rises year by year, we see increasingly more brands joining the race to voice their support for LGBTQ+ communities, especially during Pride Month. New initiatives come out in the open every June to celebrate diversity, whether it be a new shimmering piece of garment or an unoriginal change of logo. Sometimes, the profits of sales end up the pockets of a few LGBTQ+ charities. Which some may think is enough to clear one’s conscience from the underlying issues further up the production line.

Yes, yes dear brands, all good, *pat-pat*. But what about the rest of the year?

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Brands in Pride Month

Whether good, bad or lazy, a ton of work gets released every year just in time for Pride Month to celebrate and raise awareness of the LGBTQ+ community. And whether good, bad or lazy, most of this work gets outstanding media coverage, praising this or that brand’s groundbreaking use of empathic storytelling and/or design to support the gay and queer communities.

A truly beautiful example from this year is Diesel’s film about ‘Francesca’. The film follows the story of, indeed, Francesca, a woman who was assigned the male gender at birth, showing her journey to find her true self and fulfil her dream of becoming a nun. Messages of universal love, self-awareness and self-acceptance run through the fabric of the film, which is exactly what you would hope to see from a company with a clear history of fighting for underrepresented communities.

Like every year, Puma, Levi’s, Converse, Nike and other fashion brands jumped aboard the bandwagon to show their support. Rainbows and glitters shine and glimmer all throughout the Pride collections, the profits of which usually (not always) go to different charities depending on the brand and initiative. This year's Puma’s campaign, for instance, features Cara DeLevigne, an active voice in the community, whose foundation in support of LGBTQ+ charities will receive 20% of the sale proceeds.

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Now, you probably don’t want to come out with a LGBT sandwich like Marks & Spencer did last year. The response on social media was ferocious and it quickly backfired, with M&S finding itself in the midst of a trending online backlash.

And then there’s YouTube and Twitch.

Because a change of logo is always good during Pride Month, right? What can go wrong?

Hypocrisy and Slacktivism?

Let’s take a step back for a second. The moment YouTube and Twitch uploaded their rainbow logos this year or in the past, their own communities were quick to point out their controversial ban policies and their disputable ways of handling harassment and hate speech. For those not familiar with YouTube and Twitch, let’s just say their criteria are not exactly consistent.

It is far too easy to preach about equal rights and have policies on hateful conduct and harassment, if all you do is update your logo in the wake of Pride Month. It is far too easy to pretend you care for 30 days a year, and then refuse to take real action during the other 11 months.

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Following allegations of sexual harassment in the gaming industry, Twitch is finally taking active steps to permanently ban harmful streamers and users from the platform. It is one step towards a more fair and equal Internet – but other brands offline are not doing much better. H&M’s 2020 Pride Collection, to name one, was produced in China, a country is widely known for its history of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Even today, being gay in China can still be a problem, especially in families which are strongly traditional.

A couple of years ago, Alex Abad-Santos on Vox.com defined this a form of slacktivism, which is the practice of lazily supporting a cause by doing only the strict necessary, with very little effort or commitment.

Donations can be quite convenient to wash away your sins, if only for a short while. Some brands and organisations believe that a yearly nudge is all the LGBTQ+ community wants, when in reality it’s quite the opposite: people in the LGBTQ+ community still feel largely underrepresented, and a chunky donation once a year will not be enough to change the reality of things.

This applies even to those brands who strive to appear proactive with their actions. Despite Disney’s best efforts, even the House of Mouse’s representation of LGBTQ+ and BAME communities in animation is still seen as tokenistic by some. This goes to show that there’s still a lot to do, and that the LGBTQ+ community just wants and deserves more.

The LGBTQ+ community wants and deserves more

A yearly nudge is not enough. The LGBTQ+ community deserves and needs support that lies outside of isolated donations. It deserves and needs more opportunities to enter the creative industry and feel at ease within it. It deserves and needs more support, empathy and representation at all levels, from entry level to senior leadership and even in the executive board. And right now, we as an industry are way too far from where we should be.

Right at the beginning of June, senior copywriter Rickie Marsden told stories of LGBTQ+ underrepresentation in Adland. “This isn’t an ideal world and Adland isn’t as open-minded as it likes to think it is,” Rickie said. “Many seem to feel inclusivity ends at an invitation. That it’s simply working your way down a list of increasingly marginalised groups without really considering why they weren’t part of 'the club' in the first place, or what it might feel like to be kept outside waiting.”

The truth is that making a difference can be as simple as reaching out to your LGBTQ+ friends and colleagues to chat about their experiences. Learn about the positive, the negative, and what can be done to improve.

If you are working in brands, make an effort to represent the LGBTQ+ community throughout the year, and take active steps to implement change at all levels, from your production chain to supply, distribution and even in-store staff.

Do not lock up LGBTQ+ representation in cheesy films and patronising spots to be only released on Pride Month. These will be appreciated by some, overlooked by most, praised by a niche and ignored by those who should really make an effort to understand them.

Don't just act, be the change this industry needs. Only then will our collective efforts start to truly matter.

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