I went to an incredible event Wednesday night put on by QuAIA (Queers Against Israeli Aparteid) that focused on a little-known practice for some of us called Pinkwashing. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, the word has been gaining celebrity lately throughout academic and activist realms because pinkwashing is being linked to a host of unethical goings on about town around the world.
Pinkwashing occurs when corporations and governements make claims to be queer friendly, riding on the backs of tolerance and diversity, while engaging in political, economic, socio-cultural practices that are anything but ethical. In a word, pink, and it’s associations with homosexuality, has become the new money maker. Wear pink; sell pink; brand pink, and your shit don’t stink.
Hypocrites wearing pink clothing and pretending to be “ok with the gay” do much to overwhelm the actual ways in which their companies, their governments, and they themselves live in the world with others. For example, much has been discussed of the pinkwashing the Israeli government is deploying in their bid to both create a sense that the “Middle East” is backwards in its homophobia–exalting Israel as the beacon of modernity and a leader in human rights–and to overshadow and wash away the violent atrocities carried out in Israel and the Occupied Territories, by the government supported Israeli army and the state against Palestinians in the West bank and along the Gaza strip (queer and non). Here’s the thing though, wearing pink and shooting rainbows out of their asses has not changed the state’s oppressive, abusive, and hateful policies.
And here in Canada, in the U.S. and U.K. we are also guilty of pinkwashing. Post 9/11, politically queerness has become fraught with dangerous potential. We who call ourselves the West are using the strange, the queer, to eradicate those who are considered stranger.
We queers have a history of being in the spotlight (as loud, often times naked and proud activists; as stigmatized sickly AIDS bodies; as demonized criminals) and today queerness has become what I like to call visibly invisible to the heterosexual majority.
Whether contained through zoning regulations that seek to confine queer communities and counter-publics to particular parts of town (gayborhoods, gay villages, gay ghettos), through employment mandates that enforce gendered dress codes, through transphobic structural and social initiatives, through the never ending marriage restrictions, through adoption procedures that require certain ‘types’ of parents, through immigration restrictions that keep queers whose lives are at risk out of Canada, “queer” though packaged and celebrated at times leaves us certainly still spectacularized as monstrous-others by many. BOO!
And we’ve all been noticing this I’m sure but queer visibility has become largely corporatized and monitored by political power structures. The result? A particular iconic gay image has become widely circulated, accessible and exploited, used as the taffeta dress worn at the party meant to celebrate the Canadian, cutting-edge sexual freedom that has been considered a triumph for queer subjects in recent years. Visual cues that flash this load of balls in our face are everywhere: Ellen Degeneres and her happy happy wife Portia De Rossi, Jodi Foster, Queen LaTifah, Ricky Martin, Chris Colfer; queer storylines on popular television dramas such as Modern Family, True Blood, Glee, Happy Endings, Smash, the revamped Degrassi Junior High, The New Normal, Grey’s Anatomy; queer shows such as The L- Word–which should just be renamed Shane’s cute boobies–and The Real L-word; the ‘outing’ of How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris and American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert; or the success of films such as Milk, Chloe, and Brokeback Mountain. It would appear from such popular icons that sexual freedom has finally come to North America on a flag with colors that don’t run.
Globally, the figure of the non-heterosexual citizen is being waved around like a trophy, branded with a notion of happy, queer sexual freedom that has become a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing and a feather in the hat of patriotism. This type of celebrating homosexuality resembles what Samantha King has called a “tyranny of cheerfulness” where we queers are told we’d better be happy we have rights, even when we don’t actually have rights.
Yet, what also remains true is that anti-gay marriage legislations, gender, race, class, and sexual inequality, trans- discrimination, militant homophobia, and violence against queers are still rampant concerns. Optimistically, and we all know how I feel about that shit, sexual freedom is still a work in progress in the west.
Still, culturally and politically this fairytale narrative of unbridled sexual bosom- buddiedness and diversity is circulating globally as evidence of western culture’s exemplary grown-upness–our modernity. The visibly invisible queer has somehow become an emblem of western superiority. In this regard, as Judith Butler puts it: a western “subject position is being staked’ out on the back of queerness to legitimate violent acts that police other bodies and non-western cultural practices,”even though the sexual freedom the west endorses— a highly selective and sanitized version of sexual liberation—is anything but queer.
What’s happening in consequence globally is horrific. Queerness, and our so-called democratic freedoms, is being used by western governments to initiate civilizing missions throughout the non-western world. For example, it takes nothing for the US and Canadian military to make accusations that Iraq is sexually intolerant of homosexuality, and then use this accusation to wage a war against minority cultures, all under the guise of “teaching” and helping people become more tolerant and “happy.” Targeted as premodern, cultural strangers who are threats to diversity, and national security, this ‘kind of sexual targeting’ is being allocated as a means to produce particularized subjectivities— the outsider, the terrorist and the non-citizen. And each of these identities are represented as monstrous figures who threaten to come and get us here at home.
So, not unlike Israel, the west has been garnering support for its “civilizing mission” (a.k.a. desire for oil) by using queerness to promote ourselves as though we, and James Cameron,
I have also seen some serious pinkwashing in recent campaigns that profess to help suicidal gay teens negotiate the homophobic world they live in, and yet are not allowed to say they live in.
Sorry Dan Savage, you’re up.
Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project” tells gay teens to hang in there and it will all be better. There have been so many critiques of the problematics of telling kids the homophobic violence they are suffering through now will get better in the future, and so I won’t get into that here. But I will say that this promise that “it gets better” mimics, performs we might even say, the promises of capitalism. Have you ever been so depressed, have felt so fat, pimply, alone, hated, torn into bits, alienated, lied to, bullied, abused, broken hearted, pushed around, pushed to your limit, and have seen an ad that promises you you’ll look beautiful, make friends, stand out in a crowd, if only you buy their boots? I have. Come see my dark closet.
These sorts of promises though speak to a call to upward mobility that echoes neoliberal understandings of progress and growth. Promoting an ever inborn ability to thrive, indeed, his “It Gets Better Project” reinstates, as jasbir puar tells us, the “pull yourself up from the bootstraps immigrant model” so widely used post World War 2.
Dan Savage also successfully uses a politics of sympathy, a sympathy for himself as a gay man and for the teens who are suffering, that turns gay trauma and hurt into money–cultural capital. I swear, I’m not just being a douchebag here; the sponsors of “It Gets Better” are astoundingly appalling where companies like Google.ca, and the multimillion dollar industry of surviving suicide that has surfaced becomes synonymous to saving lives.
Let’s back it up.
As has been evidenced throughout the use of historical Bedlams (human zoos for the “normative” and curious), and through the ongoing popularity and criticism surrounding exploitative charity drives (such as those around the death of famous gay youth Matthew Shepard), and concerns about the corporatization of recent Pride celebrations worldwide we know the rich can benefit from traumas, especially when they become partnered with corporations that do philanthropic giving. Although Savage’s project was begun to help struggling gay youth, his corporate sponsors, like Google, are not suffering from the popularity of the campaign and are influencing the message “It Gets Better” promotes: grow up, become a progressive, white-middle class homonormative male, and you too will get better. As though “getting better” were completely your own job and not the job of the society that is homophobic.
Pinkwashing comes into play here too as corporate reputations get “cleansed” by being associated with such charitable projects as “It Gets Better,” even if these businesses do nothing to change their politics or unethical practices. Not dissimilar to other projects that seek corporate sponsorship and support from anyone and everyone who will lend their names—such as the one discussed at the QuAIA townhall “Making It Our Business Campaign,” an initiative launched in 2007 by Barbara Bush and the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry to “raise awareness” about breast cancer in the “Middle East”– the “It Gets Better Project” often mindlessly smiles about its successes while not calling into account who is funding and putting its name behind its initiatives. For example, Republicans, The Conservative Party of Canada, Target, TD First National Bank, Nokia, Visa, Telus and Google have all put their brand behind the project even though, ironically, their governing strategies and companies have done much to exclude the queer populace in their own anti-gay policies, business ads and campaigns.
For instance, It Gets Better sponsors such as Visa recently was criticized for running what many thought was a homophobic ad around the Superbowl; Target was recently severely criticized for contributing a large sum of money to Minnesota candidate Tom Emmer’s political campaign; a right-wing anti-gay politician Emmer is known for donating funds to Christian Rock bands who promote a “kill the gays” rhetoric in their lyrics and messages to school children; The Conservative Party of Canada, who has attempted to stop gay-marriage, make it impossible for at risk gay-immigrants to seek asylum in Canada, halt Bill-13 that would make it law to have Gay/Straight Alliances in every school that wants them, posted an It Gets Better Video; Google, the largest sponsor of the campaign recently launched its new Google Pro software by using Dan Savage’s name, and the Project videos, to prove the superior quality of Google’s technology to competitors. Of this alliance between Google and Savage, one naysayer stated: “That’s making blood money off of our teenagers so bullied that they can’t think of any other way to make things better other than suicide”; Outwardly anti-gay Republicans Leonard Lance, Frank Lobiondo, and Jon Runyan also made an “It Gets Better Video” even though they still do not support gay rights, and have openly challenged the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” repeal, Gay-Marriage Act, and a host of rulings meant to get safe spaces in schools of LGBTQ youth. And yet, they too made a video.
The cause celeb of It Gets Better seems to enable these companies and authoritarian government officials to pinkwash their politics. Further, many of the teens who died by suicide cited a lack of access to social-support, internet-bullying, text-message harassment, and class-issues—an inability to be upwardly commercial or “in” enough, to buy the necessary swagger, with the popular crowd—as reasons for their sadness. So having these companies sponsor this project seems ill advised.
The point here is not to blame Savage for his message of hope– he has helped many teens to be sure by giving them a voice. However, by blatantly disregarding who is using his project to support their own corporate interests, and what type of message this actually puts out to queer teens, Savage does his own project a disservice.
So, the next time you see a public campaign that promotes the “think pink” philosphopy remember that while someone in that organization might secretly recall the kiss they shared with that other beefy guy in the bathroom in grade 10 who had a really hard, umm, knocked life and a firm, supple, uh, political reputation but, of course, wasn’t really gay, look into where their colors are running first before you buy that pink tea towel.