The Rainbow Corporation

Has an over-saturation of Pride merchandise diluted a once-powerful demonstration of LGBTQ identity?

“Sounds gay, I’m in.” Have you heard this before? Maybe just the “sounds gay” part. It’s an attempt to reclaim playground hate speech that brings back memories from the 1990s. I picture a whiny homophobic teen from the California valley: “Ugh, you want to do what? That sounds so gay.”

Except now it’s an Instagram account with 849,000 followers. @thtsoundsgay lathers LGBTQ messages of inclusivity on bright apparel that has been “lovingly made in the USA” — a claim we were unable to confirm.

Over the course of four months, SF Weekly attempted to contact “thtsoundsgay,” but no human could be reached: Phone calls went to voicemail, texts were not returned, and automated bots replied to all Instagram and email messages, thanking people for wanting to become brand ambassadors and offering users generous discounts in exchange for posing in photos that display their merchandise.

We never did send a letter to the P.O. Box we found. Who even has stamps these days?

Asking for favorable posts in exchange for deals is nothing new. But for the LGBTQ community, it feels like a new chapter in the commodification of our self expression. While Pride began in 1970 as a way to bare our identities to people who didn’t accept us, nowadays we don pretty rainbow outfits and march alongside parade contingents organized by Google and Wells Fargo; We drink vodka out of rainbow-colored Absolut bottles while wearing free Smirnoff sunglasses and bracelets; We attend Eventbrite “Pridelings” cocktail socials and Salesforce Pride mixers. Every June, without fail, corporate America wraps itself in rainbow. This year, the most up-to-date marketers are incorporating the latest iteration of the LGBTQ flag, which includes elements intended to represent Black, brown, transgender, and intersex individuals. It would seem that solidarity sells.

While this kind of commercialization is something we in the community know well, the idea that a faceless brand, hawking its wares through social media with little to no transparency is new. We simply don’t know who is behind @thtsoundsgay, where the products are made, or where the money is going. And the questions keep multiplying.

Who designed the merchandise? How did they come up with taglines like “sounds gay, I’m in” and “woke up gay again”? Were they bullied growing up or were they the bullies? Do we know if they pocket all the proceeds or do they make donations to LGBTQ causes? Or are the owners actually homophobic and making money off the community anyway?

The last question stuck with me as I pursued this story, and I ultimately arrived at an unsatisfactory but undeniable answer: It really doesn’t matter, people are buying these products, and I don’t mean from just this one Instagram account.

A February release from online marketplace creator Shopify said it saw nearly $1 billion in revenue in its 2020 fourth quarter, a 94 percent jump from the same timeframe in 2019. Those numbers certainly dovetail with my lived experience. Every day, I’m bombarded with Facebook and Instagram ads for rompers, shoes, bomber jackets, suitings, and nightlife apparel. These companies are rarely ones I’ve heard of, and all of them seem to have similarly templated websites and social media accounts — right down to a turnkey cause: me and the rest of the LGBTQ community.

The reason @thtsoundsgay and other accounts like it are so grating is the way in which they so blatantly blur — or obliterate — the line between activism and advertising.

MISSED CONNECTIONS

Setting aside the fact that it’s entirely unclear who is behind @thtsoundsgay — and that our numerous attempts to find out went ignored — it’s worth noting that the brand seems to regularly fail to satisfy paying customers.

The Better Business Bureau website logs 11 complaints from @thtsoundsgay customers who never received apparel they ordered. A deluge of Reddit threads likewise discuss unshipped items, while others express weird feelings about being asked to serve as brand reps when they clearly aren’t influencers. On Twitter, people marvel over the relentlessness of the “thtsoundsgay” bots pinging them with offers of ambassadorship. (By the time this article runs, I will have received more than two dozen such automated messages.)

I saw the word “scam” a lot in complaints, Google searches, and in various contexts when interviewing people for this story, although plenty of folks do get their shirts. SF Weekly connected with several of those customers, and their reactions weren’t exactly an egregious, “Screw you, shady Instagram account!” Some people actually felt empowered wearing the apparel, and others felt they genuinely might have been contacted because of their influence.

“I mean, anyone can go to the craft store, get some iron-on materials and put ‘GAY’ on a shirt. Not sure that’s worth $40,” Drew Hillis, a Savannah, GA-based “thtsoundsgay” customer said in an Instagram message. Still, he bought two shirts and enjoyed them. “I’m honestly not a consumer that overthinks it. At the end of the day they are a business that saw a profitable opportunity.”

Wisconsin-based Madison Gabriel just thought “it would be cool to have my picture posted on an account that has over 800,000 followers.” 

Waxing philosophical, she added, “I’ll give you this much, I’m bisexual. I’m not super out about it online, but I’m willing to tell people when asked. So I feel validated in being part of this collaboration … I do believe that a positive message has a positive impact.”

GAY SLEEVES

I can relate: My outfit choices took a markedly bright, shiny, and outspoken turn six years ago. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough that I was gay, I needed everyone to recognize it about me from yards away and across the street.

There’s such a thing as “straight passing” in our community, but it’s an affectation I never possessed. In the community, we say someone like me has a closet with a glass door, or that every time I open my mouth a purse falls out. I tried to hide being gay over the years, but it seemed the more I did, the more it showed, and both straight and LGBTQ friends at various times asked that I tone down my clothing choices and conversation topics.

“We get it, you’re gay,” an exasperated friend told me once at dinner. In that way, becoming deliberately flamboyant felt like a means to reclaim those comments rather than allowing myself to be hurt by them. I believe that Pride, at its core, is that exactly: Teaching society to take in something they’re not accustomed to seeing and to welcome it as equal, rather than ridiculing it.

Considering the conundrum of @thtsoundsgay through this lens, shouldn’t more Pride merchandise ultimately be good for us? Wouldn’t more rainbow products necessarily communicate more solidarity?

Maybe it’s the generic and prolific approach that so many companies bring to their collections that makes it feel so unsavory. It happened over the course of decades, but it feels more sudden that now in addition to flags, jumpsuits, sunglasses, fans, hoodies, and running shoes, there’s also rainbow-colored bottles of Listerine. June comes, and it seems every company slaps a rainbow on a line of products and sells, sells, sells.

In advance of this story, I sent requests to about 10 different companies for product samples. Fossil, Skagen Denmark, Levi’s, and Reebok sent more than $500 in merchandise before knowing what I’d write. I’ve struggled to understand why this felt so wrong to me. It’s unsettling to believe that the capitalist machine can grow its profit margins simply by sending me samples, even if I turned around and called that merchandise actual garbage.

But not everyone feels the way I do.

A PROFITABLE EXERCISE

“As someone who is 47 years old and has been around since way before Pride became commercialized and mainstream, I will say that its evolution is good in a way,” says Justin Elliott, a San Francisco resident. “It makes more and more young people comfortable with the LGBTQ community, which in the long run will make society more accepting of all colors of the rainbow.”

The profit often goes somewhere useful, too. For 2021: Levi’s Pride collection webpage says it makes “an annual donation” of an unspecified amount to OutRight Action International. Reebok is donating $75,000 from its Pride collection to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. H&M promised $100,000 to the United Nations Free & Equal campaign. Stoli’s Harvey Milk-themed Pride label has an undisclosed amount of proceeds going to the Harvey Milk Foundation. GAP promised $50,000 from its Pride apparel to go to GLAAD. Nike — with a 2021 “Be True” Pride collection — has told numerous media outlets that it has donated $625,000 to LGBTQ causes in 2021.

According to Fossil, 100 percent of the proceeds from this year’s Pride watch casings and wristbands will go to The Trevor Project through the end of June, with a minimum donation of $25,000. Its subsidiary, Skagen Denmark, likewise created a 2021 Pride watch with a minimum donation of $25,000 going to InterPride. It’s worth noting, however, the aforementioned brands avoided disclosing the total profit generated through the sale of these collections or what their tax write-offs were.

Chances are they’re collecting a pretty penny, but at least we know some money goes to a good cause and that’s not always the case. American Airlines, for example, launched its annual Pride campaign with 23 “must-watch movie hits to celebrate the LGBTQ community” onboard its flights. When the company recently switched its Twitter profile to an airplane and LGBTQ rainbow, critics shared some notes.

“What a fun Pride display! But what’s not fun is that American Airlines donated $46,617 to Mitch McConnell’s 2020 campaign — while he was actively blocking the Equality Act from becoming law,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., wrote in a tweet.

I asked some companies about their stance on putting rainbows on Pride products. My specific question was: How do you feel about your company’s apparel and merchandise participation in Pride campaigns, with or without donations or connection to the LGBTQ community?

Reebok spokesperson Brianna Bostick told me in an email that the company cared not just about donations but also education. She noted Reebok’s LGBTQ employeee group has been “working to educate themselves and others year-round about the community and culture through hosting panel conversations and events, sharing resources, and continuously thinking about how to activate knowing the importance of involvement and speaking up for others whenever possible.”

While reporting this story, several gay friends told me the LGBTQ community worked hard for companies and society writ large to become more accepting and inclusive, and that chastising them would only discourage their participation. I agree with this sentiment, but I believe it’s important that we continue to hold these companies accountable, and in the case of Reebok, Nike, Levi’s, and other high profile brands we can. When it comes to the ever-expanding landscape of faceless social media commerce, however, it’s a different story.

RABBIT HOLE

So what about @thtsoundsgay, where does their money go? What issues do they represent? In a deep dive of more than four months, I sought help from journalist colleagues at the Washington Post and ProPublica. I combed over business records in Colorado and Massachusetts, where @thtsoundsgay claims they produce the shirts and are based. I asked an apparel attorney whose job it is to root out fake brands and shut them down. All we found are more questions and more Instagram accounts. @imverygayofficial, for example, sells some identical products as @thtsoundsgay — only they claim they are “Made in the UK with love.” Several shared the same Boston P.O. Box. Occasionally these accounts mentioned donations they made to the Gay Straight Alliance Network, although there’s no evidence that actually happened.

In step with those who cried “scam,” I often wondered if these practices were illegal.

“At the end of the day, if people are buying the product and they’re getting the product, and they like the product, then there’s only so much that’s bad in the picture,” says Deborah Greaves, the Los Angeles-based apparel attorney with Withersworldwide who I asked for help. 

She notes that people who didn’t receive their shirts could claim fraud. Additionally, it’s a federal violation to claim something’s made in the United States when it isn’t, and it’s fraud to say you’re donating to a cause when you’re not. 

“You’re entitled to know who you’re buying your products from,” Greaves says. “Maybe you don’t want to buy your Black Lives Matter T-shirt with a group that’s affiliated with the KKK.”

But few attorneys would take that case because damages are so minimal, she adds. In that way, I don’t think it’s possible to hold companies accountable for their actions. But what I don’t understand is why Instagram or Shopify appear to not take this issue more seriously. Why, after numerous people have complained about @thtsoundsgay and others like it, aren’t these brands investigated or terminated?

I asked Instagram and Shopify that question more than two weeks ago. Shopify never replied.

Last Friday, a spokesperson for Facebook and Instagram noted a similar-looking account I flagged — @officialbuddybandana — had already been shut down. They added: “Trust and safety on Instagram is very important to us. We’re actively investigating the accounts flagged for fraudulent activity and will remove any accounts that violate our policies.”

In the end it’s in the hands of the consumer to do better and be better, to know who we’re buying from. This is something local LGBTQ business owner Dave Karraker agreed with. He co-owns MX3 Fitness in the Castro and also sells LGBTQ-themed shirts on an Etsy store.

“It’s up to each of us to make sure our money is going towards people and businesses that truly support our community. If I see anyone wearing a Chick-fil-A rainbow T-shirt, we might have to have words,” he told me in a text message. “Whether or not a company should be making these types of items really comes down to the company‘s values and if it’s in their DNA naturally, rather than being forced just during the month of June.”

This summer, I wrote a column in the San Francisco Examiner about Pride and inclusivity, and in it I said: “In some ways, we’re eating our words by touting Pride as an inclusive event for so many years, but that’s what it’s meant to be. Just my take: You can’t throw a party or protest built on inclusion, then exclude people.”

I still believe this; To me, it was inevitable from the moment the LGBTQ community asked for mainstream acceptance that a gay mouthwash and glittery vodka bottle would come into being. But that doesn’t mean the nature of the event is done evolving. Now if no one else will help the community regulate authentic allyship to LGBTQ causes, we need to be doing that for ourselves. Ultimately we should take pride in what we purchase and be mindful of what we display to others.


Saul Sugarman is a contributing writer. Twitter @saulsugarman

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