Pinkwashing is no cause for Pride

Pride has become just another chance for corporations to parade their "values"

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, something perfectly ordinary happened: a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York, was raided by the cops. At the time, gay bars were illegal, Mafia-run, and frequently the subject of police violence.

What made this particular night extraordinary was that the patrons fought back. First bottles and beer cans were thrown at the police, then bricks and cobblestones. Burning rubbish was thrown into the Inn and police responded by turning a firehose on the crowd. 13 people were arrested, four police officers were injured, and at least two patrons were severely beaten by the police.

Several days of sporadic and spontaneous protest erupted, including two more nights of rioting, with police struggling to regain control.

The first Pride marches, in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, took place on June 28, 1970, in commemoration of the riots.

Today, as queer Londoners take to the streets for the parade which forms the centrepiece of London’s WorldPride festival, Pride is an unrecognisably different affair: a three-week consumer-fest replete with corporate sponsors (including, incongruously, the Trades Union Congress side-by-side with viciously anti-union companies like Coca Cola).

It’s a spectacle indicative of an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) movement that is increasingly being assimilated into the mainstream, but at the cost of our radicalism and transformative potential.

We are becoming just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, obscuring the exploitation at the heart of their operation behind a veil of positive pink-PR. But hey, at least we can be "Out @ Tesco" while earning a pittance on workfare.

On Thursday, Pride London hosted a £250-a-plate gala dinner, at which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was presented with an award in recognition of her saying some nice platitudinous things about us on a global stage, while her administration continues to hide behind mealy-mouthed "State’s rights" excuses for their lack of concrete progress in improving the status of LGBT Americans. This is more or less the same State’s rights discourse that was historically used to stall the progress of Civil Rights for black Americans time and again.

Meanwhile US troops continue to destroy lives in Afghanistan (including those of LGBT Afghans) and Private Manning (who is commonly described as gay, but is actually a trans woman who identifies as Breanna) rots in her government’s prison for revealing details of US atrocities in Iraq.

This phenomenon, whereby LGBT concerns are co-opted by reactionary groups and institutions - big business, establishment politicians, the far-right, militarists, the police - in order to cast their agendas in a progressive light, is known as "pinkwashing". (The term is borrowed from Breast Cancer Action, who used it to criticise companies who use their pink ribbon purely for PR purposes.) It’s a phenomenon that’s becoming increasingly prevalent and through our silence we are complicit: unless we speak out, we allow the Right to speak for us, to hijack our struggles and our history for their own purposes.

Often, the target of this process is Muslims, who are vilified as homophobic fanatics – a pre-modern barbarian threat to the status of LBGT people in the enlightened West. This framing of Muslims is then used to justify oppression. Far-right groups like the English Defence League have successfully employed this tactic in order to gain support for their racist politics beyond the traditional football hooligan base of far-right street movements, while the apartheid regime in Israel frequently refers to its relatively progressive position on LGBT rights to justify its continued suppression of Palestinians both within the state of Israel and in the Occupied Territories.

While the Gay Liberation Front – who were forged from the white-heat of the Stonewall Rebellion as the movement of organised queer militancy - actively sought to build links with groups such as the Black Panthers, on the understanding that our emancipation is inextricably bound up with the freedom of other oppressed groups, the contemporary LGBT movement increasingly sees itself as just another special interest group fighting its own corner. We have lost our understanding of solidarity.

To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, if we remain neutral towards injustice, in the hopes that it will lead to incremental progress on our concerns, we have chosen the side of the oppressor.

We should fight for a society that’s inclusive of LGBT people, but we must also fight for a society that’s worth being included in.

The Rainbow flag flies above the cabinet office. But do queer people really want Nick Clegg's support? Photograph: Getty Images

Aidan Rowe is a queer anarchist blogger and activist.

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.