By Beatriz Silva and Yasmina O’Sullivan
What do the NYC Pride March and a pre-pandemic Wednesday outside of the LSE Student Union have in common? Here’s a hint: it’s not world-class architecture.
Both can be relied on to include renowned companies, either displayed in rainbow colours on a float or persuading undergraduates to apply. Corporate involvement in Pride has made headlines in recent years, in part resulting in the establishment of a competing NYC Pride march, the Queer Liberation March. The split was due to accusations that corporate involvement had caused the mainstream march to stray from its protest roots and allowed companies to score social legitimacy, while ‘pink-washing’ – doing little to improve themselves behind closed doors. Since corporate involvement, through sponsorship, recruitment, or events, is also ever-present at LSE, The Beaver asked members of LSE’s LGBTQ+ community where they stood. We spoke to Izzy, who prefers not to go by their full name, a postgraduate student, Dave Smith, a member of the LSE Spectrum Committee, Thiago Pontes, LSESU’s LGBTQ+ officer, and Ben Plummer Powell, Chair of LSE LGBTQ+ Steering Group.
To start, we asked a fundamental question.
What is Pride to you?
For Dave, Pride is, crucially, a celebration of identity. “A lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community grew up trying to convince themselves they’re not who they really are. Pride is a reminder that no one should have to fight that battle.” For Thiago, it is more complicated. He shared his experience of struggling to come out to his conservative parents in Brazil. Without a community of queer friends around him there, he did not see the point of celebration. The idea of Pride as a fight for freedom resonated more strongly. This changed when he moved to the UK. Once he no longer had to fight, he could understand the role of celebration, but he cautioned this celebration is only possible because, “we have many queer people and individuals who run for us, that fought the fight, and now we are able to you know walk safely in the streets.” In contrast, Pride has never meant a lot to Izzy. “But,” they mention, “I would engage in it more if it was more about bringing attention to issues.”
Thiago and Izzy both criticized Pride month’s current form, arguing that it does not do enough to fight for LGBTQ+ struggles and elevate the less privileged within the community. They highlighted the experiences of those who have been left behind by the mainstream movement, which they argue is dominated by white, cisgender men. Thiago stated, “We are not doing enough. […] Who is being represented in these marches and movements? Who are the queer individuals taking leadership positions within these movements? Most of the time they would be a white cis gay man. Where are the bisexual folks; Where are the women and people of colour and especially the trans individuals?” Izzy recognised important progress that had been made by the gay community and acknowledged that homophobia was now unacceptable in the UK. However, they cautioned that transphobia is still prevalent.
The international role of Pride was raised by Ben who stated, “[…] We should be as inclusive as possible when bringing together our community and allies, working in tandem to ensure we create necessary change – not only in the UK, but internationally.” Thiago echoed this sentiment: “I do not think we are celebrating queer individuals in the Global South enough. […] We’ve got to ask, like, what can we do to include those who still do not have access to these celebrations?”
Izzy proposed that for Pride to truly support the LGBTQ+ community, education should be made central to the month’s events. “It feels like [Pride] does the celebration bit quite well, but not so much the education bit and the bringing attention to the issues that need to be improved.” They propose that the month should take on the format of a festival filled with workshops, events, and speeches. The march in its current form does little to educate, whilst actively obscuring the really important issues with corporate pink-washing.
What role should large corporations play in Pride?
Corporate involvement can have both positive and negative consequences, Thiago and Izzy argued. Representation in positions of power, which corporations undoubtedly hold, is crucial, and companies providing sponsorship for LGBTQ+ initiatives are positive transfers. However, “It means zero if in the ranks of leadership there are no queer people being involved. It means nothing if these companies are well-known for being homophobic. And actually, again, it is just performative. There is a sort of representation, which these HR diversity and inclusion companies are doing, which for me slightly touches upon tokenism,” said Thiago. Izzy argued that corporations should only be allowed visibility in Pride if they act substantively to further LGBTQ+ causes internally and externally, so that the march’s profile can act as an incentive for improvement.
For the NYC Pride March, the only criteria for corporate involvement is if their LGBTQ+ employee group participates. This is far from enough in Thiago’s eyes. He questioned, “Who is getting access to work in these companies? Are they just reproducing social inequalities we see in society? […] Who are the queer individuals able to access JP Morgan?” To Thiago, companies not addressing these essential issues had no right to gain visibility at Pride. He also questioned whether multinational corporations participating in Pride were also promoting LGBTQ+ freedoms in countries which were hostile to the community or simply engaging in superficial rhetoric when it is profitable.
Izzy proposed a more stringent criteria for companies allowed to gain visibility from the march. In their view, reviewing Human Resources policies would be a first step. Protection against harassment is crucial, but not enough, they stated. Companies should also support employees in easily changing their names or pronouns, taking adoption leave, and other overlooked policies which would improve the workplace for the LGBTQ+ community. However, companies’ external practices are as important as their internal ones. In Izzy’s view, companies should think critically about their supply chains and recognise that their involvement with certain political regimes or companies impacts the international LGBTQ+ community. It is not good enough to simply recognise a problem but take no action to solve it, they affirmed.
Is LSE doing enough for the LGTBQ+ community?
When asked whether the pride flags on campus or the fact that LSE frequently adds the rainbow background on its social media logos could be seen as ‘pink-washing’, both Thiago and Izzy disagreed. “I find it positive to see that visible statement, ” Izzy replied. However, the students made it clear that in order for LSE to be truly inclusive, these symbolic moves need to be backed with action. The UK Gay Liberation Front may have held its first meeting on LSE’s campus in 1970, but Thiago emphasised that LSE cannot rely on its historical role to legitimise its allyship today: “What are you doing now? It’s not enough to only be the place that gave birth to this movement.”
Considering whether LSE is doing enough for the LGBTQ+ community and intersectionality at the university, Dave highlighted the hard work that a lot of people at the School do year-round to continue to improve the LGBTQ+ experience. “We are continually making progress,” he stated, with LSE being named one of Stonewall’s top 100 employers in 2019 being a testament to that fact. The response from Thiago and Izzy was focused on what LSE is yet to do, particularly for students. Izzy noted that change often only happens when LSE is pushed by the community, which they did not necessarily consider bad. As a Student’s Union part-time officer, Thiago had a slightly different view on this, stating that LSE reaps the benefits of the work carried out by the so-called liberation officers – the Student’s Union part-time officers. “(…) We are not paid. I really don’t mind. […] The problem is [that LSE] is using free labour to promote itself as a good and open university when actually the people that do get paid are not doing their jobs. […] There is a limit to my role.”
On this topic, the students believe that LSE could easily make some changes to improve inclusion of LGBTQ+ students at the university. One of the critiques was that ‘Report it, Stop it’ – an initiative created by LSE to denounce sexual violence, bullying, and harrassment at the univeristy – is not equipped to deal with homophobic behaviour happening within the student community. Thiago mentioned that at the beginning of this academic year, he reported to the university that homophobic slurs were made in a Freshers Whatsapp group, but the university said that there was nothing it could do. Moreover, the disability and wellbeing services at LSE, which are known to be quite proactive, could do more for LGBTQ+ students by addressing the specific challenges that these students are confronted with whilst at university. One of the suggestions put forward by Thiago is that students should be able to choose their pronouns on LSE For You to avoid Professors misgendering them, which has happened before. Izzy pointed out that circulating basic do’s and don’ts among lecturers and people responsible for running events – so that the whole community is aware that some behaviours can be harmful and of how to best address everyone – would be very straightforward and have a significant positive impact.
Why isn’t change happening faster on these issues? According to Thiago, there are systems in place at LSE designed precisely to make change very difficult. He noticed this as he worked on his LGBTQ+ student guide. Thiago encountered several obstacles in the process of creating the guide from trying to understand who could explain to him what kind of support was offered to LGBTQ+ students at LSE to whom he should liaise with to improve the situation. A recurring challenge for the SU’s part-time officers is that changes in policy and practices across the university must be implemented at a departmental level, and it is often unclear who to contact in each department and how to ensure that all departments adopt and enforce new policies.
When asked to reflect on the role that the wider student community plays in pressuring LSE to improve the experiences of LGBTQ+ students, both Thiago and Izzy shared their disappointment with the lack of engagement and solidarity of the student body. “There is a lack of commitment to social causes at LSE basically because they [existing structures] do not pose a problem to most students who are privileged […] and it’s been very frustrating in my role,” Thiago admitted. As a consequence of this, students do not come together to push LSE to make change. Izzy noted that most student societies are not activist when there is a lot that they could be doing such as attending workshops on what it is like to be LGBTQ+ and simultaneously from a deprived socioeconomic background. Thiago and Izzy encouraged the community at LSE to attend events aimed at familiarising students with the struggles of minorities on campus and to adopt basic practices, such as not assuming pronouns or sexuality.
The central message from these interviews is that the fight never ends. Pride may be a celebration, but there is an understanding that the memory of those who fought for LGBTQ+ rights must be kept alive and that the struggle continues for the many who are yet to be granted basic rights and freedoms, including at LSE. The fact that there is still a long way to go is a call for the whole university community to unite in demanding that LSE continuously reflects on its role as an institution and, more importantly, make change happen.