Now that the Pride festivities of June have officially ended, many people are looking back, evaluating the month’s events and making observations. A number of these observations have centered on the increased commercialization of the yearly celebration. Most recently, the conversation has been focused on Burger King’s introduction of the Proud Whopper during the San Francisco Pride march and festival. The burger, which is indistinct from other Burger King burgers in terms of ingredients, caught the eye of many because of its rainbow-colored wrapper, which contained the inscription: “We are all the same inside.”
While the flamboyant wrapper’s message is undoubtedly true, it has brought to light the fact that many corporations are capitalizing on Pride and on the LGBT movement’s campaign for equality. Though some might characterize this as a good thing because it promotes visibility, others have noted that such stunts are meaningless and take advantage of the movement’s increasingly popular message in pop culture and society. And they’re right — rainbow wrappers just don’t cut it when one considers that many of these corporations still lag behind when it comes to promoting equality within their own organizations. This is definitely the case with Burger King, which has consistently received a low score on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index.
In addition to highlighting hypocrisy, this kind of exploitation also has provoked criticism of the LGBT civil-rights movement’s evolution since its beginnings in the late 1960s. Upon comparing its origins with its current political position, a significant number of commentators and advocates have concluded that we are “selling out.” Admittedly, the substance of liberation for LGBT people is certainly different than it was 50 years ago. Much of our efforts in the last decade have concentrated on traditional values such as military service, marriage and children, rather than the abolition of conventional societal institutions. This shift has elicited the accusation that we have accepted a diluted form of liberation defined by “heteronormative” and gender-conforming ideals. However, this criticism, which has resulted in considerable tension, is somewhat harsh.
At first glance, the belief that we have largely bought into a “Leave It to Beaver” way of life is understandable. Our prolonged legal and social exclusion from mainstream culture naturally has brought about the notion of separateness, of “them” versus “us.” In turn, this notion expectantly has resulted in the additional idea that looking more like “them” means buying into “their” stereotypes and forgetting who “we” are. However, this view is misguided. Our historic place on the margins of society should not be equated with the theory that this lifestyle only belongs to straight, cisgender people. They do not have an exclusive claim on things like marriages and mortgages and white-picket fences. Consequently, we should not see ourselves as buying into anything — we are merely asserting that we deserve the opportunity to pursue these things too. That is not so much selling out as it is coming out and claiming we are not second-class citizens.
This is not to say that once we have the same opportunities, we all should adopt normativity and forget our origins. However, we need to come to terms with the fact that a key task for any social movement is gaining social and political legitimacy. To an extent, this involves embracing “the norm.” But this embrace should not be seen as a move toward conformity; it should be seen as a move toward equality. And it’s working. Today, more than ever, we have the liberty to choose among alternatives because we no longer must accept relegation to the periphery of society. We now have a voice and a platform, and people are listening. That’s pretty radical stuff.
Fundamentally, what it all boils down to is divergent views about the means toward achieving our common goal. It’s the difference between deconstructing the social structure as opposed to gaining access and working on the inside to improve society. It’s absolutely true that the current system, which perpetuates “the norm,” can be improved. For example, we should be defining “family” more broadly. This holds true for LGBT individuals, as well as for non-LGBT people like single moms, who rely on assistance from chosen family. But this improvement won’t happen if we’re stuck in the margins. We have to be realistic about our goals and the means of achieving them. It’s not about conformity but rather equality. And in order for this to come about, we need to stand together. Imposing judgments and casting aspersion is divisive and counterproductive, especially now when solidarity is more important than ever.
We have come very far, but the road ahead is still long and difficult. While we should be pleased with our progress, we definitely should not confuse superficial extensions of equality, like rainbow burger wrappers, with true success. We must remember where we come from, how we got here and appreciate the weighty impact our predecessors have had, otherwise we risk compromising our integrity. However, we need to stick together to move forward, or else we will lose ground, be pushed back into the shadows and revive the message that we are not all the same inside.
Andrea C. Anastasi is a Law & Public Policy Scholar from Temple University Beasley School of Law.