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'We're Here, We're Queer, and We're Not Going Shopping!' Protesters Call Out Corporate Sponsorship at Pride Parade

OccuPriders say the Pride celebration has become another commercial event, co-opted by corporate interests.
 
 
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The steel barricades rarely get this much action. A rainbow sea of onlookers presses up against them, trying to find a good view of the marching spectacle. It’s the San Francisco Pride Parade, and everyone is ready for a show. 

As the famed Dykes on Bikes rev their motorcycles down the street, Craig Rouskey fidgets with the barricades, trying to make an opening so he and 150 other OccuPriders can enter the parade and wake up all the bystanders drunk on rainbows and pop music.

Suddenly, the OccuPride participants flood through the barricade gap and begin shouting, “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going shopping!” Their large banner proudly boasts: “Community Not Commodity: OccuPride 2012!”

On the sidelines, viewers’ eyes dart around the picket signs:

Harvey would be screaming about AIDS

Silence = Death

Wells Fargo/BoA There’s no Pride in 4,000,000 foreclosures

Decolonize your Mind, Occupy your Heart, Represent Yourself

Hands start taking the OccuPriders’ books and flyers, which explain their concern in more detail:

“The Pride celebration has become increasingly commercialized, co-opted by corporate interests seeking to use our struggle for human rights as a market for their profit.”

Loud cheers emerge from the crowd. But then the OccuPriders pass, and the regular parade follows: a Bud Light float, a Virgin America float, Toyota, Clear Channel, Kaiser, Wells Fargo, Verizon, AT&T, Chase, Bank of America, Macy’s....

“It’s basically like a four-hour commercial that companies … pay to be a part of,” said Scott Rossi, an OccuPride organizer. 

Corporations and nonprofit organizations often have a tense relationship. As corporations continuously strive for more customers to increase their profits, NGOs struggle financially to “do good,” and often rely on corporations to sponsor their fundraising events in exchange for lots of advertising. If the nonprofit's cause has gone mainstream and is popular with consumers, corporations often jump at the chance to sponsor events in order to enhance their images and increase their customer base. Yet, it’s hard to look away from the fundamental contradictions of corporate sponsorship, as corporatism is often the reason these organizations need to exist as well as hold fundraisers in the first place.

Craig Rouskey, Scott Rossi and Stephan Georgiou, three activists in San Francisco, began organizing OccuPride one month before Pride weekend after lamenting that the commercialized parade was soon approaching. These critical thoughts about corporate sponsorship were forming in activists’ minds across the nation, and ultimately OccuPrides took place in various cities. 

San Francisco OccuPride organizers said that the corporations’ motive is not equality for the queer community, but to ultimately increase their profit.

“Instead of celebrating our community and the people, the martyrs, the heroes … we’re celebrating the fact that companies are selling us stuff … they slap a rainbow on something and it’s like ‘Look, we’re your friends,’” Rossi said.

Some corporations taking part in the parade were especially contradictory — directly harming queer communities. After marching for a while in the parade, OccuPriders split up to target two of these companies: Wells Fargo and Kaiser Permanente.

Wells Fargo is responsible for many of the rampant foreclosures in the city — 84 percent of which have been found to be illegal. Rouskey believes that Wells Fargo is trying to “pinkwash” its reputation by sponsoring 40 Pride parades across the country, even as the foreclosures are greatly affecting the queer community. Wells Fargo also took out a four-page ad in the Bay Area Reporter, a newspaper serving the queer community, and hung door hangers in the Castro District during the weeks leading up to Pride weekend.

“What they’re doing is an aggressive PR campaign to make their institution look positive,” Rouskey said.

Kaiser Permanente is a healthcare company that excludes transgender surgery in its healthcare plans. OccuPriders joined Pride at Work, a queer organization fighting for economic and social justice, to participate in its protest of Kaiser as part of a yearlong campaign to get the company to cover transgender procedures. At the march, protesters sang, “We are a trans-family; we don’t have the health care we need!”

“It was hypocritical that they could go out there and promote themselves as an LGBT-friendly company when they are continuing to discriminate against transgender people and their healthcare plans,” said Sasha Wright, an organizer for SF Pride at Work.

Still, OccuPride organizers said their aim wasn’t only to target corporations that negatively affect the queer community, but communities in general.

“It’s selfish for us just to stop at equality in our own borders,” Rossi said. “We’re part of the global family, and … we should fight against [oppression] everywhere.”

Which is why, Georgiou added, corporations shouldn’t have a place in a community celebration, as they oppress us all.

“In a lot of ways, corporations are antithetical to communities,” he said. “They work largely to separate us and make each of us believe we are what we consume and buy.”

Georgiou said he wished Pride was a participatory event, not a parade with barricades, where members of the queer community and their supporters can march. He recalls when he first moved to San Francisco and cops removed him from the Pride parade because he wasn’t part of a contingent — an organization that paid to be in the parade.

“The people that are actually suffering and dying, who need gay rights and equality, don’t have access to the parade,” said Scott Rossi, who shared Georgiou’s frustration.

The OccuPride organizers said that people in our society are socialized to believe we need corporations and corporate sponsors, and therefore we fail to imagine and create a society without them.

“It’s completely wrong to think that we need sponsorship,” he said. “One of the biggest arguments we’ve heard from people was like ‘Well, without commercial sponsors you wouldn’t have this parade.’ Really? Because I’m pretty sure in the '60s and '70s with Stonewall Riots and with people actually working around HIV they didn’t need a fucking parade for that. They went out and marched and that’s what we’re trying to return this to. This is a movement, not a marketplace.”

Craig Rouskey added that it’s important to learn to rely on one another instead of corporations. “I think people have the capacity to serve themselves and work for themselves,” he said. “It’s just a matter of breaking free of the chain of the corporate sponsor, and it could be done, and it’s been done. And it avoids corporate fascism, which is what we’re under right now.”

Another function of the OccuPride protest was to make Pride organizers aware of their harmful tradition of hosting a corporatized parade.

“I don’t think they’re out to hurt us,” Rouskey says. “But I think out of habit they’re letting their own people suffer in the streets … it’s just a little short-sighted. There’s the bigger picture they’re missing. And I think that they have the power to really build communities.”

The three are considering working with the parade organizers next year to try to de-comodify the event. Pride organizers did not return calls for an interview request.

But, this year, the trio showed that they didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to begin building that community at the event on the ground. And when they broke through the one thing that certainly doesn’t belong in a community celebration — barricades — for the first time the parade was truly theirs.

“I’ve been to a number of Prides, and this is the first time I actually felt part of the queer community,” Rouskey said. “I’m proud of the fact that we stood up in front of a million people on the streets and said, ‘This is ours.’ That’s the ideal Pride situation. And I can’t wait for next year.”

Alyssa Figueroa is an intern at AlterNet. She is a recent Ithaca College graduate who double-majored in journalism and politics. Follow her on Twitter @alyssa_fig.