When Pride Fails Us

A Fossil Free Pride organiser explores the implications of LGBTQ+ Prides in Scotland being sponsored by companies deeply implicated in the climate crisis.

1972: The Gay Liberation Front hold the first Pride march on the island of Britain to commemorate the anti-police Stonewall riot.

1988: Lark in the Park becomes the largest of all Pride-style events yet held

2018: It is widely reported that we have ‘12 years to limit climate change catastrophe’ after a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is released.

2022: Edinburgh Pride is sponsored by fossil fuel giant Exxon Mobil.

So how the fuck did an LGBTQ+ event and cultural phenomenon with radical protest origins find itself, decades after its inception, sponsored by some of the world’s most egregious corporate villains – climate or otherwise – up and down the country? 

Pinkwashing, where corporations place themselves in close proximity to queer people, culture and events in order to associate their brand with socially progressive values, has escalated far beyond what could have been imagined twenty years ago. In many cases, this association is sought in order to distract from, or compensate for, unethical and socially unacceptable business practices elsewhere. To use a completely random example: deliberately burying climate science, and funding climate denial and massive political lobbying operations to delay and frustrate climate action.

Given that queer culture is willingly being sold to corporate giants by a small number of LGBTQ+ people, most commonly without the consent or even consultation of the queer communities they claim to represent, what does this situation demand of us as queer organisers? As anti-capitalists? As those participating in collective struggle at a time of climate collapse? What do we do when Pride fails us?

For better or worse, Pride celebrations play a significant role in defining the politics of a queerness on a local, regional and national scale. Pride marches are among the largest regular and widespread LGBTQ+ gatherings, and are places where the general public most commonly observes a display of collective queer politics. Equally, at least historically, Pride marches were among the first places where newly-out LGBTQ+ individuals sought and found queer community and participated in a collective display of queer pride and power. Popular slogans such as ‘Pride is a protest’ and ‘The first Pride was a riot’ have gone some way to (re-)establishing the radical origins of Pride as an event and cultural phenomenon. The political character of Pride is not completely extinguished, as is manifested in a generalised dislike of ‘the Tories’ and the crystal-clear acceptance, inclusion and involvement of trans organisers and marchers within Pride and the queer community more broadly (to the disappointment of a small and increasingly isolated number of people who would prefer to weaken the queer movement and the working class by fragmenting it).

One area where the queer political position has been less visible and well-established historically is in our community’s relationship and collective response to the climate crisis. With pinkwashing corporations present at many Prides, it is plausible that an absence of organised and visible resistance to their sponsorship and presence implies a form of collective consent, ambivalence or apathy. This situation has led some queer organisers, myself included, to believe that the queer position on climate is yet to be defined. It is therefore up for grabs if we can out-organise the corporate interests that would rather we stayed quiet, passive and respectable and got on with our role of sanitising their business image with a rainbow sparkle and shine.

Into this fray waded Fossil Free Pride in 2021. Emerging out of historic victories of queer student organisers kicking BP out of Student Pride in 2017, Fossil Free Pride outgrew its student origins and set out to win an ideological battle over the relationship of Pride and its huge number of LGBTQ+ participants to the escalating climate crisis. In order to do this it undertook to use the presence of sponsorships from fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel-funding banks to drive a wedge between queer culture and the climate-wrecking corporate interests that would seek to exploit it.

It made only three demands:

1) Adopt a publicly available Ethical Sponsorship Policy.

2) Do not accept sponsorship from or partnership with fossil fuel companies.

3) Do not accept sponsorship from or partnership with financial institutions funding fossil fuel companies.

These demands could be deployed with regards to any Pride: in a reactive way to break existing relationships that Prides hold with these climate villains, or in a proactive way to prevent relationships developing in the future with Prides that currently hold no comparable relationships. In addition, the creation of an ‘Ethical Sponsorship Policy’ sought to develop transparency between Pride organisers and Pride participants, as well as creating a piece of infrastructure which could be built on by other queer organisers to raise their concerns around other social issues, such as demilitarisation, in the future. At the time of writing, ten Prides in Britain have implemented the demands of the campaign, but notably none of these is in Scotland.

Besides its clear short-term goal of ending the link between Prides and the most obvious corporate drivers of the climate crisis, Fossil Free Pride is also carving out space for the LGBTQ+ community to have a wider conversation about pinkwashing, about the climate crisis, and ultimately about the purpose of Pride as a cultural phenomenon in the queer calendar. What is the role of Pride? Who is Pride for (and perhaps more importantly, who is it not for)? Is Pride a neoliberal party? Is Pride a family day out? Is Pride a photo opportunity? Is Pride a protest?

But it’s not simply a conversation we’re happy to have, it’s an argument we have a stake in. For us to have a Pride to be proud of, it needs to stand in solidarity with all queers. That position demands internationalism, and internationalism demands an opposition to fossil fuel extractors and its financial backers. It demands that queer liberation includes those on the frontlines of climate impacts and those on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction. If we have no pride in fossil fuels, we can have no fossil fuels in Pride.