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Transmissions: Pride is more than product placement

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

Pride merchandise at a Target store. Photo: Cynthia Laird
Pride merchandise at a Target store. Photo: Cynthia Laird  

It's Pride Month, and this means a whole lot of people will take to - or have taken to - the streets across the world, festooned in their best rainbow gear. We'll march, and party, and do all those things we do at Pride. It will be crazy and chaotic, and we will be the big messy community we are, in all our glory.

Increasingly, too, this means that corporations will hop on the bandwagon, ready to support us for a handful of days, hoping to lure our dollars into their coffers. Over the years, I've had the dubious pleasure of seeing the involvement of corporations grow from the days of a handful of internet start-ups hawking free logo-emblazoned cups and Frisbees to the big players of today rolling out Pride-themed fashion lines and glitzy ads.

Now, I don't feel that corporations don't deserve a place at the table, though a lot of it feels incredibly ham-fisted and more than a little sleazy. Then again, that's how I feel most times companies try to shoehorn their products into holidays and such.

For example, once again Target has set up a Pride selection at their stores, replete with rainbow trinkets and other merchandise. It even has some trans-specific goods. I'm actually glad for that, considering that maybe some young LGBTQ person might see this stuff and feel like they can be accepted in this culture at large, even in these challenging times. That's a really good thing.

At the same time, I question why Target can't get the idea that red comes first when setting up the rainbow flag-style displays.

Nevertheless, I'm not going to get too hot under the collar over such things. If a company wants to create something with the LGBT community in mind, or spread a message of love and acceptance for all of us, then who am I to criticize that?

Yet, it isn't so simple.

Recently, Instagram users discovered that they were getting "shadowbanned." That is, their content was looking just as it should, but none of their photos or videos were showing up when searched.

As it turned out, Instagram had opted to shadowban certain specific hashtags from search, flagging them as being possibly pornographic. Unfortunately, this included a lot of LGBTQ-specific hashtags.

The irony, of course, is that while this is going on, Instagram also rolled out rainbow-colored hashtags for certain terms for Pride Month. So you could have #LGBT in rainbow tones, but #gay could result in a shadowban.

Things, of course, get more complicated when one talks about trans bodies. Instagram, for example, doesn't allow baring of what it refers to as "female nipples." A user by the name of Rain Dove - who doesn't identify as female or male - had their topless photo playing basketball with a friend removed for violating this guideline.

This, of course, is often an issue in online spaces, as so many choose to let algorithms do the work, without those same algorithms understanding nuance and liminal spaces.

A similar issue has cropped up with YouTube, which has been caught demonetizing and otherwise penalizing transgender users of the platform - all the while releasing its own #ProudToCreate hashtag and accompanying video.

Trans YouTube user Chase Ross recently came forth, showing that his videos have been demonetized, age restricted, and such because of the trans content of his work. He went so far as to film his upload process, showing that the video was marked as "not available for most advertisers" when he added the word "transgender" to the clip's title.

Even more insidious, some YouTube content creators have even seen anti-LGBTQ ads show up before their content.

Once again, YouTube blames the algorithms, saying via a spokesman that, "sometimes our systems get it wrong."

Beyond these sites, we've seen issues with online T-shirt sites recently, both selling anti-transgender content, while simultaneously delisting content created by trans creators for "hate speech" for using the term TERF, an acronym for "transgender-exclusionary radical feminist."

The worst example this year, however, would have to go to cosmetics subscription service Ipsy.

It was attempting to release a video with a message of hope for LGBTQ people, only to start the video with one of their models touting her attraction to women, and speaking of a "spectrum" between transgender women and "authentic cisgender women" - as if to say that transgender women are not, themselves, authentic.

Ipsy, perhaps knowing that it could not blame this on an algorithm, apologized and removed the video. The model herself also apologized.

Like I said before, I'm glad that so many companies are stepping up and trying to show their support. I appreciate it even more when they specifically go out of their way to include transgender people.

At the same time, their tone-deafness toward LGBTQ in general, and transgender issues specifically, rankles me. It feels a bit like, oh, bars offering specials on "Irish car bombs" and "black and tans" for St. Patrick's Day, or perhaps people running around in sombreros and fake mustaches for Cinco de Mayo.

More than this, claiming to support us by festooning your business or website with rainbows, while actively harming us in other ways - such as YouTube's demonetizing and offering anti-LGBTQ ads to viewers - does little to prove you are the ally you claim to be.

What it really comes down to, for me, is an issue of actions over words. It's great to claim to be supportive, but unless you back it up with concrete actions of support, the words are simply words: they hold no meaning.

Gwen Smith wishes her readers a safe and happy Pride. You'll find her online at www.gwensmith.com.

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