Political Notes: Pride merchandise gets even more political

  • Monday June 5, 2023
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Pride-themed merchandise includes a T-shirt featuring President Joe Biden's signature aviator glasses in rainbow colors, left; the BART transit agency's BARTy character on rainbow-striped athletic socks; and Congressmember Nancy Pelosi's Pride-themed T-shirt. Photos: Courtesy online sites
Pride-themed merchandise includes a T-shirt featuring President Joe Biden's signature aviator glasses in rainbow colors, left; the BART transit agency's BARTy character on rainbow-striped athletic socks; and Congressmember Nancy Pelosi's Pride-themed T-shirt. Photos: Courtesy online sites

Pride-themed merchandise has always been political. LGBTQ activists have denounced such products sold by corporations as pink-washing over their lack of supportive policies for their LGBTQ employees.

Meanwhile, politicians and aspiring public officeholders have offered all manner of campaign swag emblazoned with Pride messaging and rainbow symbols. It is an easy way to showcase they're LGBTQ friendly while also raising a bit of funds for their campaign coffers.

This Pride Month such marketing efforts to the LGBTQ community have become even more politically polarizing than in years past. As the Bay Area Reporter has been reporting over the past months, American brands as varied as The Walt Disney Company, Target, and Anheuser-Busch have found themselves defending their pro-equality stances against attacks from far-right groups and conservative politicians.

LGBTQ leaders have also criticized the companies for either capitulating to the demands of homophobes and transphobes, or for not taking a strong enough stance in defense of their support for the LGBTQ community.

As Dannie Cesena, a Latinx, Two Spirit individual who is director of the California LGBTQ Health & Human Services Network, wrote in a recent email newsletter sent out on the start of Pride Month, "don't let people silo you into believing you are only an LGBTQ+ individual who deserves to be pushed to the back of the store. Don't let these corporations 'celebrate' you for only 30 days. You deserve to be celebrated and loved every day of the year as your whole and true authentic self."

Meanwhile, the day prior to June 1 last week, more than 100 organizations joined forces to renew their calls for business leaders to reject and speak out against anti-LGBTQ+ extremism. Among them was the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, Marin County's Spahr Center, the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, and statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California.

"Businesses must continue to lead and respond with unwavering support for LGBTQ+ employees, shareholders, customers, allies — and the broader community. When values of diversity, equity and inclusion are tested, businesses must defend them unequivocally," noted the groups in their statement. "Doubling down on your values is not only the right thing to do, it's good for business. Research shows that if a brand publicly supports and demonstrates a commitment to expanding and protecting LGBTQ+ rights, Americans are 2x more likely to buy or use the brand."

The vitriolic attacks against Pride merchandise haven't scarred off a number of elected leaders and public agencies from hawking their own LGBTQ swag items this year. Most notably the reelection campaign of President Joe Biden is selling several Pride-themed items at its online store.

One design plays off of the leader of the free world's penchant for wearing aviator sunglasses, specifically Ray-Ban 3025s. A white T-shirt sporting the wire-rimmed, teardrop-shaped sunglasses in the colors of the rainbow flag can be had for $32.

The website notes they are American made and printed by a union shop. Each purchase is a donation to the Biden Victory Fund, which is a joint fundraising committee authorized by Biden For President, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Party's various statewide groups, including the one in California.

"This reimagining of the president's signature sunglasses not only shows your community that you support LGBTQ+ folks, but also helps to ensure we can elect leaders who will protect them under the law," plugs the pro-Biden fund.

The same design can be bought on a canvas tote bag ($28) or a unisex white tank top ($36). A limited edition unisex white tee with a Progress Pride flag embroidered on its left front side ($32) can be pre-ordered; it should be released June 19.

The most expensive item is the limited edition crewneck sweater ($65) also sporting a Progress Pride flag embroidered on its left front side. The item comes in a tan color and should also be released June 19.

As Biden noted in his proclamation released May 31 declaring June 2023 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Pride Month, "I call upon the people of the United States to recognize the achievements of the LGBTQI+ community, to celebrate the great diversity of the American people, and to wave their flags of pride high."

Unlike in 2019, when his campaign was selling Pride items, as the Political Notes column reported, former President Donald Trump doesn't appear to be doing so this year as he seeks to be elected back to the White House in 2024. A review of his campaign store last week didn't find anything rainbow themed.

Nor does the presidential campaign shop for Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis have anything related to Pride. It is hardly surprising, as the Sunshine State's top executive has made attacking LGBTQ rights a cornerstone of his political platform in Tallahassee.

Transit agency Pride merch has loyal fans

The Bay Area's cash-strapped regional transit agency BART is back with its own Pride merch this year. Its annual offerings have become sought after items each June and routinely sell out; to meet the demand the agency began selling the items directly to the public online in 2020.

One of its 2023 offerings is a pair of knee-high, mostly cotton athletic socks ($13) with Pride colors. (The purple stripe was omitted, however, due to a production cost issue.) Atop the rainbow bars on each sock is an embroidered "BARTy," a comic character designed to resemble the front of a BART car.

There seems to have been some confusion over how to spell the anthropomorphic BART car's name, as it was spelled both as BARTY and BARTie on the website that sells the branded merchandise. But the transit agency confirmed to the B.A.R. that the correct spelling of the character is BARTy.

"Get into the spirit of Pride with our retro design Pride knee socks — BARTy is wearing them on the 2023 Pride shirt! Add the shirt and make an ensemble!" suggests the agency on its online store.

The crew neck T-shirt comes in black and features BARTy wearing the socks along with a rainbow-colored headband while waving the transgender Pride flag. Roderick McFarland, BART's manager of creative services, first designed the character in 2016 and has updated it over the years.

He had taken inspiration from the BARTmobile that the agency had used for its contingent in local parades. McFarland, who is queer, first designed a Pride T-shirt in 2014 for the agency's employees to wear in that June's San Francisco parade.

But he felt something more eye-catching was needed in the shirt design, as the agency noted in a write-up about its Pride merch it posted last week to kickoff Pride Month. Thus, BARTy was born and took an inaugural ride down a yellow brick road à la "The Wizard of Oz" for its debut design.

"Yes, I am the madman that came up with that," McFarland is quoted as saying.

The current kawaii iteration of BARTy debuted at the 2020 Lunar New Year Parade in San Francisco. It then was featured on the agency's Pride T-shirts last year when the city's LGBTQ parade returned after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic.

BART's Senior Marketing Designer Joe Lash, a straight ally, and Youth Engagement Specialist Melody Starling, a member of the LGBTQ community, co-created the concept art for the 2022 Pride T-shirts. The tees are still listed for purchase ($25) on the agency's online store.

In regard to the design of the character this year, "obviously BARTy does not normally have legs, but if he was going to wear socks, he needed legs. Simple as that," McFarland explained in the agency's article.

Few congressional members follow Pelosi's Pride merch lead

As of last Friday, June 2, none of the three Democratic congressmembers running to succeed U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) had added any Pride merch to their campaign store offerings. A check of the sites for Congressmembers Adam Schiff (D-Los Angeles) and Katie Porter (D-Irvine) came up empty.

As for Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), she should be launching a campaign store this week. But a spokesperson told the B.A.R. there isn't anything Pride-specific being sold.

Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) continues to hawk several Pride items at her campaign store. The clothing ($25) in a white tank, or a white or pink tee, sports an image of the former House speaker making her now iconic outstretched arms clap that emits a rainbow.

There is also a rainbow-colored wrist sweatband ($6) that bears her name. This may be Pelosi's penultimate Pride Month as a member of the U.S. House, as speculation has swirled all year that she may decide to retire and not stand for reelection in 2024.

As for Congressmember Kevin Mullin (D-Peninsula/San Francisco), who represents a slice of San Francisco that borders northern San Mateo County, he hasn't gotten into the candidate merch game. Currently in his freshman term and expected to seek reelection in 2024, Mullin has nothing for sale at his campaign website.

He did release a statement June 2 honoring Pride Month and pledging to continue to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community.

"Pride Month is upon us and while much progress has been made in the 54 years since the Stonewall riots, members of our LGBTQ+ community continue to experience discrimination and suffer from acts of bigotry and hatred. To all those who have fought and continue to fight against discrimination, I support your efforts 100%," stated Mullin.

He added, "Throughout the month of June, a wide range of events from small community events to flag raisings to larger parades offer opportunities to celebrate the many contributions of the LGBTQ+ community to our world. Sadly, we also recognize that in spite of how far we have come, there are still undeniable threats to this community and some legislative bodies continue to find ways to limit their freedoms and subsequently place them at risk. This is unacceptable."

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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