Pride is coming – is your Pride merchandising really pro-LGBTQ+?

During my stint at the UN, we had a little crisis when BBC Newsnight questioned in 2018 the United Nations Free & Equal campaign with fast fashion companies GAP and H&M based on the fact that the campaign lines were produced in Bangladesh. It was followed by an article in the NYTimes titled Do You Know Where Your Pride T-Shirt Was Made?” [June 20, 2018,  Christina Caro]. The criticism was that H&M and GAP produced the clothes for their Free & Equal collections – through their supply chain – in places where consensual same-sex relations are criminalized and therefore the United Nations should have refrained from partnering with them.

Of course, the argument is a bit simplistic. Advocacy to reform laws that criminalize consensual same-sex relations (like other discriminatory laws such as so-called “anti-gay propaganda” laws) is a complex and long-term endeavor. It is always led by civil society in the country itself (see my article in February 2021: Global LGBTQ+ rights: Brezhnev, Mao, and Joe Biden), which is best placed to advise on the form of support that allies in the country and outside the country can contribute to make progress towards this goal and what strategy they want to adopt.

In addition, LGBTQ+ groups have not called on companies to boycott manufacturing/operations in their countries on the basis of the existence of such laws. This includes, inter alia, the risk of boycotts leading to a backlash against the LGBTQ+ community following companies’ decisions to pull out and the impact on jobs and economic development. In fact, there have in the past been calls in the West for such boycotts, that were then denounced by local LGBTQ+ organizations in the affected countries as being counterproductive. I had this experience firsthand during my time at the World Bank when then-President Jim Kim pulled the plug on Uganda without consulting LGBTQ+ civil society (see The Economist April 2014: The World Bank: Right cause, wrong battle) and I found myself in charge of the cleanup afterwards.

As a side note, expunging our closet from items made in China – on the basis of its human rights track record – is an impossible task as it accounts for over 39 percent of the world textile exports. Most people cannot afford to exclusively buy items made in Nordic countries allegedly the most advanced on LGBTQ+ issues.

Perhaps more importantly, we have to move away from the dichotomy of “good” countries versus “bad” countries. India and Bangladesh – where many clothes are manufactured – have a better track record on efforts towards transgender inclusion from both a legal and societal point of view than the UK or the US where we have witnessed horrendous speech against trans people at the time of the debate on the #EqualityAct. OutLeadership produces CEO briefs on various countries (we are updating them and the 2021 batch will include Bangladesh) which attempt to paint a more nuanced vision of the situation of LGBTQ+ people in these countries.

This is not to minimize, the plight of the LGBTQ+ community in Bangladesh as illustrated by the murder of Xulhaz Mannan, the publisher and co-founder of Bangladesh’s first LGBTQ+ magazine Roopbaan, and that another LGBTQ activist Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy by religious extremists in Dhaka in 2016.

Questioning Pride collections or the human rights engagement of companies that operate in countries with complex track record is healthy. And this should extend to all human rights (see Bangladesh civil society submission to the 2018 Universal Period Review). At the time of the BBC and NYTimes articles, two separate reports had been published by Global Labour Justice on gender-based violence in Gap and H&M’s garment supply chains. The reports claimed that these allegations, recorded between January and May 2018 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, were a direct result of pressure for quick turnarounds and low overheads.

Back to LGBTQ+ rights, it is legitimate to ask if the companies (in this case H&M and GAP) producing the Pride collections are engaging actively in that country on human rights of LGBTQ+ people, in partnership with civil society. The UN Standards of Conduct for corporations on LGBTQ+ issues, which both companies expressed support for, provide helpful guidance – including in the supply chain – on actions companies can take in including supporting grassroot movements, hosting conversations with like-minded companies operating in these countries, demonstrating their values within the walls of their company or including protections from discrimination ins suppliers ‘agreements.

Companies have opportunities to provide support for organizations which can impact laws and societal attitudes. In the case of Bangladesh, engaging with ILGA, OutRight Action International (disclaimer: I serve on their Board), APCOM and/or Boys of Bangladesh could be a first step.

As someone who grew up at a time where LGBTQ+ people were invisible, I enjoy Pride merchandising and own a Levi’s Pride jacket. Proceeds from Pride Collections are given to a wide array of essential causes benefiting LGBTQ+ people from the Orlando memorial to a camp for LGBTQ+ kids or global campaigns such as Free & Equal. Our community should hold companies accountable but also be careful of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater while playing in the hands of those who love to oppose a “virtuous west” to a “backward south”.