You would think with what we know about the LGBTQ+ community and its toxic relationship with alcohol that we still wouldn’t be talking about liquor companies sponsoring pride.
After all, tents filled beer and float sponsored by Stoli vodka feel a little outdated in this day and age. Widely considered an at-risk community to develop substance use disorders, a booze brand sponsoring Pride feels like a high school dance being sponsored by gun manufacture. Likewise, you would think that in this COVID-19 era with Pride celebrations canceled around the globe, Big Alcohol might sit this year out. You would think that and you would be wrong. The doomed marriage between alcohol and Pride rages on, the pandemic is damned.
Wine, beer, and liquor brands early on hopped on the already super questionable marketing push for consumers to “party at home” in quarantine. This, apparently, was a smart strategy. Alcohol sales hit all-time highs early in the pandemic and have held steady. With in-quarantine holidays like Cinco De Mayo (a racist, problematic alcohol marketing bonanza which deserves its own essay, if not documentary) and Memorial Day proving to be big hits for drinkers, Pride was the next one on the list. Myself and the other queer people I knew folks happily threw ourselves behind the pressing issues of Black Lives Matters and police brutality among the black community. Nevertheless, alcohol makers already had bottles of rainbow liquor and cases of Gay Beer ready for the shelves. Check out your grocery store’s wine aisle this month and I guarantee you will spot at least one bottle ready for Pride. The party was going to carry on even for booze brands, even if the parade was canceled.
Absolut, a longtime pusher to the gay community once again packaged its rainbow bottles under the guise and pomp that they are allies to the community. According to GLAAD’s chief program officer Zeke Stokes, “Absolut’s commitment to celebrating the LGBTQ community all year long, and not only during Pride month, is a shining example of how brands can bring inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance to the forefront of their mission.” These are all nice words but when said product is literally killing a group of people, they’re meaningless. If Absolut was so in love with serving the LGBTQ+ community, profits donated towards culturally specific treatment centers would mean a hell of a lot more than cheap rainbow-colored bottles. Just saying.
But is marketing alcohol to LGBTQ+ really all that bad? In a word, yes. Personally, I came out in the era where you came out in bars which were also safe spaces but definitely places people like me who loved to party could find any and everything they wanted with relative ease. The gay culture in the ’90s was everybody met while drinking or using drugs. It’s who we were. We didn’t have the language then to identify that many of us, self-included, were drawn to drugs and alcohol to help self-soothe our various traumas, many of which were caused by being queer. Sure, dozens of statistics show that queer individuals are twice as likely as their straight counterparts to develop substance use disorders. But I know in my own life that the societal weight I carried as a gay man, the discrimination, the internal hatred because of my sexual orientation mixed with a family tree filled with addicts and alcoholics, made me the perfect target for this kind of marketing. In my early twenties in the 1990’s I had moved to Los Angeles. Brands like Budweiser, Coors, and Absolute were already marching in Pride parades and setting up booths at gay festivals. At the time, it felt like these brands were being bold. After all, Ellen had just come out and Will & Grace were on TV. Being gay was now cool and more acceptable. It seemed like it was finally time for all of America to get on board with the LGBT community.
As a young bar and nightclub regular, to me, it was cool and progressive that brands would laugh in the face of heteronormativity. They were selling their products directly to me and my friends. These brands weren’t like my parent’s brands. They were down with the cause and supported us. But as it turns out, it wasn’t cool at all.
These huge companies launched campaigns targeted to me and my friends for the same reasons they put billboards for malt liquor in black communities or marketed cigarettes in Spanish in Latino neighborhoods: because they knew their customers. Companies like Coors and Smirnoff spend millions on demographics and research to figure who’s buying what so they can push even harder to those folks. Once they figured out that my people were spending lots of money on booze, they heavily invested in ways to find out how to make us spend even more. What’s beyond messed up about this is that we now know better in 2020. We have the receipts of years of data that shows it isn’t solidarity or support. We know the rate of addiction with queer people is out of control. We know that LGBTQ+ face more mental health conditions than their straight counterparts. It’s simply about money and money made from people struggling the most. Yet they continue to do it anyway.
Pushing aside the bottles and shot glasses decked out in rainbow colors, it’s important to remember that Pride celebrates the Stonewall Riots which were the first move toward gay rights in this country and started by queer and trans people of color. This wasn’t about being a product. It was about being treated fairly like everyone else. As our rights are constantly threatened even today, we don’t need your stuff. We need your help. If we really want to show our support to gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, trans and queer people, it will take more than buying merchandise. What my community deserves is access to a culturally specific treatment, free mental healthcare, and comprehensive campaigns that don’t sell vodka but sell the idea of recovery while smashing the stigma. Now, that would be something to really be proud of.