Happy pride month! 🏳️🌈

In a perfect world, pride month should be a time of celebration and reflection for the LGBTQ+ community and allies. For companies, this is an excellent opportunity to lift up queer and trans employees and reflect on the DEIB initiatives that affect those employees. But this year’s celebration has gotten off to a rocky start, with several high-profile companies following the same upsetting pattern of performative allyship without any substantive change in sight.

Just to catch you up on the most egregious controversies:

  • Back in April, Budweiser chose to partner with transgender TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney to advertise Bud Light. However, after receiving backlash that caused a drop in the company’s stock, Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth released a statement saying they “never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people” — which neither properly addresses the controversy nor shows support for the trans community.
  • The Los Angeles Dodgers disinvited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a prolific satirical drag group and charity organization) from their 2023 Pride Night event, causing LA Pride to pull out of attending entirely.
  • In the last few weeks, Target has pulled many items from its pride collection (and removed pride items from stores) as a result of employee harassment and bomb threats.

Now, whenever I see a company make a decision like this, the same questions always come to mind. What initially motivated these companies to make the decision to highlight queer and trans folks in an extremely visible way? Was it DEIB? Motivated by profit? Did they make an effort to talk to the populations involved? A coach’s job is to ask powerful questions and inspire learning, so my curiosity is piqued.

It’s worth noting that these big, highly visible DEIB efforts are not the most effective or necessary way for companies to show support for the LGBTQ+ community. Research says that the most helpful thing companies can do for their queer and trans employees is to create structural support and psychological safety to truly bolster their success — all year round, not just during pride month! This includes engaging in conversations with employees, changing internal policies so LGBTQ+ folks have more opportunities to pursue leadership roles, and offering benefits, systems, and structures to support the needs of LGBTQ+ employees like offering a health care plan that covers gender-affirming care. These steps may not be as “visible” or flashy but are much more impactful.

So, with that in mind, if I was the CEO of Target or Budweiser, what might I have done differently?

A hint: it’s not as simple as keeping the campaign alive. It’s really about finding the below the surface balance. If you’re pursuing a super visible DEIB move like a pride collection or working with a trans influencer, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

1. What’s the purpose of the campaign?

If it’s just to make money, you might want to revisit acting on it. There are so many companies that put on a big show of allyship during Pride month by sponsoring parades and displaying rainbow flags, but the rest of the year give money to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and causes. This is the most flagrant kind of performative allyship and is the opposite of below the surface practices.

2. What new audience are you trying to reach? Is this the best way to support the audience you are trying to support, or are there other ways? How will this resonate with your current audience?

I suspect that in partnering with Dylan Mulvaney, Budweiser was attempting to get more LGBTQ+ folks to buy their beer (which is typically more often marketed to a straight male audience). They must have totally miscalculated the level of outrage and panic their core audience would feel. Same thing with the LA Dodgers Pride Night. To me, sports and drag don’t have huge overlapping audiences. Sure, there are plenty of queer sports fans, but being queer doesn’t necessarily mean drag is your thing. (Side note: I admit that I would’ve been dancing along but that’s not the point!) There were probably a lot of other things they could have done besides hosting a drag show that would have been more impactful.

3. What risks might be associated with this campaign? How does this vary by region or state?

My thought is that given the current political climate in conservative states, Target should have been much more intentional with its pride collection rollout and maybe shouldn’t have put those items in stores in some places (perhaps even sold them online only). At the very least, there should have been a discussion about the risks in some places that might impact employee safety. This is important because just recently, I was having a conversation with my uncle about “sundown towns” and how those still exist. As a New Orleans resident, he still avoids entire states when driving across the South. And, of course, for the first time in its 40-year history, the Human Rights Campaign recently declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans, providing a guidebook to ensure safety for travelers and residents due to the hostile anti-queer climate. Knowing this, I can’t see why Target wouldn’t have acknowledged that some areas aren’t ready for this. Do they even have the right buying population if it was profit-motivated? Why not just keep the pride collection online?

4. What does success look like?

I recently wrote about this in an article for Training Industry: when my clients are planning DEIB initiatives, I always ask them what they think success will look like. It’s impossible to have a successful DEIB initiative if you haven’t figured out how you’ll know you’ve done a good job.

At the end of the day, the most important thing companies can do for the LGBTQ+ community is to help queer and trans folks feel they belong in the workplace. LGBTQ+ employees may struggle particularly to come out at work if they aren’t sure it’s safe to do so — research shows many feel like an “only” at work and are more likely to experience microaggressions. This is even more true for queer women of color and trans employees. Again, the most visible actions are not the ones that are most needed. Many of these items don’t make it to the big stage.

I don’t want anyone to look at the news and think that pro-LGBTQ+ DEIB initiatives aren’t worth pursuing. They just need to be pursued with the lived experiences and perspectives of LGBTQ+ folks in mind! So, this pride month, I challenge you to engage below the surface with queer + trans employees and colleagues. Practice person-to-belonging listening (P2B listening) and make sure they have the resources they need to succeed. It’s definitely more helpful than simply putting up a rainbow flag in the office.