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The rise of ‘marketplace queerness’: How LGBTQ-branded companies are doing none of the hard advocacy work

It's hip to be queer—and marketers are cashing in.


Ana Valens


Posted on Apr 3, 2017   Updated on Feb 28, 2020, 3:40 pm CST



“Marketplace feminism” is as problematic as you’d might guess. Coined by Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler, the term describes a focus on branding that latches onto feminist beliefs without giving back to feminism in any way. In an interview with USA Today, Zeiser explains: “Right now, especially in the wake of the election, there are many more brands that are really grabbing onto feminism and being like, ‘OK, this is a good way to sell products that have nothing to do with feminism or progress.’ Marketplace feminism comes to steal the show from more explicit active feminism.

The recent Thinx scandal has brought to light this hypocrisy—the now-former CEO of the feminist-aligned period panty brand has been accused of not just creating a hostile, ageist work environment, but also of sexual harassment. However, while many think pieces have been written about faux feminist companies like Thinx and Nasty Gal, marketplace feminism has a queer little sister that makes fewer headlines.

Meet “marketplace queerness,” which exists for the same reason marketplace feminism does—there’s an active, progressive-thinking audience of buyers.

Just like women drive somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of all American consumer spending, the LGBTQ consumer block is pretty significant, too. The Human Rights Campaign reports that LGBTQ buying power rests somewhere around $830 billion in the United States. Both LGBTQ consumers and non-LGBTQ consumers are also more likely to buy from a company known for being LGBTQ-supportive. It’s not just trendy to be LGBTQ-inclusive, it’s profitable.

But just like sellable feminism, marketplace queerness suffers from an authenticity problem—and it doesn’t have to be that way.

. . . 

Statistically speaking, everyone knows at least one gay person. A 2015 study from the Pew Research Center reveals that 88 percent of Americans know someone who is gay or lesbian, with 43 percent reporting that they know “some” gay people and 28 percent reporting they know “a lot.” 

“While some of the low-rung marketing people might understand queerness, the people at the top making directives are less likely to—and less likely to concern themselves with diverse hiring practices.”

But those statistics don’t tell the whole story. Among millennials, only 58 percent of respondents reported having a close friend or family member who is LGBTQ. That number drops with older generations, with only 50 percent of Boomers being close to someone who is LGBTQ. Older generations also report knowing less queer people; from Generation X to the Silent generation (aka pre-Boomers), respondents are more likely to say they know “some” gay people than “a lot.”

This becomes an even larger problem when it comes to trans people. A report from FiveThirtyEight reveals only nine percent of all Americans have a close friend or family member who is transgender. Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center study from 2016 confirms that, on average, only 30 percent of Americans report knowing somebody who is trans. And just like being gay, that number drops as age rises.

All of this matters in the job market, where executives and senior brand managers are more likely to be older than younger. So while some of the low-rung marketing and public relations people might understand queerness, the people at the top making directives are less likely to—and less likely to concern themselves with diverse hiring practices. 

But even if you have a queer buddy from college, it doesn’t equate to understanding queer social circles, queer politics, or queer life experiences. Nor does it mean you know what it’s like to come out, be kicked out of your parent’s house for being gay, or to face sexual harassment over who you love. So if someone is leading a public relations campaign geared toward the LGBTQ community and they are not queer, nor have they counseled with someone who is queer, this can be a major problem.

When Thinx brought transgender model Tyler Ford for the company’s intersectionality-themed show at New York Fashion Week, the panty brand prepared them with a show script that was completely insensitive to perform. The point, Ford quickly realized, was that Thinx wasn’t trying to market to queer and trans people. It was trying to create a product that looked trans-inclusive so allies would feel comfortable purchasing Thinx. It wanted to tap into that millennial market that knows “some” LGBTQ people, but not “a lot.”

“The script we were given for Thinx’s intersectionality-themed New York Fashion Week Show is literally two trans folks harassing each other on stage,” Ford said on Twitter. “In [a] meeting, I [discussed] why I’m uncomfortable with the script she wrote for us: I feel like a token. I feel like a prop. I don’t say this, but I feel like I’m being used so that Thinx can say that they are ‘cool’ and ‘intersectional’ and ‘feminist” and ‘inclusive.'” (When asked for comment, Ford directed the Daily Dot to their series of tweets.)

In a reply to Ford’s concerns that the script didn’t feel true or nuanced to her experience, Thinx director of brand Veronica del Rosario stressed that talking about intimate matters of transitioning would show what it’s like for one trans person to talk to another trans person.

“Asking about your period, hormones, bathrooms were all only to see where you might be able to take the piece,” del Rosario told Ford in a reply email. “Please consider the impact that providing a window not into your oppression but into your life, into your experience, into, indeed, your happiness, will have for any audience—cis, trans, or otherwise. We would love to have you as part of our show, our brand, and our community.” 

(When asked bout Ford’s treatment, a Thinx spokesperson told the Daily Dot, “We remain deeply sorry for the experience that Tyler described related to the Thinx fashion show. We have apologized to them directly—and again, extend our deepest apologies to Tyler and the LGBTQIA community. Thinx is dedicated to inclusive, all-embracing principles, and we strive every day to uphold these commitments. Clearly, we still have a lot to learn. Now and moving forward, we are actively working to address these and other issues related to our company culture.”) 

Whether its intentions moving forward are noble or not, Thinx’s interaction with Ford showed the company wasn’t interested in showing what it’s really like to be trans, just like del Rosario didn’t have to be trans herself to think inclusively. If del Rosario was really interested in courting a woke audience, all she had to do was listen to the trans person in front of her explaining what they find offensive.  

. . .

While pro-human rights branding isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when a business pledges support for social justice, then proceeds to do things that aren’t inclusive or supportive, that’s when a company becomes, at best, hypocritical—and, at worst, an offensive, hostile, and criminal place to work and do business.

Traditionally, Bank of America is seen as one of the most LGBTQ-inclusive banks in the United States. It sponsored a float in the Charlotte Pride parade and sharply criticized North Carolina over its the anti-trans House Bill 2. Even the Human Rights Campaign gives the bank a “100” rating on its Corporate Equality Index. However, BOA has been plagued by LGBTQ discrimination cases on a local level.

According to the Employment Law Group, Bank of America customer service employee Shelly Flood experienced “a campaign of harassment and discrimination” at the hands of her boss, Diana Castle, because she’s a lesbian. Flood was ultimately fired from the company after Castle said she had abandoned her job. Flood and her partner later took the case to court, which ruled that Bank of America created a hostile work environment through discriminatory behavior, with the judge arguing that the bank “actually fired Flood because of her sexual orientation.” Bank of America eventually settled. 

Then in 2013, Bank of America was caught up in another anti-LGBTQ settlement. As BuzzFeed News reports, Bank of America denied a Florida lesbian couple a Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgage because they weren’t married.

According to the settlement, even though the couple provided all of the necessary loan application documents and was assured by BOA that they were likely to receive a mortgage, one day prior to closing, BOA denied the mortgage because “it did not consider the loan applicant and the co-applicant directly related because the applicant and her partner were not married.”

At the time, gay marriage was illegal in Florida, so the bank effectively discriminated against the two women for their sexual orientation. The Department of Housing and Urban Development immediately stepped in, since a 2012 policy prohibits any form of sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital discrimination in FHA-insured mortgages. BOA was fined.

In a statement to the Daily Dot, a Bank of America spokesperson said the company “has been steadfast in its support for the LGBT community. Diversity and inclusion are central to our company’s values, and we are proud to be widely recognized for our progressive workplace practices and initiatives that promote inclusion.” It went on to note that BOA was the first financial institution to incorporate sexual orientation into its nondiscrimination policies and to provide domestic partner benefits.

So for a company that essentially promotes marketplace queerness, why would Bank of America have such a troubled past history with LGBTQ lawsuits?

Well, it’s a bank. In fact, it’s one of the biggest banks in the United States. And big banks are prone to suffer from the stifling corporate structure, bureaucracy, and economic exploitation that Wall Street poses on the American people. A slap of rainbow paint won’t fix that.

“Companies make money bringing in middle-class allies who feel like they’re giving to a company that cares.”

For instance, in 2014, Bank of America began freezing Iranian and Iranian-American bank accounts for no explicit reason. The National Iranian American Council quickly became concerned that the bank was “discriminating against Iranians and Iranian-America.” In 2016, Bank of America faced a RICO class action lawsuit over its Home Affordable Modification Program, taking $45 million in bailout funds, only to “propagate a scheme to squeeze every dollar from BoA customers and wrongfully foreclose thousands of homes in the process,” according to lawyers. In January, the FDIC sued Bank of America for the $542 million the bank owes to the deposit insurance fund.

In other words, there’s a clear pattern here, one in which Bank of America actually plays fast and loose with the law when it suits its interests. 

On Bank of America’s diversity page, it says, “diversity and inclusion are central to our company’s values.” But a bank doesn’t make money by taking on risky queer customers who have faced workplace or housing discrimination. It makes money bringing in middle-class allies who feel like they’re giving to a company that cares.

. . . 

While consumers, if really concerned with progressive practices, are free to do their homework on every company they do business with, it’s unfair to blame Americans for setting up checking accounts with Bank of America or purchasing Thinx panties. Not everyone is afforded the time, accessibility, and financial means of “choice.”

“The problem with ‘choice’ as the key metric for feminism is that not everyone is actually free to make those choices,” Sarah Jaffe writes in New Republic‘s look at Andi Zeisler’s marketplace feminism. “The point for feminism as a movement, then, is not to get into endless battles about whose choice is the feminist-est of them all, but to critique the ground we’re walking on, to change the rules of the game, not to hate the player.”

Same goes for marketplace queerness. Sometimes, cheap, affordable, or approachable brands are the only options people have without disposable income. Is it really Jane Doe’s fault if she bought Thinx’s panties to handle her period?

Thinx’s problems stem with how the company was run from the start. And in Bank of America’s case, successful LGBTQ-targeted marketing campaigns have fixed the bank’s image, effectively pushing anti-LGBTQ and anti-consumer lawsuits out of the public’s eye. When Jaffe and Zeisler say they want to change the rules of the game, that means giving less free passes to big banks like Bank of America, and supporting work environments that champion LGBTQ buying, hiring, and customer service as a fundamental part of their enterprises from start to finish.

Brands that try to look “inclusive” without doing any of the hard work are only misleading the consumer. Or, as Zeisler calls it, they just “steal the show from more explicit active feminism.” And in a political landscape where people’s rights are being threatened, fake activism is not acceptable.

Editor’s Note: A previous version made reference to the recent claims made against Thinx’s CEO; she is now the former CEO. BOA has responded to our request for comment, which has been added.

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*First Published: Apr 3, 2017, 5:30 am CDT