I was enjoying my weekend in a total disconnect from news and social media when my childhood friend messaged me asking what I thought about the new Calvin Klein ad.
I had to reconnect.
The American fashion house had decided to launch its new campaign in the middle of Gay Pride Month. It erected a huge billboard in the middle of Manhattan showing the plus-size model, actress and transgender black activist Jari Jones, the first of nine LGBTQ models in the fashion giant’s ambitious publicity strategy.
For me, the campaign’s message was obvious. For my friend — not so much. It was also obvious to Jari Jones.
“It has been such an honor and pleasure to sit in my most authentic self and present imagery of a body that far too often has been demonized, harassed, made to feel ugly and unworthy and even killed,” Jones wrote on Instagram.
But my friend said: “I support progressive causes, but don’t ask me to understand this,” referring to Jones’ image.
After a 45-minute discussion, civil of course, we both agreed to disagree. But I was still wondering why a campaign like this would be launched at this critical moment for humanity and why it is incomprehensible to many.
Even after the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the near-collapse of the status quo, it saddened me that around my environment the discussion still remains anchored in the first-person perspective of a privileged community.
I saw myself again, after more than a decade out of the closet, explaining to a brilliant, good-hearted person why we must raise our voices and march with flags high, why we need to make people like them uncomfortable, who don’t understand the gender discussion outside the male-female binomial.
I had to explain to him that, although I have no problem with my identity, I am still afraid to hold my partner’s hand on the street, I am still insulted on the street, and I still have to investigate thoroughly before booking a holiday for fear of exposing myself to homophobic violence; and that, in the midst of all this, life for me is easier than for a transgender person of color anywhere in the world.
To imagine a model like Jones representing a clothing brand that has made its fortune by profiting from traditional standards of beauty would have been impossible a few years ago. The symbolic achievement is undeniable.
But it’s also an achievement for our corner of humanity.
“I’m hypertensive, but that doesn’t mean I go around telling everyone,” my friend said. Once again, I had to explain to him that being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is not a condition or disease. It can’t be “kept” to oneself.
I paused because I understood that my friend’s argument stems from the comfort of a cis-straight white life — ingrained and blind to a reality beyond what it knows.
However, there was one aspect of my friend’s argument that I did not entirely disagree with.
“I think the gay pride issue is way to glamorized by the media,” he said. “Why do they have to victimize themselves? Why don’t they also celebrate Palestinian pride, Rohingya pride, or Syrian pride?”
The question remains and the only answer I can think of is that the LGBTQ+ community is now an exploitable economic niche for big brands, just as communities of color have been for the past few decades.
While visibility is very important in our fight for equal rights, it is also a multi-million dollar industry for those who made their name and fortune by standardizing patterns that have done us so much harm.
John Paul Brammer, author, and columnist left the question open a year ago in his Washington Post op-ed: “Who can afford to be proud?” He refers to the myriad of products designed around the colors of the rainbow and our community, especially the white gay community.
“Corporations, by their nature, want to make money, so they center the affluent minority of LGBTQ people, who skew white, gay and male,” he wrote. “No matter where Pride proceeds go, and even if paid events are mostly by and for LGBTQ people, they are inherently exclusionary, and the people most in need of resources are the ones who get left at the gate.”
This would seem to support Calvin Klein’s image decision. But, in the face of a parallel reality where members of the LGBTQ community suffer discrimination, poverty, and homelessness at disproportionate levels, it would seem that advertising, before being challenged, is simply exploitative.
Events such as the Circuit Festival in Barcelona, Spain, show this parallelism between those who want to take advantage of profitable demography and those who really want to echo and perpetuate injustices.
In 2019, the Circuit — the largest gay festival in the world — reached around 70,000 attendees during the week of activities during the month of August in Barcelona. According to its organizers, the festival earned the city around 100 million euros.
This type of event has for decades trumpeted gay men as a desired target in the market because of their high purchasing power and their luxurious commercial appetite.
Meanwhile, the Stonewall Riots and the reason why we celebrate the pride of being who we are in June are lost in the commercial misrepresentation of history.
You have to ask yourself what the strategy is behind that giant billboard in Manhattan and the real positive impact it can have on those of us who, despite everything, still feel like second-class citizens.