Squaring the Circle: Community Vs Commercial


pic: Rachel Docherty

Resentment between those who think LGBTI community events have forgotten their roots in protest, and those rejoice in our corporate acceptance has marred several pride events. As Mardi Gras Parade looms, can we find a way to restore the balance and serve both sponsors and activists?

As “LGBTI” becomes more “mainstream”, business, government and politics are becoming increasingly involved in what were previously exclusively – to use an old term – ‘gay owned and run’ events and spaces.

Sponsors are tipping in increasing amounts of money, and as a result, exerting increasing control. Boards of events like Midsumma, Pride, Fair Day and Mardi Gras are caught trying to serve two masters. And so far they seem to be favouring their commercial sponsors.

Melbourne Pride March diversity. pic: Michael Barnett

LG fine, BTI not so much

Let’s  acknowledge that “LGBTI” in this context is a bit misleading. Gay men, and to a lesser extent, lesbians, are pretty well catered for, but B T and I are not. Bisexual contingents at Pride have been catcalled and booed as if they were Liberal Party members. Trans people remain underserved and misunderstood. Intersex – well, where to begin? We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.

What’s worse, many LG feel that BT & I don’t belong at all, and would rather they went off and did their own thing somewhere else, thank you. Because BTI make the suits who run business, politics and government uncomfortable.

On the other hand, the members of the boards that run Pride, Midsumma, Mardi Gras – even when not actually members of the suit-wearing classes themselves – are increasingly acceptable amongst them. Some of them are on corporate Boards, some are even Liberal MPs!

As a result the rest of the alphabet sausage are sometimes forced to jump up and down and yell to get noticed, let alone included. As Fury wrote in the Guardian recently:

 “The more that corporations give money to Pride, the more the festivals grow and, in turn, the more they become dependent on the funding provided by big business. The more they become dependent on funding by big business, the more they are forced to court sponsorship and allow big business to take up space that should be reserved for the community. Pride has, over time, oriented itself away from community and towards money.”

This leads to the community ‘leaders’ becoming more businesslike, and less connected to the grassroots – take a look at the Board of the Melbourne Pride Centre and you’ll see what I mean. Meanwhile community groups, especially those serving the BTI communities, feel increasingly marginalised and resentful.

This situation is not inevitable or irreversible. It ought to be possible to find ways to at least partially satisfy both sides: to raise significant sums from mainstream funding providers without being completely captured by them.

Melbourne Pride March diversity. pic: Michael Barnett

The money doesn’t get where it should

Community organisations are always desperately short of money, and are naturally resentful when they see a major bank or airline spending many thousands of dollars on spectacular parade floats, advertising themselves as inclusive and supportive, while little cash gets to the organisations doing the work on the ground.

On the other hand, sponsors want to see a return on their investment. They’re not sponsoring us just to make themselves feel good. They want to drum up business and profits for themselves. First and foremost they want their money to go to building their image and their brand: helping us is secondary. And that’s the crux of the problem.

Festival boards have tended to side with the sponsors’ but now they need to toughen up, elevating the needs of the community to equality alongside the needs of business. Here’s how they might make a start.

Lets imagine…

Let’s imagine a sponsor, called SuitBank.

SuitBank would purchase the right to build a fantastic float for a community organisation, e.g., an LGBTI homeless youth shelter, to take part in e.g., Mardi Gras, Pride, Fair Day or Midsumma Carnival.

The cost of that right would be the parade entry fee plus a donation to the shelter: a decorated ute might require, say, a $5k donation, a sponsored truck $10k,  a B-Double $20k and so forth. The sponsor would bear the cost of creating the parade entry itself, which would be created by the shelter and dominated by their logo and information, but with a percentage – say 10% – “sponsored by SuitBank” branding.

Additional fees would buy SuitBank the right to distribute shelter merchandise like T-shirts, badges, fans, flyers, water bottles etc., again carrying the  “sponsored by SuitBank” message.

SuitBank could also purchase a licence to run TV and newspaper ads explaining the work of the shelter and why they support it, inviting customers to do likewise over the counter at the bank, or direct from customers accounts.

Result: SuitBank gets good corporate exposure as an ally and employer: the shelter gets a nice fat donation towards its running costs: the parade gets fees to covers its costs.

Melbourne Pride March diversity. pic: Michael Barnett

Working together

Business and the community don’t have to be at odds, but the relationship has gotten out of balance. Both sides need to put in some work to restore it. And it will have to be our side that gets the ball rolling. After all, why should business make any changes when they’re already getting most of what they want?

I don’t pretend the above is the answer, but I want us to start thinking and talking about it. How would you start squaring the circle?

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)