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Catholic, Pride, Capitalism? How LGBTQ+ Branding Plays In Conservative Poland

More businesses are advertising with rainbow flags, but has this made any real difference or prompted social change in conservative-Catholic Poland?

People smile in the back of a truck surrounded by pride flags and memorabilia in Poland

The Warsaw Equality Parade, the largest manifestation of LGBTQ+ communities in Poland. June 17, 2023.

Maria Korcz

WARSAW — June is not only Pride month, but also the season of rainbow marketing, when businesses unveil LGBTQ-friendly logos, write press releases promising solidarity or offer special discounts.

On one hand, this is a gesture of solidarity from businesses. But on the other, it can also be seen as appropriation of an important symbol of the queer community, or shallow support in pursuit of profit — "pinkwashing," or "Rainbow capitalism." It's a relatively new phenomenon in Poland, and these questions are particularly pressing in the often conservative, Catholic country, where the LGBTQ+ community faces a lack of legal protections and social acceptance.

Pride Month is marked in June to recognize the Stonewall Inn Uprising in New York City in June 1969 — events which in many ways marked the beginning of the contemporary LGBTQ+ rights movement, in the U.S. and worldwide.

✉️ You can receive our LGBTQ+ International roundup every week directly in your inbox. Subscribe here.

Poland's first pride march took place more than 20 years ago, in Warsaw in 2001. Today, pride parades are held in several cities in Poland.

With each passing Pride Month, more businesses join the celebrations. Many have noticed that it pays to be an ally — or more specifically, that supporting LGBTQ+ Poles can bring a company successful PR, and more earnings as a result.

We’ll help, but don’t tell anyone

“Up until recently, the vast majority of businesses in Poland were not at all involved in Pride month or any outward displays of 'rainbow allyship,'" says Ola Kaczorek, co-president of Love Does Not Exclude (Miłość Nie Wyklucza), which advocates for LGBTQ+ acceptance in Poland. “A lot of these initiatives came from LGBTQ+ workers, especially in large, foreign corporations. At the same time, our organization faced countless situations where we received financial support from businesses, but with a warning to not share this information publicly."

Kaczorek says the situation began to change a few years ago, especially as multinational corporations entered the Polish market and brought their own norms with them, which included anti-discrimination politics.

Companies at this year's pride marches in Poland included, among others, Michael Page (recruitment), PwC (business consulting), Luxoft (IT), Merck (chemical company), ING (bank), Harvey Nash (recruitment), Roche (pharmaceutical company), Sephora and Converse. These are multinational companies that have been active for years in the West. It is through these companies that openness to diversity gets into Polish businesses. You would be hard pressed to find a Polish company participating in the parade.

But even those companies not present at pride events are taking advantage of rainbow marketing, with mixed results.

You have to do something to call yourself an ally

This year, an ad campaign from jewelry brand Yesjoined the ranks of unsuccessful allies. The company approached its same-gender clients with an offer: buy one of our engagement rings, for at least 1000 PLN (about €225), get engaged now, post a photo online, and if gay marriage is ever legalized in Poland, we will give free wedding rings to 10 couples.

The ad received a flood of criticism online, including from drag performer Twoja Stara. Trying to save face, the company responded: “Listen up, we are reading all of your comments and it's good that we are having a dialogue. This contest was only meant to be a pretext to discussions about marriage equality in Poland, and that our government is flouting the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. This is not right and it should change."

But their statement did not silence online critics, and the jewelry company took down its ad campaign.

“The problem with this ad campaign is that the business wanted to call itself an ally, while not doing anything for the community,” says Martyna Jałoszyńska, a member of the Polish left-wing party Razem ('Together'). “They believed that just the fact that they were showing people in a same-sex relationship is enough, that it is an accomplishment. But we’re living in a reality in Poland where companies and their monetization of Pride Month has taken place ahead of public opinion and legal changes in terms of (LGBTQ+) acceptance,” she says. “You can of course read the fact that these ad campaigns exist as a positive thing, but really they have just realized that, by speaking to a group of people with such a strong sense of identity, they can pick up loyal customers."

She believes that the gesture from Yes was a slap in the face for the LGBTQ+ community in Poland, and a humiliating reminder that they still could not get married in the country.

“It’s not ideas that are behind these actions, but money."

Another example: the release of “Love is Love” t-shirts by Polish brand La Mania. When magazine Fashion Post asked the brand if they would direct some of the t-shirt proceeds to support the community, La Mania agreed to donate some proceeds from the sale — but not to a local LGBTQ+ organization. Instead, they chose the TVN foundation, which is owned by the Polish television network and with whom the brand has had a longstanding relationship.

Pride flags and a bisexual flag are held aloft over a crowd of people in Poland

Participants attend the Equality March in Krakow, Poland on May 20, 2023.

Beata Zawrzel / ZUMA

What does a gay CEO change? 

Jeremi, who studies in Warsaw, has been out to his family and friends for several years now. Gestures of solidarity, as well as company logo changes, don’t mean much to him: “It doesn’t change anything. The symbol is in the public consciousness; people get used to it, but it doesn’t change their behavior," he says.

“It’s not ideas that are behind these actions, but money," he says. "It’s naive to think that this is anything more than a marketing scheme. Pride month is being used, just like Holy Communion season, Christmas, or Halloween."

What he did enjoy was a recent statement by Bank of London CEO Anthony Watson, who received media attention for being the first openly gay CEO. “In short, he said ‘What does that change?'" says Jeremi.

We won’t get into rainbow cars

Transportation firm Free Now also wanted in on the Pride Month action. The idea was simple: to offer some limited edition rainbow taxis for customers in the month of June. But, as reported in Press magazine, the company’s internal research showed that 30% of passengers using its app said that they would not get into a rainbow car, and over 40% of drivers said they would not agree to decorate their cabs with rainbow-colored wraps. One-third of those explained that it wasn’t because of their personal opposition to the campaign, but because they stated they would be afraid for their safety while driving a rainbow car.

The situation of the LGBTQ+ community in Poland leaves much to be desired — as illustrated by some companies that, until recently, planned campaigns for Pride Month in Western Europe and the USA, but excluded the eastern part of the world, including Poland. In 2021, according to Polish publication INNPoland, among companies that changed their logo to a rainbow one in the West, but not in Poland, were: BMW, Lenovo, Cisco, Uber, PwC and EY. This year, some of those brands, including BMW, decided to use rainbow logos in Poland as well.

“This type of marketing only began when it became a lot safer for companies,” says Kaczorak, from Love Does Not Exclude. "It only happened after LGBTQ+ organizations managed to successfully enter the public debate." Still, some companies continue to receive angry consumer comments.

Poland has become known for its government’s hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community. According to the ILGA-Europe report, which measures the legal rights of LGBTQ+ people in European national legislation, Poland is in last place out of all EU countries in terms of support for sexual minorities, for the fourth year in a row.

And it isn’t just Poland. Public support for the LGBTQ+ community may be starting to decline around the world. Support for marriage equality has declined in nine of the 23 countries surveyed by Ipsos in 2023 and 2021, including in Canada, Germany, the U.S. and Mexico. Poland was fourth from the bottom in this ranking, with only 32% of respondents supporting marriage equality.

Give a voice to the LGBTQ+ community, instead of speaking on behalf of them

Even amid these declining numbers, companies can continue to profit. “Even if it’s only a rainbow logo, or a slogan on a t-shirt, I prefer to buy from companies that share the same values as me,” says Julia, who belongs to the LGBTQ+ community.

“Of course, I know that’s it’s all for money. I’m aware that these campaigns are a sliver of how the firm actually behaves," she says. “I’d want to know, for example, if a queer person could become a manager there ... On the one hand, we can shame these companies for profiting off of someone’s identity, but on the other, if a company wants to promote themselves as tolerant, maybe that is a way to raise awareness for people who have no contact with queer culture."

Let's not kid ourselves — the real work being done for social protections and legal rights are activists.
Julia’s views are shared by 77% of respondents from a study by Morning Consulting, which asked Americans belonging to the LGBTQ+ community about their views on companies using their identities for commercial purposes. Respondents had the highest levels of support for ad campaigns showing LGBTQ+ people in their commercials and marketing materials. Support for the use of LGBTQ+ symbols alone in campaigns, at 67% of respondents, is less popular.

The results of the study are this: give a voice to the community, rather than speaking on behalf of them.

Marzena Strzelczak, director general of the Responsible Business Forum, has also been bringing attention to the role of cooperation between business and organizations fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. She is the coordinator of the Diversity Charter in Poland, which supports LGBTQ+ rights in the workplace, and has since been signed by over 300 firms. But there is still a long way to go. According to the Central Statistical Office of Poland, there are an estimated 600,000 firms in Poland.

“In order to avoid running the risk of pinkwashing, it is worth it to work with organizations, that have been working on the issue for several years, and have a deep and practical understanding of what is needed in this area," she says.

Jałoszyńska, from Razem, agrees, noting that the Women’s Strike in Poland — pro-abortion marches which were the largest protest movement in Polish history since the 1980s — were also monetized, as were other popular social movements in the country.

“I would like to see more lobbying and financial support of LGBTQ+ institutions by these companies that are profiting directly from Pride Month ... Let's not kid ourselves — the real work being done for social protections and legal rights are activists," she says.

"The monetization of Pride is part of the natural order of capitalism, because even during the Women's Strike, companies released necklaces with lightning strikes (a symbol of the movement), without sharing the profit with the very movement whose symbol they were using for profit," she adds. “In the case of the LGBTQ+ community, the use of these symbols can be positive, because it allows us to be represented in public space, but we must remember that it is a matter of profit. Companies do not care about changing the law, but about their own earnings."

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How Parenthood Reinvented My Sex Life — Confessions Of A Swinging Mom

Between breastfeeding, playdates, postpartum fatigue, birthday fatigues and the countless other aspects of mother- and fatherhood, a Cuban couple tries to find new ways to explore something that is often lost in the middle of the parenting storm: sex.

red tinted photo of feet on a bed

Parenting v. intimacy, a delicate balance

Silvana Heredia

HAVANA — It was Summer, 2015. Nine months later, our daughter would be born. It wasn't planned, but I was sure I wouldn't end my first pregnancy. I was 22 years old, had a degree, my dream job and my own house — something unthinkable at that age in Cuba — plus a three-year relationship, and the summer heat.

I remember those months as the most fun, crazy and experimental of my pre-motherhood life. It was the time of my first kiss with a girl, and our first threesome.

Every weekend, we went to the Cuban art factory and ended up at the CornerCafé until 7:00 a.m. That September morning, we were very drunk, and in that second-floor room of my house, it was unbearably hot. The sex was otherworldly. A few days later, the symptoms began.

She arrived when and how she wished. That's how rebellious she is.

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