/ 15 June 2023

Woolies’s gay pride range: solidarity or profit?

Woolworths Holdings Ltd. Store And Chief Executive Officer Ian Moir Interview
Woolworths’s turnover in South Africa was around R85 billion last year. It is the preferred store for the middle class for clothes and food. (Halden Krog/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

June is Gay Pride Month. This commemorates the June 1969 Stonewall uprising in the US, when gay people rebelled against homophobia and a lack of recognition. Over the years, gay pride evolved into marches and other events, also in South Africa. Gay people own the gay pride celebrations.

When a big retailer, such as Woolworths, starts a gay pride campaign with a range of clothing, we need to ask the question to what extent the LGBTIQA+ community was involved in the conceptualisation and execution of the campaign. According to Woolworths, they put together a gay pride task team. Or did the retailer see an opportunity to commoditise gay identity and benefit financially from this. No big retailer would initiate a campaign without a profit motive. 

Woolworths’s turnover in South Africa was around R85 billion last year. It is the preferred store for the middle class for clothes and food. Woolworths, therefore, has a “captive audience” for any new campaign, whether customers are gay or straight. Do gay people really wear clothes that are different from the clothes that anyone else wears? If we look at what is on offer through Woolworths’s gay pride campaign it does not look like it, except for the rainbow emblem on T-shirts and jackets. 

The polarisation around the campaign, especially from religious groups, is to be expected. The hypocrisy of some Christians was on display in their vehement opposition to the campaign. Some asked the question, “When has Woolworths ever done anything for Christians?” Because Christianity and heterosexuality are the norms, Woolworths does something for Christians every day. 

Embedded in this response is homophobia and a pretended toleration of homosexuality — as long as it is not in the public eye. It is oxymoronic for those who oppose the campaign to say it is offensive, but they are not homophobic.

Tonya Khoury, director of Acumen Media Management, evaluates advertising as “heroes” and “zeros” on The Money Show. She called the Woolworths campaign a zero campaign that patronises and tokenises the gay community, because all that “being an ally “ means in this instance is putting rainbows on clothes. 

Solidarity means so much more. Solidarity entails an understanding of the lived experience of gay people and how they have to navigate male-dominated, heterosexual societies. In many societies, being gay can lead to death, either at the hands of hostile heterosexual people (South Africa has one of the highest statistics in the world for the murder of lesbian women) or by the state, such as is the case in Uganda. 

Some gay people do not want to be identified as gay through clothing or other paraphernalia.

In the recent past, Woolworths has sold T-shirts with feminist slogans on them as a “gesture” of supporting feminism. But feminism is more than a word. There are many feminisms and complex theorising around gender inequality and the lived experience within patriarchal societies. It is much more than merely wearing a T-shirt — a steadfast commitment to feminist beliefs is harder than that. It is when you have to stand up for your feminist beliefs that solidarity is put to the test. By using feminism in this way it empties the concept of meaning.

Many people are supporting Woolworth’s gay pride campaign as a gesture of solidarity. But it is also a way of opposing those who criticise the retailer. Will these same people attend a gay pride march or stand up against other people’s homophobia in private spaces, far from public scrutiny? 

Again, it is easy to wear the rainbow but not to have the lived experience. That does not mean that there should not be solidarity with the LGBTIQA+ community. But this solidarity should stretch further than a clothing campaign. Every year we see solidarity with the 16 days of non-violence against women but the violence does not stop and the solidarity is often confined to those 16 days.

In the 1990s, the clothing company United Colors of Benetton ran an HIV-Aids campaign. This included a photo of a terminally ill patient on his deathbed, pictures of body parts marked by an “HIV positive” tattoo, a special issue of the COLORS magazine dedicated to the pandemic, as well as a giant condom that was unrolled at night on the obelisk at Place de la Concorde in Paris. 

This campaign was highly controversial and was offensive to many people. But it did raise a lot of consciousness about the Aids pandemic, which was misunderstood at the time. 

In 1995, Benetton was fined $32 000 by a French court for causing offence. The court case was brought by HIV-positive people. What is important here is that the case was made by people from the Aids community, not by people who were Aids-phobic. 

In the 1990s, Benetton made $1.79 billion from its controversial advertising campaigns and its stock was listed on five international exchanges. The profit motive, therefore, cannot be separated from the message of the campaign. 

Maybe Woolworthis is raising consciousness about pride. Maybe heterosexual people are buying its clothes as a gesture of solidarity with the LGBTIQA+ community but Woolworths stands to gain financially.

Amanda Gouws is the SARChI Chair in Gender Politics at Stellenbosch University.