over the rainbow?
the iconic symbol of gay rights is beginning to flag as a way of branding business

published: lov, issue#13, october-december 2011

We see it topping poles along the gaybourhood’s streets and stuck onto doorways as decals branding gay-friendly businesses all over town, but have changing times and equal rights made the rainbow flag unnecessary as a way to inspire customer loyalty? Do people in the LGBT community patronize a store, restaurant or bar just because it’s “gay friendly” anymore?

The idea of opening a gay business may seem outdated and unnecessary now that the LGBT community has long since stopped hiding behind closed doors. Some gay businesses have disappeared altogether, while others are re-positioning to meet today’s market. To some, this progress; queers are no longer seen as forming a niche market. To others, the demise of using icons such as the rainbow flag or pink triangle to identify safe havens for people in the LGBT community is seen as a big step backwards. At a time when Pride is registered as a trademark to stop it from being exploited purely for business reasons – ironically so, as the process itself commodifies a grassroots civil rights movement – others contend that being gay should have never been used as a tool for marketing purposes in the first place.

The rainbow flag became an icon of the queer movement in 1978, when artist Gilbert Baker introduced it at San Francisco’s Gay Pride. Its colours have proudly represented hope, community allegiance and sexual freedom ever since. Over time, the rainbow flag also became a useful symbol for identifying businesses that welcomed queers, increasingly becoming a form of currency appealing to a niche market with guaranteed customers.

In fact, the flag has become so ubiquitous that it has become difficult for gay consumers to tell whether a company wants them for who they are, or just for the disposable income in their wallets. Consequently, many gay businesses have chosen to turf the rainbow, finding other ways to define their market positioning. Does this translate into homophobia, or does it simply beg the question, “Does the rainbow flag mean anything anymore?”

“Nowadays, if a business is going to put a flag, they will,” says Andrew Parker, who owns The Dish on Davie Street.

The beloved juice bar and fresh food eatery is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this fall: its bright history is captured in a wall display of black and white photos of loyal gay customers. Yet, when the restaurant first opened its doors on Halloween in 1991, no rainbows adorned the premises.

Since then, Parker has seen first hand how the West End’s LGBT community has changed. Twenty years ago, he recalls, it was a much different time.

Friends hadn’t started on TV, no one had cell phones or the internet, and AIDS was still very much a death sentence.”

He says that businesses back then on Davie used to close down for the Pride parade, and the neighbourhood was just that: a neighbourhood.

“You didn’t have to put up flags,” he says. “People just knew.”

Parker has always considered The Dish to be a family and people business, but never a queer business.

“I never wanted just you,” he says, in response to the fact there is no rainbow flag on the window. “I want you to come in here and be you, but I also want your mom and dad to sit here and be comfortable with you as you; and I want you to be comfortable with them being here; and I want children to be able to sit and see two guys sitting in the window holding hands or two ladies in the back having an intimate conversation and it’s O.K.”

It is a kiss of death to call yourself a gay-specific business, he says, because then you are pigeon-holing yourself. Or maybe the rainbow flag has simply reached over-saturation. Despite the fact the queer demographic can be incredibly lucrative, not to mention fiercely loyal, does it make financial sense to create a business plan that potentially limits your clientele? As the LGBT community becomes increasingly accepted across the city, can a gay business still survive?

A few doors down the street from The Dish at Celebrities, James Steck finds himself at the centre of this debate. He says the answer to that question is much more complicated than a simple yes or no.

“When I see publications claiming that we’re not gay enough, I think we’re trying to stay as gay as we can be,” says Steck, the popular club’s Marketing and Promotions Manager.

In the past few years, Celebrities has come under first by the queer community for being “too straight.” Steck attributes this criticism to the changing population in the West End and the fact that LGBT individuals no longer feel the need to stick to Davie Street.

“I think if you were to look at the West End now compared to twenty years ago, the demographic has changed hugely,” says Steck.

That said, plenty of young gay people continue to party at Celebrities, while the older crowd has moved on to other recreational pursuits, and straights who patronize the club do so because of its gay “vibe.”

Because the queer community is spread out across all of metropolitan Vancouver, and the West End’s population is in transition, businesses on Davie Street have had to adapt to the people who are now living and shopping in the area on a daily basis.

“I think that [Celebrities] has evolved with our community,” says Steck. “It’s just that we open our doors five days a week and have to cater to whoever comes through those doors.”

Could Celebrities keep its doors open and still manage to fill the massive club each night if it was strictly a gay bar? As mainstream acceptance continues to grow and gay couples can frequent other clubs and hold hands elsewhere, Steck doesn't feel the need [to gay-identify] is as strong anymore. that is not to say that Celebrities has stopped being a gay bar, but that everyone under the rainbow is welcome. All their nightly events remain gay-themed, however. The message is clear that club-goers are waiting in line for a gay club and intolerance is not welcome.

“You are coming to a party in a gay bar, accept that you’re coming to party in a gay bar and enjoy it while you are here,” says James. Message to straights: this is still our club, you are guests.

So what constitutes a gay business today, and why is it important?

“I think that you always have to stand on guard for your rights,” says Caryl Dolinko, who believes the rainbow flag is just as important as it was before.

Dolinko is the president of Smart Cookie Consulting and is widely regarded in Vancouver as the premier consultant for businesses looking to expand within the LGBT market. She points out that rights can be taken away just as quickly as they are given; for proof of this, you don’t have to look much further than down south. In her bird for the American presidential election, Republican candidate Michele Bachmann has already mentioned repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. (On Sep 20, 2011 Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was abolished.)

Dolinko says that it is important for businesses to recognize the LGBT community, not only as consumers but as potential employees and business owners. She gives credit to larger corporations like TELUS and TD Bank for investing time and money to establish internal policy and advisory committees to better support the queer community.

“Any organization that’s willing to do that says to me that kids who are coming up in the world will have a place they can be employed and feel comfortable with who they are,” she says.

If anything, queers today owe it to themselves to seek out the companies actually supporting them, as opposed to those who are just slapping as ticker on the window and saying they are.

“I won’t eat at a restaurant just because I see a rainbow flag in the window,” says Ryan McKinley, form the Gay and Lesbian Business Association (GLBA). “I will go because I have seen them raise money for LOUD scholarships or support A Loving Spoonful.”

Ryan Bazeley, owner of Holler Pulic Relations, supports him on this. “I work with La Brasserie and Mis Trucos on Davie Street and whenever I ask them to support an event or host a fundraiser the answer is always yes, without hesitation – not because they think it’s going to make them money, but because they want to take an active role in supporting the community that supports them.”

Another great example of a company who has been a tremendous benefit to the queer community is Caya.

“When a customer chooses to shop at Caya,” says Kenn Hamlin, director of Special Projects for TELUS, they’re indirectly supporting vital programs and services making a real difference in their community.” Last pride week, TELUS donated $13,000 to Out in Schools after customers checked in at a Caya location on Facebook. “We want Caya to bea s well known for its products and services as it is fro its commitment to the LGBT community,” says Hamlin.

Gay or straight, all of today’s businesses seek to cash in on “social value tribes,” marketing jargon for groups of people tied together by similar lifestyles and values. That means smart consumers must familiarize themselves with the history, mission and authenticity of a company. Is it gay for a day (during Pride) or does it contribute to the community year round – gay owned or not.

Whether it is financial, political, or social, a company’s support can take on several forms but at the end of the day it still carries the same weight. Today in Vancouver the significance of the rainbow flag may have changed, but it is certainly not meaningless. It still represents a brighter future for many travelers who arrive in our city, and is a beacon for a better life for gay kids who come here from small towns and bigoted countries.

Now that a new generation of queers has the freedom to branch out from the West End and take its business elsewhere, there could come a day when the rainbow flags on Davie Street are no longer necessary. But in today’s world where most gays (and women) around the world remain second class citizens, don’t those of us lucky to live where we do owe it to them to raise the rainbow flag higher than ever? Not for the cause of the business; for the cause of human dignity.