Although corporate bodies have been trying to capitalise on Pride for years, few ever anticipate the arms industry decking itself in rainbow flags and talking about rights and freedoms while making money off violence all over the world. But as it’s now Pride month, expect arms companies to ramp up their PR mechanisms and join in the LGBTQ+ celebrations both on social media and at Pride events in a thin attempt to conceal the fact that they are complicit in human rights abuses, state suppression, and fatal conflict.
Every year, arms companies sponsor Pride events up and down the country, co-opting a movement about LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms to use as an opportunity for ‘positive exposure’. Pride events should be synonymous with freedom and liberation, and they are exciting, fun, and often powerful public opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community to make itself seen and heard. But that means that sponsorship deals allow arms companies to present themselves in public as fun and exciting, too – and most dangerously, as progressive. That could not be further from the truth.
Before the pandemic, BAE Systems—the world’s largest provider of arms to the Saudi Arabian military—sponsored Pride events in London, Surrey, Portsmouth, and Blackpool. In Saudi Arabia, and other countries that BAE supply such as the United Arab Emirates, same-sex sexual activity is illegal: being LGBTQ+ is potentially punishable by anything from public beatings to imprisonment to the death penalty. BAE Systems’ dealings with Saudi Arabia includes supplying cyber surveillance technology in ‘large-scale’ sales that can be used to spy on citizens considered dissidents – potentially including those suspected of being LGBTQ+.
The problem isn’t just that these sponsorships whitewash the vicious profiteering of the companies that pay for them – it’s also that they whitewash the governments with which they trade. Pride famously started as a protest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and still takes place in June to coincide with the anniversary of the Stonewall riots; armoured vehicles, manufactured by BAE Systems in the UK, were used to suppress peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Bahrain just ten years ago.
And it’s not just BAE. Airbus—one of the largest arms companies in the world—recently sponsored Pride events in Bristol, Portsmouth, and Chester. This is a company that plays a large role in manufacturing Eurofighter Typhoons used in combat in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, where there have been widespread violations of humanitarian law. Airbus is also a large part-owner of MBDA, which manufactures missiles used in Syria and Yemen.
Many Pride events have been cancelled again this year due to a second summer of pandemic disruption, so we will not have to celebrate queer liberation in the presence of companies that prop up repression. But plenty of these companies are still using whatever chance they can to muscle in on the LGBTQ+ cause.
As soon as the calendar ticked over into June, arms companies were on social media: BAE Systems and Leonardo have both updated their Twitter pictures to include a rainbow along with their logo, and tweeted using Pride 2021 hashtags. These performances don’t undo the fact that Leonardo’s military helicopters have been used in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as well as in conflict in Afghanistan and Libya. The laser targeting systems used by Turkey in their bombing of Afrin were made in the UK by Leonardo, and sold to the Turkish government despite their ongoing violence against the Kurds, suspected war crimes, and—you guessed it—hostility towards LGBTQ+ people.
Arms companies are not interested in liberation of any kind. They are financially interested in preventing it: to them, repression and instability and the violence that come with both are nothing but business opportunities. They use Pride for their own means, to sanitise their image and their actions to make them more palatable and more acceptable to the public.
But there is opposition. LGBTQ+ people have long been organising in solidarity with other causes, and are now using this as a means to fight arms companies’ cynical exploitation of liberation, including through organisations such as Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants and No Pride in War. There have been protests in London, York, Bristol, Woking, and other places against arms companies being a part of Pride. In 2019 Bi Con, the UK’s national bisexual convention, decided in a landslide vote to not accept funding from arms companies.
There are other resources available, too. The Peace Pledge Union can offer support if you have concerns about a sponsor or corporate participant in a Pride event near you, and Campaign Against Arms Trade have a lot of information about arms companies, what they sell, and who to. They are a useful database for doing some digging into companies sponsoring your local Pride events.
Companies that are complicit in human rights abuses do not belong at Pride. Pride should be about rights and freedoms – it’s not a PR tool for the pinkwashing of profit turned on suffering. We must work hard to keep it that way.