“A complex relationship with June”: What Pride means to Gen Z

I’ve always had a complex relationship with June.

Before coming out, when my identity was more caterpillar than a butterfly, Pride Month was a time to look on with inexplicable envy at my later-to-be peers as they donned rainbow attire and shouted their queerness in parades and atop floats.

Later, older and unabashedly open, I had the chance to be them—the brightly-clothed, shorn-headed individual embracing my LGBT identity in handfuls, like the colorful plastic beads I grasped off of the sidewalks in Portland, OR, where I attended my first Pride.

Now, in 2021, my identity older and broken in, Pride has become quieter, a month of reflection and education. June is a time to look inward and outward: inward at the energy within me that I’ve comfortably labeled ‘queerness’ and outward at what the month has become to the community around me. 

Gen Z has a complicated relationship with Pride.

At JUV, LGBTQ+ identity is a year-round affair. 40% of our staff identify as queer, and our group chat, “The Alphabet Mafia,” explodes with notifications nearly 24/7. But as I talked to the team, it became clear to me that June is not purely a month of celebration. Interviews with peers reveal a complicated relationship with Pride, both as a product of personal experiences and the rainbow fog emitted month-round by (well-intentioned?) corporations.

Pride cannot be defined.

It’s hard to explain what Pride means to the queer community because it hardly means just one thing.

Molly Kilbourne (she/they), a 22-year-old Senior Partner at JUV, says “Pride is a very individual sort of term, and a very individual sort of experience, so I can dictate to myself what I expect during Pride. But I would never dictate that to another queer person.”

They go on to say that, for them, Pride Month is a chance to see what the community has become, “digesting and looking at what other people are doing for pride.”

Kilbourne then shows off a rainbow beaded ring, holding it up to their webcam from their car at the summer camp where they work. They explain that it was a gift from one of their straight friends, and that the support was deeply meaningful to them and their girlfriend, who had received an identical ring. 

Senior Partner Molly Kilbourne and their girlfriend

“It didn’t feel like a spotlight situation. It was more just like, ‘I’m thinking of you, this is something I took the time to make.’” Kilbourne says this support is particularly meaningful, because it’s visible and caring without pressure, something they find valuable during Pride. 

Queer members did not always feel comfortable celebrating Pride.

Other members of the team find comfort in this month, even if it took a long time to feel that way.

“I spent so many years not being able to celebrate [Pride,]” says Kailey Edwards (she/her), 27, Growth Director at JUV. She goes on to explain that the ability to celebrate now is not solely a matter of high-visibility celebration.

Director of People & Inclusion Gabe Garcia (left) & Growth Director Kailey Edwards (right)

“Being able to be surrounded by people with shared experiences and hype each other up and have fun… I would say that’s the main thing. Just being around people you love and hanging out and having fun, celebrating. It’s not always about going out or going to a parade. It’s about being happy with the people around you.”

But Pride isn’t all sunshine and rainbows….

Pride can also be a month of frustration, even alongside the celebration. “I think I need to take more time to celebrate myself and make space,” reflects Gabe Garcia (they/them), 23, Director of People and Inclusion. The space is hard to find, though, in a shroud of discontent fostered by their frustration about how far the community still has to go for equality.

“Pride Month is where I’m kind of like, okay, get it together,” Garcia says, “and I guess that’s how I should feel year-round, but that’s hard because there’s not a lot of space for queer people.” 

Intersectionality plays a role in Pride, too.

Frustration isn’t limited to progress, though. Intersections with other aspects of her identity create a difficult relationship with Pride for consultant Malaika Alilaw (she/her), 18. She explains that “recently, because of last year, I’ve felt kind of alienated from Pride Month just because I’m Black and last year was horrendous,” referencing the murders of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor that occurred last summer.

As a result, she goes on to say, “I’ve never really been, like, ‘This is my month!’”

Alilaw is from Atlanta, and she explains that she feels a disconnect and lack of validity not living in “those great cities like San Francisco and New York,” where queerness can be more openly celebrated. She describes a relationship where she feels as though she’s losing a ‘competition’ of queerness, moving a long braid behind her shoulder as she says, “I don’t have colorful hair… I look like just a regular Atlanta person.” 

Gen Z questions if Pride is really for the queer community anymore.

Danny Vogwill (they/them), a 21-year-old Junior Partner, feels disconnected from Pride Month as well, mostly on the basis of the concept of a single month for celebration. They say that for them, “There’s no difference between June and the rest of the year. I celebrate Pride twelve months out of the year.”

They argue that Pride Month, then, has become less to the benefit of the queer community.

“Pride Month is a time for other people to reflect on queer people in their life and be like” – Vogwill adopts a mocking, sing-song tone – “‘I love gays, I love RuPaul’s Drag Race, I bought the ugly, atrocious rainbow merch from ‘x, y, z’ company.’”

How corporate Pride affects the queer community

Vogwill’s frustration with merchandise is not solitary. Pride in the 21st century has become dominated by corporations that have swapped out their traditional logos for rainbow-washed versions. 

Junior Partner Danny Vogwill

The first frustration is clear: queer people simply aren’t a part of the conversation. Garcia explains that, “It’s clear that when June comes around there are rarely queer people in the room where these decisions and campaigns and whatever it is are being decided.”

Vogwill echoes their sentiment: “Sometimes you look at [Pride campaigns] and it’s like – ’there was not a single queer person in that entire room to look at that campaign and go… ‘no.’”

Queer Gen Zers find solace in flawed campaigns.

Some are able to find levity in the tone-deaf campaigns, though. Kilbourne cites it as a source of connection felt at JUV, saying that they love being able to make fun of campaigns in “The Alphabet Mafia” chat, a sentiment echoed by Garcia and Vogwill. 

Edwards struggles with the balancing act of being glad that corporations are trying something, but still sensing clear dissonance.

“We talked about rainbow capitalism so much this month, but I think in my head, I try to rationalize it. Would we rather they do nothing?”

What corporate social responsibility criticism doesn’t consider…

Alilaw’s frustration cuts deeper, dealing with the whole framing of the conversation surrounding corporate social responsibility and the queer community. She feels like it’s another time at which her Blackness is forced into conflict with her queerness.

“Like, Chick-Fil-A, for example, we can talk about how they’re horrible and whatever, and also look at the Black neighborhoods where there are only Chick-Fil-As, and it’s like you’re demonizing these people for eating.”

This was her experience on a road trip, where a search for fast, affordable food yielded results for six different Chick-Fil-A’s, and nothing else. She says that the way that the queer community critiques these corporations needs to be cognizant of intersectionality.

At the end of the day, corporate Pride feels like a roadblock to an authentic celebration. As Kilbourne laments, “I don’t want that form of celebration. I want an organic sort of acceptance.”

Organic acceptance doesn’t mean visibility, necessarily. They fear that corporate Pride trying to be more authentic could do more harm than good, explaining that it could inadvertently make “levels of queerness and aspects of queerness that heterosexual people don’t need to have access to” public. 

The queer Gen Z community wants action.

So, what can be done? When asked, one word came up in every interview: action

Edwards is straight to the point. “I don’t know how I feel about actual merch but like, I think I hate it. I’d rather you not release any merch and just donate the money you were going to use for production.”

She explains that rainbow t-shirts and the like, for her, are useless anyway. When she and her friends celebrate, “we just dress like ourselves because that is technically Pride.”

Vogwill is aligned with the team in rejecting the campaign model altogether.

“I don’t even know what I would do to stand out from the other ones, because I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen them rainbow-wash the entire month, then July 1st comes and it’s like ‘never mind.’ I don’t know how to do one authentically that would be engaging for queer people to do it. Honestly, the Pride month campaigns are for straight people that want to pretend that they’re an ally, or just want to be an ally, or who are an ally and want to spend money in this capitalistic system, but there is not a Pride campaign that I would appreciate.” 

It’s clear that the personal relationships the JUV community have with Pride eclipse the benefits of corporate advertising. The team, the community, wants acceptance and visibility (and not through an ill-advised, heterosexual curated ad campaign).

Kilbourne, however, has an idea for one personal slogan.

“’Shut up and open your purse.’ […] If I had to wear one shirt during Pride, that would be it.”

JUV Consulting is a Gen Z collective that works with companies to create purpose-driven and authentic marketing campaigns that engage young audiences. Contact us at info@juvconsulting.com if you would like to learn how to reach Gen Z, or sign up for our weekly newsletter, The Screenshot, to get Gen Z insights straight to your inbox.

Claire Fennell is a Senior Partner at JUV. She can most often be found reading in Central Park, listening to Elton John, or spending way too much money on iced oat lattes. Follow her on Instagram @clairemfennell!