I Went To the LGBT Expo and All I Got Was This Icky Corporate Exploitation of My Community

Is a LGBT Expo really for the community, or is it just a chance for creepy corporations to gaywash and reach a diversity market?
Publish date:
March 3, 2015
new york, social justice, exploitation, corporate america, LGBT Expo, Uber

I’ve been at the New York LGBT Expo for 45 minutes, and I’m depressed.

I’ve passed booth after booth of corporate offerings (MetLife wants me to “Build a truly diversified portfolio of retirement and wealth management” which isn’t the diversity message I expected) interspersed with small (presumably queer-owned) businesses shilling everything from knitted hats to facial scrubs, and I can’t help but wonder what the point is.

Is a LGBT Expo really for the community -- or is it just a chance for creepy corporations to gaywash and reach a diversity market?

First let me say that yes, I’m queer.

I live with my girlfriend and our two big dogs that we treat like children, a fridge full of vegan yogurt and bookshelves crammed with Judith “Jack” Halberstam, James Baldwin and Janet Mock. I’m a working-class lesbian journalist who frequently writes about legislation and policy that impacts the LGBT community. This event, this Expo -- it’s for me. It’s for my people.

So why do I feel like running home, hopping in a hot shower and sliding slowly down the tile while clutching myself and crying?

For nearly an hour, I’ve been dodging the ubiquitous corporate logos of Zipcar, MetLife insurance, Mohegan Sun casinos, Pella doors and windows, First Investors, Morgan Stanley, Con Edison, WellCare health plans, Uber and Delta airlines.

I feel dirty, like my identity, sexuality and who I love have been sold to a data brokerage firm and translated into potential sales brackets (or whatever marketing people call it). I’m shuffling between a string of booths advertising the benefits of various cities: Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Curaçao, Puerto Vallarta, all of whom want my gay money just as much as they want everyone else’s. Hooray!

Before you call me an ungrateful asshole, let me make it clear that I understand why, traditionally, LGBT expos happen.

I worked at a queer community center and know that outreach and public presence are vital to reaching every last marginalized person who is queer or questioning or coming out -- or even just lonely. Corporate donations make up a large part of the funding streams behind community centers and non-profits that serve our community and queer people who work at those companies often benefit greatly from LGBT employee groups that are psyched to represent at events like this. It’s essentially a trade show, the gay version of Las Vegas’ annual Consumer Electronics fair.

Looking around, I do see more diversity than I typically do at the bars. There are graying seniors, moms with overflowing strollers, teens, the occasional wheelchair, working class folks and groups that seem like they trucked in from the ‘burbs. The LGBT Expo is widely publicized, centrally located at the insanely large Jacob Javits Convention Center in Midtown, and $10 discount admission was available on Living Social. In that way, it really is for all of us.

But if this is for all of us -- why aren’t we better represented?

Many of the queer-owned business and organizations I know and love are nowhere to be seen. And why do we let in massive corporations that take up space in our house, smiling and pretending to give a shit about our issues for as long as it takes to swipe our debit cards?

The expo is partially sponsored by Uber, which last time I checked is a company with absolutely horrible corporate ethics and a sexist culture. Uber has threatened the families of journalists who expose their shitty business practices, run promotions that invite male passengers to request a “hot chick” driver they can personally harass, and the company’s drivers have raped so many passengers that the company has installed a “panic button” in certain rape-heavy Uber markets (if you’re in Chicago, Boston, LA or India: take a taxi instead).

If corporations were people (sadly, they are treated as such by law), then Uber is the date-raping frat boy you definitely don’t invite to your sorority house. But who cares about all that silly personal safety stuff when you can get a free ride up to $20 with promo code LGBTEXPONYC20?

If I never see another unethical car company, beer manufacturer, or investment bank throw up a rainbow flag and act as if that should mean something to me, it will be too soon.

As I write this, longtime Village Voice columnist Michael Musto is being given a lifetime achievement award onstage, a bevy of shade-throwing drag queens alongside nudie talk show host Robin Byrd inducting him with a roast of sorts in front of an audience of about 30 people. That’s the thing about this event -- it’s oddly empty.

I’m just old enough to remember when events like pride festivals still felt subversive and brave, and just young enough to see clearly how co-opted, corporate and way too expensive they’ve become. Like pride, representation at the expo skews heavily corporate with a dwindling sense of the actual LGBT community participating.

The empty, icky feeling brought on by consumerist overload at the expo could be tempered in the future.

Maybe instead of whoring out to shitty companies like Uber to pay for space at the sprawling industrial city that is the Javits Center, we could just have the expo at New York’s actual LGBT community center?

It would cost less, and we could replace our new corporate besties with things that reflect our culture: bookstores like Bureau of General Services Queer Division, game-changing activists and organizers like Act Up and Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and entertainment provided in the form of vogue balls and Hey Queen-style dance parties.

For Goddess’ sake, at least a booth with some vegan eats.

I chalk up the soullessness of the expo, in part, to a generally dwindling culture of queer spaces.

Lesbian bars have shuttered left and right over the past couple of years, and gay bookstores too. For the most part, queers have safe access to places that used to shut us out or make us feel unwelcome — so we’ve left behind the gayborhoods in favor of the monthly dance party at an otherwise straight bar.

We work in the White House. We win Oscars. There’s such a prevalence of gayness in media now that it’s hard to even say there’s a single “we” anymore.

But that doesn’t mean I never want to go to a specifically lesbian or queer event. In fact, I want them more than ever. But I want it to be authentic, to reflect the values that are generally represented in my community. I wouldn’t go to a corporate trade show for any reason.

Why should I go just because I share my bed with another woman?

So it’s official: I’m calling for an alternative. I want to see an LGBT Expo that shuns big business in favor of meaningful community support, representation of avant-garde arts and culture and queer values.

Will you be there?


Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara