The Crate and Barrel catalog I received, in the mail a few months ago had a decidedly different look to it. The format and layout were more or less the same. The simple sans-serif logo was unchanged. And the household products advertised were of a piece with past offerings. The difference, rather, was in the people pictured. On the first inside spread were two handsome and youthful men eating a meal together in an impeccably furnished home. On other pages, the two were shown in the kitchen and living room. There were no overt scenes of physical contact—or a bedroom setting—but the catalog’s message made it clear that these two were not just buddies hanging out. They were a cohabiting couple. The implicit message was that Crate and Barrel is the perfect retailer for anyone seeking household products that convey good taste and who has disposable income. The gay couple was meant to be a commercial symbol for affluence and style.
Although Crate and Barrel is not the first retailer to feature same-sex couples in its promotional materials, it may be the most prominent. Typically, when men are paired together in advertising, they are placed in a business or sports setting with no romantic overtones. Now, however, if a stylish ad in the right magazine shows two men reading to kids on the couch, the discerning reader will detect a same-sex couple. Advertising campaigns featuring both gay and lesbian same-sex relationships are sure to continue, and they will be complemented by depictions of same-sex couples in television programs such as ABC’s Modern Family. The message is reinforced when an NBA basketball star like Jason Collins announces he is gay on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
This new willingness to show same-sex couples in corporate advertising has been hailed by many as the latest victory in the fight for equal treatment of gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities in US society. By increasing the visibility of people in diverse relationship and family settings, the argument goes, we are not only painting a more realistic portrait of the lives of Americans, but also building social acceptance for the rights of sexual minorities, including the right to marriage equality. Indeed, polls indicate small but growing majorities of Americans now support social equality and marriage rights for lesbians and gays. But do these new trends in media, advertising, and marketing deserve anything but praise from those of us who favor social and legal equality for same-sex couples? The answer may be less obvious than some believe.
The Supreme Court is poised as this article appears to render decisions on two cases in which same-sex unions may well be affirmed in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. On March 26, the Supreme Court heard the first case, which concerns California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative that seeks to bar same-sex marriage in the state. That same day, Facebook users discovered that many of the pictures in their “friends” list had turned red and pink. In place of the usual profile photos, brightly colored equals signs began to pop up. They were meant to represent the potentially life-altering significance of the high court’s impending verdicts. Before long, the signs were being embellished and transformed. Some were supplemented by pictures of the Sesame Street Muppets Bert and Ernie or the Peanuts cartoon characters Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Others were reconfigured: the horizontal slashes of the equals sign became oblong wedding rings and inspirational texts were added supporting marriage equality. Within hours, the equals sign became a cultural meme with a life of its own.
What many who posted the equals sign did not realize was that the symbol was the logo of a nonprofit corporation. It was generated and distributed by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s leading advocacy group promoting GLBT (gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender) rights. The pink and red equals signs are a variation on HRC’s standard brand insignia, a yellow equals sign on a navy-blue background.
Why should this matter? HRC has been very effective at popularizing its logo to attract attention to its existence. One can hardly criticize the group for its amazing fundraising successes, which demonstrate the considerable skill of its staff and leadership. But a closer look at the organization has led many observers to conclude that HRC deserves minimal credit for securing GLBT rights. More than anything, the group seems to excel at making itself known. In other words, HRC is great at promoting HRC, and with its red-and-pink-enhanced logo appearing all over Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet, HRC probably had its most successful week ever promoting the HRC brand.
Of course, the benefits to HRC don’t nullify any changes of heart on marriage equality or rays of hope to the marginalized that result from broad distribution of the logo. The pace at which hearts and minds are changing on these issues is truly extraordinary. This is partly the result of much social and political activism over the past five decades, but less recognized is the role that has been played by the creation and marketing of images and stories about gays and lesbians. These efforts, too, have helped transform public opinion and public policies.
Particularly since the rise of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, HRC and many other GLBT organizations have carefully attempted to craft the public’s perception of gay persons and couples. While respecting racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, the advocacy groups have been careful to promote images of gay people who are well-groomed and successful, loving and responsible, wholly respectable and, yes, unthreatening—the sorts of folks you would love to have as friends and next-door neighbors. However, this image-crafting has not been entirely inclusive. You won’t find many stories about or photos of “bears” (burly, bearded gay men) or “butch”-looking lesbians. These images do not project the desired public persona, even though such persons represent a significant part of the overall diversity of GLBT folk.
Moreover, while celebrities increasingly lend their names and images to these campaigns, you rarely see or hear from poor, elderly, displaced, or disabled gay and lesbian people. We all know that a corporation, a political party, or a professional association will promote itself to a mainstream audience by selecting spokespersons who represent the aspirations of its targeted demographic. Even religious organizations seek appropriately pleasing public images to attract newcomers and maintain its membership. Care is taken to ensure the presence of persons of color, varying age cohorts, and the equal representation of men and women. But don’t expect to see many poor people or anyone who isn’t tailored to a certain level of polish. Instead, cast your eyes upon people not unlike those buff, handsome, well-clothed men in the Crate and Barrel catalog.
Fine, you may say. That is the nature of marketing in our contemporary world; what’s the problem? For me, it is this: GLBT people and their rights are being sold to the rest of the country like a product; the altered HRC logo is a brand for that product. It pushes real persons out of the way and erects in their place a façade intended to attract attention to itself. The ideal of equality is promoted and sold to the public on the promise that it will generate social outcomes that reflect almost exactly the ideals of contemporary American consumerism. It becomes the equivalent of a new dining set or bedroom suite. To achieve this end, GLBT people are sanitized and sanctified, transformed into something barely recognizable to themselves. Indeed, many feel inferior or unacceptable if they do not conform to the images intended to comfort and reassure their straight neighbors and coworkers. HRC abets this destructive process by purveying and promoting the very images that distort the ideal of equality it purports to champion. It has commodified and repackaged those it claims to represent and sold a “new, improved” gay lifestyle to the larger American public.
This was perhaps inevitable. It is how African Americans have been integrated more fully into American public life; the same is increasingly happening with Latinos, Asians, and biracial couples. Thus progress against societal marginalization is measured more by visibility in marketing plans than by actual participation in civil society and contribution to the common good.
But why must we disconnect the decades-long effort to achieve equal rights from the challenge of social ethics advanced against consumerist values? Must the work of progressive theological circles and public-advocacy groups always be undercut by glossy ads and professional PR?
What do those men in the Crate and Barrel catalog represent: two humans worthy of respect for their loving relationship or dollar signs on the asset side of a corporate spreadsheet? Do we secretly love these images? Shouldn’t we at least recognize how they are often used against vital causes we support? Make no mistake, GLBT people have paid a terrible price for being denied marriage equality and other key rights, but all of us are paying a terrible price for the methods currently used to reach this critical turning point. We have been lured by images and values that turn high ideals into glittering prizes. HRC and Crate and Barrel are not the enemy, but if they expect to be regarded as true agents of justice, they need to reach for more diversely representative methods and images that uphold marriage equality as a right to be defended, rather than a brand to be endorsed.
David Lott is a religious book editor and a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary. He lives in Washington, DC, where he does freelance editing and writing.