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Simply ‘Representing’ the LGBTQ+ Community Isn’t Enough


It’s right to applaud initiatives aimed at improving representation, argue Five by Five’s Luke Gray and Tom Carr, but the best chance for meaningful change comes from a progressive and positive internal culture which is still not common enough

Simply ‘Representing’ the LGBTQ+ Community Isn’t Enough

Sometimes, it’s the simplest stories that stick with you the longest. 

That was the thinking behind our ‘Mr. Men at Pride’ campaign. We created the collection to champion LGBTQ+ stories based on the popular ‘Mr. Men’ series of children's books. The original insight came from reflecting on how much work there was to be done in terms of representation in TV and film. In children’s media, representation is almost non-existent, with the old ‘family-friendly’ question still apparently proving to be an obstacle

And yet, there’s no shortage of research to suggest that getting representation right in early years is massively helpful in generating more accepting attitudes later in life. That’s why we landed on Mr. Men - the classic home of simple, memorable stories - as the perfect place to show a positive, inclusive vision for LGBTQ+ people.

It’s nothing too flashy - just a story about a person existing, happily, in an accepting world. It’s been brilliant hearing the great feedback from that project, and the fundamental nature of that story has got us both thinking more about the topic of representation in our industry. 

It would be churlish to pretend progress hasn’t been made - but no-one can deny there’s more yet to be done. 

Invisible Representation

It’s been noted before, but one problem LGBTQ+ people have faced is the idea of being ‘invisible’. Because it’s hard to pick an LGBTQ+ person out of a crowd, an idea we’ve heard recently has been to make sure a rainbow flag is clearly visible on your LinkedIn profile picture. Such self-identification is, the theory goes, the only way to let employers and decision-makers know that you could represent the LGBTQ+ community in their company and on their teams.

But is that seriously a solution? It relies on people very publicly coming out (which is difficult enough as it is) in order to make themselves ‘seen’ so that an employer can have an easier time with their box-ticking exercise. In the modern world, there has to be a better way. 

We desperately need to create more environments where all people feel comfortable and naturally part of decision-making processes rather than falling back on a box-ticking approach that incentivises diversity for diversity’s sake. 

Actions Before Words

Without doubt, brands play a part in building that culture through their actions. Too often, however, we see rainbow-washing in place of genuine actions. How much difference, for example, does an LGBT sandwich make in the fight for equality? Moreover, the very phrasing and existence of the ‘LGBT sandwich’ reflects that while society has become a lot more comfortable seeing same-sex couples in the media, there is still some way to go in representing the transgender community and the other lesser-known communities represented by the ‘+’ in ‘LGBTQ+’.

Some large brands have even more work to do. Take Coca-Cola, for instance. Whilst we’ve heard some great noises and campaigns coming out of the company with regards to equality, the fact of the matter is that the brand will likely be investing millions into sponsorship for next year’s World Cup in Qatar, a state where it is simply illegal to be gay. When you take into account the company’s actions, its words can’t help but feel hollow. 

This is why representation alone isn’t enough. In the case of Coca-Cola, the company has made genuinely valuable contributions to equality through ideas such as its Next Generation LGBTQ Leaders Initiative. But despite that, decisions like funding the Qatar World Cup are still being made. So, improving representation is one thing - but giving diverse voices the actual power to enact change within an organisation is clearly something else entirely. 

In our own careers, we’ve seen this dynamic at play with occasional old-fashioned 90s lads-mag style humour seeping through despite the best of intentions. 

Yet, equally, when this has happened, those that have spoken up, confronted wrongdoings and pushed for greater awareness have been listened to. This is because a culture has been created where individuals feel comfortable, confident, and supported in making the points that need to be made. Forget ticking off a box - this is effective representation in action. Empowering people to make the points which they know will be addressed. 

Environmental Control

So, creating that culture is key. Yet there is no universal means to do this. Each and every business has to take it upon themselves to enact change - be it through celebrating pride all year round (not just in the month of June) or by listening and acting when points get raised by LGBTQ+ colleagues. 

Let’s support efforts to improve representation and celebrate them when we see them out in the world. But true change comes from improvement behind the scenes, and putting in the hard yards and self-reflection required to bring that culture to life. Once you do, you’re likely to find that work worth celebrating comes around much more easily and more often. Not only in widening representation and awareness of the LGBTQ+ community, but in driving greater diversity across the board. 

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Five by Five UK, Tue, 10 Aug 2021 11:38:33 GMT