The good folks at Nando’s are happy for gay people to buy their chicken. This is great news because their chicken is super tasty and plenty of gay people like to eat it. I love the wild herb sauce and, obviously, the hot peri-peri. Nando’s are so happy for gay people to buy their chicken that they’re bombing this year’s Pride events up and down the country with free rainbow flags (plus Nando’s logo) and discount cards.
“Whatever rocks your socks,” the card says, “have a free ½ chicken on us.” It’s #NandosPride. You might not think that there’s anything connecting an identity around sexuality, gender and relationships with a bit of spicy breast and leg…and you might be right—but we’ll get to that.
What goes well with spicy chicken? Vodka? Maybe. Anyway, gay people can drink vodka without judgment now too. Smirnoff’s recent ad campaign is based around slogans of inclusivity. One advert I’ve seen around town reads: “Homosexual, heterosexual, who-gives-a-sexual? We’re open.”
Smirnoff and Nando’s are the latest in a long line of brands who make an effort to ask gay people to buy their stuff. The companies behind these brands make this request by referring to the fact that gay people haven’t always been welcomed everywhere. I’m not sure that a gay person has ever been turned away from a chicken restaurant because they were gay, but it’s possible.
Around the world gay people are still being blocked from doing things they want to do—like having sex or opinions—because they’re gay. So it’s good that some companies make a political statement to say: “We don’t care who you sleep with; just tell us whether you want coleslaw or corn on the cob as a side.”
I was thinking about this when I was on a Pride march that was subject to the Nando’s treatment. Fit young Nando’s workers jogged along with the march, stickering people with a rainbow chicken badge and handing out rainbow Nando’s flags. The bemused recipients had stepped out of shops and homes to see what all the multicoloured fuss was about as the gay parade passed by. It was a big effort. A chicken restaurant was going out of its way to tell the world that it is OK with LGBT people. They started a hashtag and everything.
As I marched, and remembered those recent Smirnoff adverts, I thought through this. And this is what I came up with. The Pride march and the commercial endorsements are all so bland. They were the political equivalent of the lowest rating on the Nando’s spice scale, that goes all the way from “Extra hot” down to “Plain-ish”. The Pride that I was on—in a city in the north of England—was definitely plain-ish. There were no political demands. There were a few political parties present but they were just that: present. They weren’t asking for anything. And no one else was asking for anything other than to walk through the city bearing a rainbow flag and saying, “Hi everyone! We’re queer and we’re here.”
I started to wonder, as the Nando’s lad dashed around stickering people with his employer’s logo: Where are the people calling for an end to state and personal violence against LGBT people? I thought: Who is here to ask the government to put more money into mental health services needed by the bullied and the stigmatised LGBT people here in the UK? There was none of this. Instead, the placards and banners carried plain-ish statements from organisations and local employers to say they support the LGBT community (whatever that means).
I don’t mean to attack Pride and what it stands for. The fundamental principle of Pride as a movement of people who are comfortable in their skin to say who they are, to celebrate it, and to welcome and encourage others to do the same is brilliant. The tribute Tina Turners with their towering heels and man-thighs are also superb. I particularly love the way that LGBT teenagers go to Pride and find friends and feel that it’s OK to be who they are.
But there’s something about the chicken giveaways and the carefree vodka that smells a bit funny to me. It is simply this: because Pride is lacking in political demands, it is a safe space for corporate brands. Smirnoff and Nando’s seem to be making political statements by saying that they’re open for all. And these are important political statements in the global sense; it means, for example, that they might find it difficult to do business in Uganda.
But in the UK their messages are entirely apolitical. The LGBT movement hasn’t been making many demands for a while. I would argue that even though equal marriage was a demand, it was a pretty safe one. Those of us who argued that we should be trying to reduce the status of state-sanctioned relationships that marginalise people who don’t have them—rather than trying to gain access to them—were kept on the outside of the debate. The centre shifted and equal marriage became a big demand from the LGBT movement, even though it was about assimilation. It wasn’t about being LGBT; it was about being the same as straight people (well, straight people who get married).
In fact even if you disagree and you say that equal marriage was a major political demand that threatened to destabilise the status quo, you’d have to agree at least that the LGBT movement hasn’t really made any other demands of that kind over the past decade.
And this is why people around boardroom tables can look at our people and say, “Ah, these kids aren’t spiky any more so we can make statements supporting them without alienating the majority of our customers.” Where was Smirnoff when gays in America were dying as their government denied them AIDS drugs? Is Smirnoff asking its home government in Russia today to stop treating LGBT people like weirdos? When Dan Savage called on drinkers to boycott Russian vodka in 2013, Stoli issued a statement to say it stood opposed to Vladimir Putin’s laws against gay people—did Smirnoff? (I don’t know the answer and I can’t find it online so I have to assume no.)
Pride and the LGBT movement in the UK have become “as mild as we go”, to use the description of plain-ish chicken from the Nando’s menu. Now queers are mild, it’s safe for mainstream brands to be seen with us. That’s a great shame, because there is still so much work to be done.
What do we want? No demands! What instead? Just brands!
Sod that shit. We must try harder to stand up for LGBT and queer rights here and abroad. If that means we don’t get free chicken any more, then for the sake of the gays who are being killed around the world it’s a risk I’m willing to take.