Pinkwashing War: Pride and Militarism

16/06/2021

With June's Pride events underway we look at their sponsorship by the armed forces and defence industry and how activists have challenged this.


June is Pride Month in the UK and whilst the pandemic has forced many parades off the streets, LGBTQI+ communities across the country are taking part in online events. Yet, amongst the celebration of diversity and rejection of the violence that LGBTQI+ communities have endured – and in many places continue to face – across Britain and beyond, the armed forces and defence industry are once again trying to use Pride as an opportunity to sanitise their own violent image. Coupled with using Pride as a prop for masquerading as progressive and inclusive, this is what our partners at the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) call pinkwashing.

Sponsorship of Pride events varies because each city has its own commission or organising committee that seeks funding from national and local sources, and thankfully defence industry sponsorship is not wide spread. But one example does stand out in 2021. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a city with a Naval base and former Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer as an MP – not to mention Shadow Defence Minister, Stephen Morgan MP – Portsmouth Pride’s Gold Sponsors include defence manufacturers BAE Systems and Airbus.

It’s not the first time the defence industry or the British armed forces have used Pride to pinkwash the violence of their respective institutions and attempt to present themselves as diverse and inclusive. Back in 2014, London Pride coincided with Armed Forces Day, towards the end of June, and LGBTQ+ members (plus, according to the MOD, their heterosexual allies) of the Army, Navy and RAF marched with the parade in full uniform. In 2019, Blackpool and Surrey Pride joined Portsmouth in allowing BAE Systems sponsorship, and the company also had a stall at the London event the same year.

In the spirit of resistance that marks the original Pride, LGBTQI+ activists have been collectivising to resist the militarist presence.

However, in the spirit of resistance that marks the original Pride, LGBTQI+ activists have been collectivising to resist the militarist presence. As a result, in 2019 Bristol Pride turned down a request from the MOD (which has a huge facility on the edge of the city) following protests the previous year against sponsorship from defence manufacturer Boeing. That same year, Diva magazine dropped BAE Systems from its awards shortlist after pressure from No Pride In War and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

No Pride In War is an affiliation of peace and human rights organisations, including PPU and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, who are joined by individual activists in working to challenge the presence of the armed forces and defence companies at Pride events. Alongside their challenges to BAE in 2019, Nettie Pollard, one of the original members of GLF, took Chairman Roger Carr to task at the company’s AGM on its support for regimes with terrible human rights records.

Allowing BAE Systems to sponsor Pride is particularly problematic because of the company’s close work with Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality can be punishable by flogging or death.

Allowing BAE Systems to sponsor Pride is particularly problematic because of the company’s close work with Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality can be punishable by flogging or death. And, as the Kingdom continues to bombard Yemen from the air, it is BAE technicians (under contract with the British MOD) that are servicing and maintaining the fighter jets used by the Royal Saudi Airforce. As one BAE employee told Channel 4’s Dispatches, ‘if we weren’t there, in 7 to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky’. The company also has a big presence in neighbouring Qatar and UAE, which are equally dangerous for members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Whilst much of the focus in recent years has been on BAE, Portsmouth Pride is also sponsored by Airbus. But the south coast city are not the only recipients of the aerospace manufacturers funds because the company has sponsored Bristol and Chester Pride’s in recent years. Airbus is part of the European-wide consortium (including BAE) manufacturing the Eurofighter Typhoon used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It is also holds a large stake in arms manufacturer MBDA, which produces some of the missiles reducing the cities of Yemen to rubble. Again, BAE are also involved in MBDA.

Beyond sponsorship, some Pride organisations also advertise “proud supporters” on their websites. The Royal Air Force is one such supporter of Leeds Pride 2021, despite the fact that the RAF train Saudi pilots in North Wales and RAF personnel are on secondment to BAE as part of the company’s contract servicing Saudi jets. It is unclear how this support takes shape, but in 2018 York pride allowed the Army to run recruitment stalls as well as having personnel march in uniform. Thanks to pressure from No Pride in War, York Pride have since changed their approach. We hope that Leeds won’t facilitate a recruitment stall and the experience in York shows pressure could force a change of policy in the future.

Whilst it is encouraging to see that of the three Pride events sponsored by BAE Systems in 2019, only one has continued that link in 2021. There is a need to monitor the situation as the pandemic eases and full-scale Pride events return in 2022 and beyond. Equally, the return of Pride parades present an opportunity for armed forces personnel to march in full uniform, bringing a militarist presence to what should be a celebration of non-violence and not the pillars of the state that perpetuate it. But the continued work of No Pride in War and other activists means that neither the armed forces nor BAE Systems and its affiliates will be able to pinkwash their image without a challenge.