Capitalism & the Queers: A Toxic Love Story | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

I have mixed feelings about the new IKEA Christmas ad. I mean, it’s cute, but a bit predictable, and the reveal of the father as a drag queen seemed shoehorned in. The message it drives (I am like you, and thus it makes sense to accept you) has less impact than previous LGBT+-themed ads centered on family acceptance (like these ones from Bench or Smart.) We already expect empathy from people like us––nothing groundbreaking about it.

Beyond that, I would like to linger on that wet blanket of a product placement at the end of the ad, which put out what little sentimentality it may have sparked in its viewers. (What is up with IKEA tables and gay people, anyway?) 

I shrug to accept that a brand, at the end of the day, needs to push products and grab our pink coins. And yet, there are times when that makes me feel uncomfortable. My discomfort with this IKEA ad is a belated feeling that has come with realizing how capitalism, queer identity, and the family are inextricably linked.

It’s nothing revolutionary, these discussions of rainbow capitalism. Just the same, I feel tragically uneasy about existing within this system. We’ve all seen queer influencers post a permutation of “Let’s celebrate queer people by buying Brand X/Y/Z’s latest queer collection!” (Many of them are my friends, I love them, but I’ve muted the most egregious ones.) I am a director of the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and our members aren’t just LGBT+ entrepreneurs, but also companies that wish to gather more insights to market to LGBT+ consumers. I am a gay tech entrepreneur. I’ve worked for a gay dating app. 

For full disclosure as well: sometime in 2017, I was the advertising guy of a Filipino gay magazine, and we pitched a concept to IKEA around the time they were trying to drum up excitement for their upcoming Philippine launch. (The concept was called Deconstructing the Closet. From the concept name, you can deduce what we were trying to pitch.) 

I get it. I get the pink economy; I get how Filipino queer professionals with colossal spending power are becoming the hot new demographic to target. And I am conflicted because I understand the part we play in the system that also plays us in turn.

In the 1983 essay by professor John D’Emilio entitled “Capitalism and Gay Identity”, he argues that capitalism was responsible for the gay identity as we know it. Before the rise of capitalism, the family was the center of the economic system. Procreation was a priority because it ensured the continued survival of the family. Society policed sexual relations for this reason: for the family to survive, everyone had to play their designated roles, gender roles included.

D’Emilio wrote: “Only when individuals began making to make their living through wage labor, instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity––an identity to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a personal life based out of one’s own sex.” 

Capitalism allowed queer people to extricate themselves from the roles imposed by society. D’Emilio asserted that medical professionals, in response to this burgeoning reorganization of social structures, crafted their theories about homosexuality, “describing it as a condition, something that was inherent in a person, a part of his or her ‘nature’”. 

But D’Emilio also said there was nothing groundbreaking about these theories. What it did open up though was the idea that being queer was not just something you did, but something that you were. It wasn’t just a matter of who you fucked, but the meanings that orbit the act of fucking. What is being queer? What does being queer look like? What are our rituals? What do our communities look like? 

Along the way, capitalism and consumerism managed to squeeze into that discourse. It convinced us that we needed to signal our queer identities through the things we purchased, owned, and supported. 

Before you believe that the essay valorized capitalism, D’Emilio crucially highlighted that capitalism was responsible for turning queer people into the target of conservatives, who have used the family as their excuse for queerphobia while protecting their business interests. 

He explains: “Materially, capitalism weakens the bonds that once kept families together so that their members experience a growing instability in the place where they have come to expect happiness and emotional security. Thus, while capitalism has knocked the material foundation away from family life, lesbians, gay men, and heterosexual feminists have become the scapegoats for the social instability of the system.” 

The solution D’Emilio proposes is not a regressive return to a life oppressive to queer people, but to move forward to a more socialist vision––the building of an “affectional community”, where the social unit is protected by the State. Capitalism has socialized labor, after all (to the benefit of a few), so why not socialize care as well? We need to create institutions and policies that care for our larger family (which is the society we’re part of), not just the nuclear family.

During Pride Month last year, I was part of a Twitter Spaces discussion with activist and Bahaghari chairperson Reyna Valmores. She argued that true queer liberation recognizes the intersection of our problems: LGBT+ people will not win if we do not fight for our siblings in the margins. How can a gay farmer, a trans sex worker, or the many queer poor fully empathize with our calls for marriage equality or the need for an anti-discrimination law, when the oppression they experience because of their queerness blends in with their other oppressions? How could they bother fighting alongside us, when their fight is for basic survival?

What I’m saying is this: there is, and there should be, more to being queer than flexing ourselves wearing the latest Adidas Pride shoes, getting wasted on Absolut Vodka, shampooing our hair with Pantene, or dining on IKEA’s P21,990-priced Ingatorp extendable table. It’s nice to be able to buy things, but becoming a valid, fully-realized LGBT+ person goes beyond what we can purchase. We must think critically if we’re just falling into the trap set out by brands to stoke our main character delusions. 

And there is no pride that we are but among the few who have succeeded in an oppressive system. There is only guilt and shame and anger. We have to channel those feelings into authentic, inclusive action.  

We queer people must question how we shape our identities as foot soldiers of capitalism. This new year, we must go beyond our individual realities and push for a community that brings equality to all, as much as it seeks to liberate itself from oppressive traditions and systems.