Photo: Nike News (Nike.com)

It’s Pride Month, that time of year when rainbow symbology suddenly regains significance in American consciousness—and consumerism. In recent years, mass-market retailers have made big demonstrations of their support of the LGBTQIA community (notably, even more so since the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. in 2015). A stroll down any major retail corridor during the month of June will find no shortage of equality-affirming displays and messaging, from New York City’s Fifth Avenue to Los Angeles’ Beverly Center.

Last year, Nike made a major statement in support of equality, featuring ballroom icon and transgender activist Leiomy Maldonado in a dynamic campaign to promote its 6-year-old Pride Month-themed capsule collection of apparel and sneakers called “BeTrue,” which featured a series of rainbow motifs.

Leiomy Maldonado

This year, the retailer is catching some flak for its BeTrue design, which employs the use of the pink triangle on its sneakers. For decades, the pink triangle has been used and identified by many as a symbol of LGBTQIA protest—most notably, AIDS activist organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).

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Hundreds gathered at a rally at the AIDS Memorial on West 12th Street in New York City on March 30, 2017, to celebrate ACT UP’s 30th anniversary.
Photo: Erik McGregor (Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

However, history tells us that the inverted pink triangle has its horrifying origins in Nazi Germany, where it was used to identify and persecute those known to be gay. At its founding in 1987, ACT UP turned the symbol right-side up to reclaim it as a symbol of resistance. Nike acknowledged these origins in its announcement of the 2018 BeTrue collection, titled, “Reclaiming the Past, Honoring the Future”:

[H]ighlighted in the collection is the pink triangle, a shape that has a complex past in LGBTQ culture. Originally used to identify LGBTQ individuals during WWII, the triangle was reclaimed in the 1970s by pro-gay activists and was later adopted by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in their memorable 1980s-era “Silence=Death” campaign.

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Despite the nod, ACT UP, which recently celebrated its 30th year of working for equality, took some umbrage with Nike’s use of the symbol it made famous.

To be clear, Nike purportedly does donate a portion of its proceeds to LGBTQIA organizations, and has since BeTrue launched in 2012. As is consistent with its brand, its focus has primarily gone to organizations supporting LGBTQIA athletes, and by all indications, ACT UP has obviously yet to make that list. But the organization’s stance raises the question: Who is entitled to use the imagery?

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Artist Keith Haring was among several who used the pink triangle as an activist statement in his work before his own AIDS-related death in 1990. Currently, Nike is far from the only retailer to use the symbol; a Google search of “pink triangle pride” will also bring up a link to a pink triangle T-shirt from fast-fashion retailer Hot Topic, while Google’s shopping pages reveal a multitude of more uses of the symbols on apparel and accessories.

Speaking to online news site Mic, ACT UP co-facilitator Jason Rosenberg, who also tweeted his disgust about what he called an “[appropriation of] our messaging for profit,” said:

The corporatization of pride has been an ever-looming issue we’ve been seeing for [the] past decade and beyond. We’ve seen companies and institutions participate in pride en masse, even some that have poor LGBTQIA+ employment discrimination records or an utter lack of representation in the workroom. ... We deserve better [than] to have our work be exploited by corporations that profiteer off grassroots resistance imagery.

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It’s a valid and long-standing argument that extends to many marginalized communities and should be part of the larger conversation around cultural appropriation—though few communities have seen their struggles become as target-marketed as pride merchandise has in the past decade.

However, Mic reports that Nike’s usage is “especially egregious: There’s been no explicit message that the company will donate any portion of its proceeds to ACT UP or another organization engaging in queer-movement-based work.” This, even though Mic included Nike on its 2017 list of brands that give back proceeds of their pride-branded merchandise to the LGBTGIA community.

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Whether ACT UP’s issue is that it owns the symbology (unlikely, given how widely it’s used) or understandably resents being acknowledged without also being a beneficiary of Nike’s donations remains unclear. But proving that closed mouths don’t get fed (and as Rosenberg also tweeted, “We can really use the $$”), the criticism did get Nike’s attention. On Friday, the company responded with a tweet of its own, suggesting its willingness to discuss (and, hopefully, support) ACT UP’s work.

Aside from the controversial use of the pink triangle, Nike is also featuring lavender in its upcoming collection, which debuts Wednesday. It explains its use of the color as “a dynamic blending of gender-linked light blue and light pink—one of the oldest symbolic references in LGBTQ culture. ... The color’s historical connotations preceded the rainbow symbol’s widespread popularity in the 1970s, appearing on garments as a kind of quiet language among the community.”

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Lavender is featured in all the four colorways of this year’s BeTrue shoe collection, which includes the Nike Vapormax Plus, the Nike Air Max 270, the Nike Zoom Fly and the Nike Epic React Flyknit. The traditional rainbow motif is also continued in the Vapormax Plus and Air Max 270, with soles dyed in the six-color spectrum.