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BP, Pinkwashing and Queer Environmentalism

Sophie Monk argues that BP’s promotion of LGBT rights is a corporate facade.

Image: Ludovic Bertron
Image: Ludovic Bertron

Pinkwashing is about defining a consolidated queer/gayness as a ‘modern’, ‘progressive’ artifact from the West in comparison to the backwards Rest” – Dark Matter.1

“Queer… is a coalition building word” – Eli Clare.2

Whitewashing, greenwashing, pinkwashing – these compounds have been coined with the specific purpose of interrogating the vocabulary of corporate or institutional spin. Each address specific problems, but pinkwashing is a particularly sophisticated public relations tactic, involving the championship of LGBT equality and tolerance usually in order to offset or ‘wash’ over brutal political realities.

The phenomenon of pinkwashing has most commonly been associated with the Israeli state. The lauding of Israel’s gay rights record and availability of hot LGBT tourist destinations paints two compelling pictures: the first of a progressive, democratic Israeli state, and the second of an inherently anti-gay Palestine on the other side of the apartheid wall. Israel performs pinkness relentlessly, creating an imaginary wherein the colonial occupation of Palestine is legitimized as a civilizing intervention. When a global audience looks at occupied Palestine, it doesn’t see airstrikes, rigorous daily checkpoints, demolitions, expropriation of land and water, or the actual lived realities of Palestinian existence (including queer Palestinian existence). Rather it sees the decriminalization of homosexuality, discrimination protections and LGBT military recruitment. It sees pink.

In material terms, the pinkwashing of the Israeli state has helped to reinforce a favourable political arrangement from which Israel continues to benefit. Pinkwashing is effective: it indirectly secures the continuation of US foreign aid, UK military exports and a media eclipse of the IDF’s operations in Gaza. For this reason, is has caught on as a viable tactic in some of the most destructive industries in the world.

Image: Number 10

Image: Number 10

Pinkwashing in the oil industry is interesting firstly because it turns on the presupposition that LGBT people have no common interest or affinity with the natural environment. Pinkwashing internalizes that painful homophobic accusation – that we queers are somehow operating ‘against nature’ – and turns it around, mobilizing new opportunities for the so-called queer ‘community’ (singular) to participate in the managerial domination of nature.

Take, for example BP, the world’s sixth largest oil and gas company. In 2015 it scored impressively in the OUTstanding & Financial Times Leading LGBT & Ally Executives Top 100 list, an annual publication partly founded by BP itself.3 Furthermore, BP featured as a ‘Gold Sponsor’ for the 2015 National Student Pride convention, where it used the organizers’ digital platform to present itself (without any trace of irony) as wanting its workforce “to represent the societies in which we operate”. Here we see David Harvey’s definition of neoliberalization as “the financialization of everything” playing out in real life,4 with BP and equivalents opportunistically assimilating an economy of LGBT experience into their business strategy.

Another of BP’s telling exercises in pinkwashing is this article from its digital magazine, which celebrates the awarding of ‘Stonewall Role Model of the Year’ to one of BP’s commercial analysts:

Screen shot from: bp.com

Screen shot from: bp.com

The nod to Stonewall, the site of a landmark riot in the history of queer liberation, is deeply offensive. That the name Stonewall has been wrenched from its historical significance, from the context of widespread social unrest, burgeoning 1960s countercultural, anti-war and civil rights movements, is indicative of how queer liberation is being aggressively reimagined in a neoliberal world-economy. LGBT charities like Stonewall and their corporate partners cynically co-opt the cultural capital of queer struggle, reducing the idea of LGBT liberation down to mere assimilation in the workplace. Their equality indices legitimize the world’s biggest benefactors of war and neocolonialism and propagate the outrageous notion that these corporate players are somehow instrumental to queer liberation.

We must not forget how the ecological imperialism wrought by the global fossil fuel industry is homophobic to the core. As gay rights legislation is irrelevant to the structural persecution of (most often racialized) queers in Israel and occupied Palestinian territories, white-collar workplace diversity in the fossil fuel industry too is incidental to big oil’s most oppressive and homophobic complicities.

In 1994, the Azeri President Heydar Aliyev signed the ‘Contract of the Century,’ an agreement that opened Azerbaijan up to massive investment from eleven major international oil companies (including BP) shortly after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then BP has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with the oppressive Aliyev administration (inherited by Heydar’s son Ilham in 2003). Contrary to the lie of development so emphatically reiterated by multinational investors, poverty in Azerbaijan remains prevalent, with the domestic Azeri population reaping little of the benefits of oil extraction. Furthermore, the Aliyev oligarchy presides over a country with little to no legislative protection for LGBT people and has cemented its rule precisely by launching homophobic attacks against its critics and political opponents in the state-controlled media. BP at once thrives on diversity in the boardroom and homophobia in its resource colonies.

The offshoring of responsibility for homophobia to peripheral geographical locations is a harmful distraction from the reality that big oil actively produces and capitalizes on homophobic oppression as and when it becomes profitable. Homophobia does not need to articulate itself in legislation in order to exist. It is a dynamic, systemic and mutating force that emerges, among other avenues, through a brutal austerity regime in the UK. Those who identify as LGBT have been drastically marginalized by cuts to housing, sexual and mental health services and changes to benefits rules.5 Meanwhile, myriad personal and financial relationships between members of parliament and oil executives ensure that British political elites continue to profit exorbitantly from BP’s global operations, while the “slow violence” of climate change exacerbates existing inequalities, oppressions and the unevenness of development in the Global South, a topic worthy of its own lengthy study.6

BP Off Campus

Students march across campus to protest the presence of BP at Warwick, 27/11/15. Image: Fossil Free Warwick

For all its obsession with the visibility of LGBT employees on brochures and webpages, the overriding thrust of the fossil fuel pinkwash is not to proliferate and celebrate difference, but to erase it. When the average base salary for a commercial analyst at BP is £56 K, whether that employee is straight or gay, it makes no sense to think of BP as a genuine ally to liberation in a context of global austerity and immiseration for LGBT communities. To individualize and monetize liberation is to disarm queerness of its politically disruptive potential and to obliterate the possibility of queer-ecological solidarities. Pinkwashing in the oil industry is toxic on two levels: first in legitimizing the extraction of oil in politically unstable areas of the globe (insofar as any particular part of the world can be isolated as “unstable” under global capitalism), while claiming the achievements of queer struggle as its own.

Pinkwashing cannot comprehend the contingencies and overlaps between the social, economic and ecological forces that position us in the world, nor the political potential of a coalition between queer and environmentalist resistance. In thinking pink, the fossil fuel industry has washed over difference and struggle in a blinding pink hue, and any genuinely radical movement for environmental and queer liberation must task itself with the responsibility of ‘queering’ mainstream equality discourse and divesting from its tenets.

Sophie Monk is a recent Warwick graduate with an academic background in world-ecological Marxism and postcolonial studies. She is also an activist involved in struggles related to education, environmentalism and borders.

To find out more about Fossil Free Warwick University’s BP Off Campus campaign, go to: http://fossilfreewarwick.org/bp.php. To sign their petition to sever the links between Warwick and BP, go to: https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/get-bp-off-the-university-of-warwick-s-campus

 

Notes:

  1. Dark Matter is a spoken word poetry collective of internet fame, self-defining as “trans femme south Asian artists” according to their Twitter bio. Quote: http://darkmatterrage.com/part-1-white-supremacy-in-queer-palestine-solidarity-work-3/.
  2. Clare, E. (1999), Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, p.97.
  3. http://www.bp.com/en/global/bp-careers/hot-topics/meet-three-outstanding-bp-employees.html. The smallprint at the bottom of the page reads: “BP is a founding member of OUTstanding, an executive level network for LGBT business people and allies, with a mission to create an environment where LGBT executives can succeed.”
  4. Harvey, D. (2005), A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
  5. Mitchell, M. et al. (2013), Implications of austerity for LGBT people and services, UNISON, p.5.
  6. Nixon, R. (2013), Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press.

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