Rainbow Oil Spills – A Three-Part Act Toward Liberation. Part 2, Freedom.

One of the four rainbow gas stations that Royal Dutch Shell prepared on occasion of the 2018 Amsterdam Canal Pride. Better known as pinkwashing. (Photo from MarketingTheRainbow)

There is a thriving community of LGBTQ+ people in Leiden, one that was once scattered and divided. The efforts of Leiden Pride, a local organization that aims at creating a safe space for queer individuals to connect and support each other, brought it together. It is the community we also belong to and that we want to empower in order to achieve the true and full liberation of all LGBTQ+ people, as well as other oppressed people, from economic and political abuse. On February 25th , the Climate Crisis Coalition and Leiden Pride organized a workshop on the interconnection between queerphobia and the climate emergency, and the necessity to take action against both in conjunction. The discussions we had were so enlightening to sparkle an enormous reflection on the meaning of revolutionary change within the LGBTQ+ community. We felt it was necessary to share the results with you, in a series of three articles. Here is the first one. This is the second of them, and we dedicate it to those fighting to take out Pride Month and the history of our struggle from the hands of corporations.

In our yet brief experience as queer revolutionaries, we have seen hardly any expressions of LGBTQ+ culture that contradicts what queer liberation stands for as much as the annual Amsterdam Canal Pride parade. How could queer people in one of the supposedly most gay-friendly countries of the world stomach the presence of a police boat? How did we not enrage at the view of corporate logos dominating the scene?

Regardless of how much gay-friendly law enforcement in the Netherlands tries to present itself by instituting the Roze in Blauw, or how many rainbow-themed products a company is capable of putting up for sale one pride-month after the other, there remains something fundamentally wrong, even paradoxical, in the association between, one the one side, LGBTQ+ pride and, on the other side, law and order and the free market. But little we know at the time about this country’s ability to co-opt a movement.

If you already share our discomfort with this abomination, you can easily guess the reaction we had to discovering that, in occasion of the 2018 Amsterdam Canal Pride parade, Royal Dutch Shell joined the parade and went as far as transforming four gas stations with rainbow hues, flags, cups, and billboards. It made us feel as if Shell was expropriating and abusing our identity and the struggle of our people with the aim of attracting more customers and increasing its market share. Ultimately, our queerness was made contributing to the growth of a corporation that is heavily responsible for the destruction of nature, is involved in human rights violations of any sort, and abuses workers and their land alike.

This cannot be described only as unethical, or unfair. This does not simply imply that Shell cannot possibly be genuinely concerned about our struggle as LGBTQ+ people. More profoundly, it signifies that there is no space for the true liberation of LGBTQ+ people where the principle of profit maximization, the authoritarian control of people, and a total disregard for the protection of and respect for our land, are ruling. With the result that there cannot be pride on a dead planet, and, more crucially, there cannot be climate justice outside of the queer liberation movement.

We must recognize that, like ecological systems, communities of LGBTQ+ individuals transcend the obsolete concept of borders. So also ought to do our interpretation of the interconnection between queer liberation and the climate crisis. In the first article of this series, we talked about the manifestations of systemic queerphobia and climate injustice in a variety of contexts, namely natural disasters, the COVID pandemic, the Dutch healthcare system, the IND, and Leiden University. They only apparently depict a puzzle of disconnected pieces. As a matter of fact, common underlying factors can be distinguished from all instances of discrimination of LGBTQ+ people and environmental destruction: the economic and political abuse of both land and communities regarded as at the same time exploitable and disposable.

In our experience as queer people and revolutionaries living in Leiden we have pointed at one economic principle above others able to set our abuse in motion, profit maximization, and at two typical practices connected to this principle: pinkwashing and greenwashing. Without wanting to reduce the whole of social, political and economic oppression to this explanation only, we want to propose that it represents a widely pervasive and exceptionally damaging form of abuse, and so especially worth understanding and fighting against.

The Façade of Diversity & Inclusion

With the advent of Diversity & Inclusion the struggle for the liberation of the LGBTQ+ community started being portrayed as attainable within the bounds of the current economic system. According to the Diversity & Inclusion approach, everything concerning homotransbisphobia is reducible to individual tendencies that HR teams and D&I offices need to correct with interventions, training, inclusive language, and affirmative actions. Hence, since after the 1980s the focus shifted from fighting economic abuse and police brutality to making workplaces more gay-friendly, ending hiring discrimination, and increasing the representation of queerness on the market.

In the Netherlands, the effort that has been put into these goals is quite considerable, which might explain the success, right here, of an initiative like Workplace Pride, a “not for profit foundation dedicated to improving the lives of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ+) people in workplaces worldwide”. Workplace Pride provides companies, especially corporations, with surveys, toolkits, consultancy, and events aimed at making their workplace more inclusive to LGBTQ+ individuals. Last year, it dared ranking ING Bank, IBM, Shell, and Booking.com as its first four leaders of workplace inclusion. Promising, you might think, if it was not for the fact that we shall not consider this LGBTQ+ liberation, but just a quite successful case of LGBTQ+ assimilation.

The reason behind the absolute antithesis between LGBTQ+ liberation and workplace inclusion is to be found in the very principle under which neoliberal free market operates: profit maximization. Not to be attributed exclusively to human-driven greed or hoarding tendency, the constant reproduction of capital represents, instead, the sole factor preventing the whole economy from breaking down. Revenues must continue growing, quarter after quarter, in order for a company to compensate for upfront costs, while increasing market shares, reign as the sovereign judges over the survival and the extinction of each business against the others. Such is the tyranny of profit that it forces those entering the market to reason exclusively in monetary terms, and so to put a price tag on any aspect of their company. If for small companies, profit maximization persists only as a market-driven force, for bigger economic institutions such as corporations it exists as a legal obligation toward shareholders and at the expense of stakeholders, making this mechanism even more so inescapable.

One direct result of profit maximization, whether it is law or economy driven, we can call commodification, defined as the process of treating something as a mere product or service to be bought and sold on the market. Nothing is spared: not people, not the fight for the liberation of LGBTQ+ individuals, not our lands either. To this mechanism we can attribute arguments in favor of green technologies that frame sustainability as an economic advantage, and to the notion that the green revolution ought to be profitable to make it happen we own the whole Paris Agreement, with its ineffective policies and constantly missed and then delayed CO2 emission reductions targets.

Similarly, hugely widespread and applauded among economists and consumers alike are financial arguments in defense of workplace equality. Diversity is often told to strengthen a business’ competitiveness, through increased creativity and improved problem-solving, and in the book “The economic case for LGBT equality”, economist Lee Badgett* argues that homophobia and transphobia cost 1% or more of a country’s GDP.

Whether you find these arguments reasonable or not matters little once you realize that, in the Netherlands as well as elsewhere, such a train of thought inevitably leads to the subjugation of both our liberation and the protection of nature to the ever-changing and amoral forces of the market, and, thus, never really free. Ultimately, freedom and sustainability become a business and marketing strategy for the benefit of a company or corporation, not ethical stances in defense of freedom and for the benefit of humanity and life on our planet.

In our current society, where being homophobic is generally frown upon, to appear gay-friendly is economically advantageous. Because advertisement is enough to signal gay-friendliness to consumers, business do not have compelling economic incentives to engage more deeply with the question of sexuality and gender identity. As a result, workplaces have succeeded at making a tokenistic display of gay-friendliness, but have not become any queerer than 20 years ago: LGBTQ+ employees still have to conform with heteronormative expectations about how to express their gender and sexual identity to be tolerated by their employers, namely a binary understanding of gender, monogamy, marriage and nuclear family values. Crucially, workplace inclusivity has not contributed to the material conditions of LGBTQ+ individuals beyond having provided us with scanty wages and unstable working conditions.

Shell Must Fall

Under this lens, Shell’s initiative on occasion of the 2018 Amsterdam Canal Pride nothing is but an instance of pinkwashing, an attempt to use gay rights as a commodity in order to attract more customers and expand their dominion over the market, especially the queer part of it that they have been infiltrating so tenaciously in the last years. In a similar fashion, it has put forward several greenwashing campaigns. Shell keeps spending millions in adds bragging about their commitment toward reducing CO2 emissions, while it plans to increase its fossil gas business by 20% in the coming years. In Leiden, Shell not only invests in academic research that furthers its own private interests, but also sponsors science fairs and exhibitions in one of the main museums of the city, Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. These initiatives allow Shell to maintain the image of a socially engaged and responsible company, with the result of attracting more talent, without concerning itself with actual sustainability and respect of human rights. On the contrary, Shell perpetrates devastation and massacre all around the planet, the most infamous case being the destruction of the whole ecosystem and the hanging of 9 activists in Ogoniland, Nigeria, in connection to the oil spills caused by the company for over 20 years.

After 13 long years, the court case against Shell for the crimes it perpetrated in Nigeria found the corporation guilty of several violations of human rights, and ordered the compensation of Nigerian farmers for the oil spill harm and murder. This is a victory for the people, but unfortunately only an immaterial one. No amount of money will ever be able to compensate for the loss of our Nigerian comrades, for the pain of their families and the innumerable others displaced by the death of the ecosystem. No amount of money loss will considerably hamper Shell CEO’s annual bonuses, most likely just the salary and the job security of its frontline workers. Unfortunately, Shell is not an isolated case, only an emblematic one of a bigger issue.

Private Tyrannies: Corporations

As our comrade pointed out during the workshop: “it is important for the LGBTQ+ community to recognize that corporations, eventually the one that you work for, are inherently working against you, no matter how gay-friendly they want to look.” Any form of waged labor is intrinsically tyrannical in virtue of the hierarchical power relations between employers, who are mostly cishet men, and (queer) employees. “If an institution in which you are participating does not give you any decisional power, then that institution is totalitarian by definition, meaning that you have no control whatsoever over its conduction. This is especially true when it comes to corporations that, being legal persons, possess privacy rights, are unaccountable to the public, have strongly pyramidal top-down control over workers, and are huge in size by now.”

Corporations are indeed now invested with powers that go far beyond the ones of a state, and can perpetrate abuses of any kind with very little risk of repercussions. Their expansionist tendencies, manifested in the desire to assume a global and monopolistic control over the market, grew out of the imperialistic ideals and practices of the 17th century, which saw the ascent of mercantilism and colonialism. One of the first of what we would now call corporations was the Dutch VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, translated “Dutch East India Company”). The VOC was involved in trade, but also slavery and in financing activities that would fuel imperial wars in the territories of the Dutch Empire. Now as then, corporations try to buy out other corporations, giving rise to colossal conglomerations of brands under one single corporation that resemble an empire. They exploit lands and their resources till exhaustion and without reparations, and seek to control their workers and consumers’ lives autocratically, through invasive monitoring practices over work, intensive advertising, and taking over property around their offices and headquarters. So how can we possibly find liberation and climate justice within such institutions, or by implementing their values outside of them?

A worrying tendency can be observed in our society with regard to corporations. Their values and practices – competitiveness, authoritarian dominion, absolute individualism, just to mention a few – are becoming pervasive in our society as a whole. Their effect is to isolate us and trick us into focusing our talent and efforts toward professional careers, which are framed as the only possible source of self-realization and happiness. This applies to LGBTQ+ people too, we are made thinking that a successful career equals queer liberation. What about caring, nurturing, and grounding ourselves in our (queer) communities, in nature, and genuine connections with other human beings? Moreover, given the massive wealth that corporations are able to concentrate and manipulate, any other social, economic and political institutions are somehow affected by or made dependent on them.

Insurance companies, such as the ones preventing LGBTQ+ people to access specialized care in the Netherlands, make revenues out of investments in corporate bonds and corporates’ activities, and, thus, keep funneling your money into murderous businesses all around the globe. For instance, 9 out of the 10 largest Dutch pension funds invest a total of more than one billion euros in 14 weapons manufacturers that supply systems to countries that violate human rights and destroy nature.

Always corporations are largely to be blamed for the climate emergency, as just 100 of them contribute to 71% of all global CO2 emission, meaning that they are above anything else causing the forced migrations of (queer) communities whose ecosystems are being razed to the ground. Shell is among the first 10, with its 1.7% share.

Finally, corporations have been expropriating knowledge and the innovative product of the same from humanity, by taking control over academic research. Venture capitalists and corporations usually contribute little money to research and innovation, yet keep reclaiming the fruits of public research on the basis of the myth that capitalism only, and not states, are able to incentivize and fund innovation.** This is exactly what happened with azidothymidine (AZT), the only drug available for people with AIDS to survive. Although all the invention, much of the risk, and most of the $125 million necessary to develop it was undertaken by public institutions, private pharmaceutical companies reaped the fruits of such efforts and now sell AZT at inaccessible costs. At times, corporations divert research towards their own private interests, at others, they steal through patents the results of such research, and hide, among others, the kind of green innovation that if made public could ameliorate the climate emergency.

With their immense power and their imperialist profit-driven practices, corporations are not an entity we can wish to keep under check, or make ethical, let alone invested in climate justice or the liberation of LGBTQ+ people. The symbolic impact of the law in shaping our understanding of good and evil is undeniable. However, law enforcement, with its emphasis on establishing and protecting human rights through punishment, has very limited power over preventing crimes against humanity, even less over persecuting gigantic institutions such as corporations. Not to mention that most of the abusive practices perpetrated in the name of capitalism, namely tax evasion through tax havens’ legal loopholes, ownership of lands and resources such as water and forests, and keeping wages as low as possible, are technically legal even though evidently murderous and immoral. Similarly, anti-discrimination laws have done little to stop the abuse, murder, rape, and imprisonment of our white and black lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, intersex folx, even by the hand of police officers. This is because law enforcement was never designed to protect nature and people, but private capital. As a result, we must move beyond the concepts of sustainability and gay-friendliness as important and attainable because profitable, as well as beyond the notion of gay rights, where with rights we intend freedom to be achieved within the bounds of the current economic and political system and especially relying on law enforcement.

Toward Revolutionary Resistance

As queer revolutionaries in Leiden, we need instead to embrace freedom as a fight towards the end of this abusive system once and for all. We join the call by Shell Must Fall for the dismantlement of Shell, and we too call for its dismantlement, as well as to dismantle every other corporation. For there is no space for the liberation of LGBTQ+ people there where the principle of profit maximization, the authoritarian control of people, and a total disregard for the protection of and respect for our land, are ruling. With the result that, there cannot be pride on a dead planet, and, more crucially, there cannot be climate justice outside of the queer liberation movement.

Even though dismantling corporations will function as a tipping point for the end of all other forms of abuse, we are aware that this victory alone will not suffice. The Dutch healthcare system, the IND, and public universities we talked about in the first article are afflicted by their own flaws, which we ought to address and dismantle in conjunction with Corporations. Hence, we call for universal healthcare and open borders. Moreover, we believe that knowledge belongs to all of humanity, and should not be privately owned, patented or used for profit, but to further human liberation and care.

We also must realize that we as LGBTQ+ people are not alone in this fight, as working-class people, black people, indigenous people, women, sex workers, people with disabilities, and all other oppressed communities around the world are victims of the same system the perpetrates murder, rape, and exploitation against us, and together with them we have long waged war against our oppressors.

Our freedom is a constant struggle of all the people, from all oppressed communities, here in the Netherlands as elsewhere, now as then. On this awareness we ought to build our revolutionary resistance. It is time to unite our movements and bring about revolutionary change for all. This is what we will explore in the third article of this series, Revolution.

Intersectional Rage


  • * Professor Lee Badget will soon be giving a keynote speech at Leiden University, in occasion of the conference “LGBTIQ+ Workplace Inclusion 2021”, organized by Workplace Pride.
  • ** Mazzucato, M. (2013). The Entrepreneurial State: debunking public vs. private sector myth. Anthem Press.