I found their names on a list of Pride Corp’s board members. We planned to meet promptly, at their earliest convenience. I showed up late and out of breath, unprofessional.
Jared and Tyler — they requested that I only use their first names — stood cramped in a corner of Book Trader Cafe, next to a buzzing line of Saturday morning regulars. We ordered coffees and sat down as I apologized for my blatant tardiness. Tyler, the “Senior Mentor” of Pride Corp — “Yale’s only LGBTQIA+ business organization,” as its Facebook page boasts — began. He founded the group in the spring of 2018, his sophomore year, after noticing a rift between LGBTQ resources and corporate recruitment at Yale. He wanted to “bridge that gap.”
In the four semesters since its founding, Pride Corp has hit the ground running. The group offers a wide array of programming on a biweekly basis: skillbuilding meetings, resume workshops, question-and-answer sessions led by professionally experienced students, and photoshoots for LinkedIn profiles. Tyler mentioned that the group hosted members of JP Morgan’s Pride network for their inaugural recruitment event. It was liaised with the investment bank’s official LGBTQ undergraduate recruitment program, Proud to Be, a product of the corporation’s stated commitment to curating “a team made up of people with various perspectives, backgrounds and experiences.” “It was at Kitchen Zinc,” Tyler added with pride. “A couple weeks ago we had coffee chats with D.E. Shaw,” Jared, current co-president, mentioned. The two often swallowed the end of each other’s responses with the impassioned start of his own as they catalogued the firms that Pride Corp has interacted with: Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble — all household names.
The conversation turned to the topic of mission. Poised, Jared noted that finance is a “predominantly heterosexual, white male space.” In this sense, he considers Pride Corp’s role as one of amplifying LGBTQ representation in corporate spaces, ultimately working towards a future where “it’s easier to get through the barriers of entry.” For Jared, simply put, representation matters: “getting Yale people in the door and through increasing our representation […] that creates a bigger effect.” “I think that’s a good way to put it,” Tyler agreed.
It comes as no surprise that Jared thinks that “mindsets have changed” in the world of finance, a trend that “manifests itself in recruiting efforts.” The two don’t see their impetus as necessarily radical: Pride Corp is “not really changing firms’ recruiting practices,” according to Jared. In this sense, the group is “more of an education and skill-building community than it is an activist one.” Tyler added that representation shows how “you can be queer and you can be successful.” However, noting that queers working in finance are predominantly white and cisgender men, he understands that a lot of people who don’t fit that popular demographic “might not even realize that it’s a place for them at all if they don’t see people [like them] in those positions.”
This begs the question: who can be queer and successful?
During our conversation, Tyler and Jared vacillated between two ideas: a restrained awareness of demographic issues among queers in the corporate world and a recognition of the change brought about by LGBTQ recruitment efforts. Ultimately, the two circled back to an understanding that this change is not structural. And they’re okay with that. Tyler feels that “it would be really nice to break down ‘the structure,’” though that objective is “not necessarily feasible.” His theoretical ambition is tempered by a sense of corporate ‘realism’: “the best we can do right now is to connect students to the resources and hope, little-by-little, that things will change gradually.” For two prompt businessmen, this was certainly a slower pace.
Later on, I emailed Jared with some followup questions, digging for more substance from his original answers. He provided me with a concise paragraph, a polished version of his previous talking points. He wrote: “Greater representation of traditionally underrepresented groups helps to foster a more tolerant and inclusive work environment that is welcoming and more comfortable for employees” and that “greater visibility in corporate spaces will likely serve as a catalyst leading more LGBTQIA+ individuals to join corporate industries, feeling that they have a place in these spaces.” I was not surprised that he doubled down on the self-serving and corporate-serving advantages of LGBTQ recruitment efforts, deploying the discourse of “pink capitalism” — the trend of incorporating sexual minorities into the corporate world.
It was exactly what I wanted from him.
Is the ‘PC’ for ‘Pride Corp?’” asked Nash Keyes, PM ’21, a trans activist, with discernible anticipation and a subtle scoff. They’d snuck an illicit glance at my laptop screen as I was setting up for our interview, and I already felt like a bad reporter.
But their near-instinctual reaction of palpable enmity to Pride Corp — even in name alone — was not unique. I recalled the dismissive responses Pride Corp received at this semester’s Extracurricular Bazaar and the negative comments on their Facebook events that Tyler and Jared had recounted to me. Seeing an opportunity, I asked Keyes to explain.
Keyes is an active member of the queer community at Yale. They’re the co-president of Trans@Yale, staffer at the Office of LGBTQ Resources, previous board member for the LGBTQ spoken word group VOKE, and an organizer of drag shows — in their own words, involved in “way too much queer stuff on campus.”
“What do you say to people who are structurally oppressed or disadvantaged in various ways, who are buying into these structures of oppression to help themselves get a leg up, but also doing that at the expense of perpetuating those structures?” they asked, genuinely lacking a satisfactory answer. What Keyes said next was more of a complication than an elucidation. They see this issue not necessarily as a queer issue but rather as a class issue. They questioned whether or not it is their right “as someone who is very financially stable to tell someone who is not that they shouldn’t be earning a lot of money by working for a corporation.” I began to wonder the same. These questions in the back of their mind, Keyes launched into a critique of pink capitalism vis-a-vis race and class. They considered the goal of increasing representation as misguided: “If you think that you can change [corporations] from the inside and suddenly make the world safe for queer people and people of color, you are kidding yourself.”
In 2017, in Keyes’ hometown of Columbus, Ohio, four Black trans activists were arrested for blocking the city’s annual pride parade, organized by Stonewall Columbus, the largest LGBTQ organization in the midwest. As Keyes recalls, the activists were attacked and arrested for demonstrating against “the way that [Stonewall] is bringing in corporations and centering whiteness and not making spaces for queer people of color.” Columbus police even “put some of [the activists]” — trans women — “in men’s prisons,” Keyes adds. One op-ed in the Columbus Alive referred to Stonewall as an agent of “Gay Inc,” lambasting their welcoming of corporate pride sponsors. In the aftermath of the parade, the Columbus Pride organizer resigned, and another major LGBTQ group, TransOhio, severed ties with Stonewall Columbus.
Keyes saw an inherent contradiction of corporations showing face at Columbus pride — this year, sponsored by Bud Light, Chase Bank, and PNC Bank, among others — as passive observers of violence against trans women who are just trying to ask for “basic recognition and rights and support.” I pointed out how it mirrored the whitewashed narrative of Stonewall Columbus’ namesake, the bar in Manhattan where the queer liberation movement emerged from the bold activism of trans women of color. Keyes emphatically agreed.
Identifying the fault lines in the queer community — those of race and class — I asked Keyes about privilege. They find the queer people “who tend to get brought [into corporations] are the people who are already advantaged in the other dimensions of race and class.” In this sense, Keyes recognizes the treacherous nature of representation: “the people who are coming in are not there to contest the basic principles on which the corporation is operating.” They provide the example of queer police officers, who, despite their identity, still play a part in a system that often amounts to shooting “unarmed people of color in the streets.” In this sense, according to Keyes, “diversity is just sort of a measure that the institutions could use to justify the violence that they’re committing.” Though this isn’t a direct comparison to finance groups, Keyes underscored the fact that the two contexts are “rooted in the same logic that profit comes first and white people come first and public safety — i.e. protecting white wealth and white people — comes first.”
Keyes feels like “there is a place for critique from within the queer community.” Like myself, they seem to be grappling with the ideal of a universal queer community — one with a shared politic of liberation, of opposition to racist, classist, patriarchal, and heteronormative society — in the face of a fragmented and siloed reality. Keyes articulated this tension in the context of their work at the Office of LGBTQ Resources. They feel like they have to choose between trying to “make people feel comfortable in the Office, even if they hold beliefs that, [to Keyes], seem incompatible with the work toward liberation for everybody,” or dismissing their attempts to join. Put differently, can everybody who is queer — and uses the label — be queer — in the political sense of the word?
But queerness isn’t a monolith. And, despite my warped desire to simplify its narrative into a caricature of corporate gays, neither is Pride Corp.
Enter Huahao Zhou. Zhou, DC ’21, is a Computer Science and Global Affairs double major and the other co-president of Pride Corp — Jared’s counterpart. I situated myself in my suitemate’s dark and cluttered single, working through some technical difficulties to begin my phone interview with Zhou. To me, another Pride Corp affiliate meant another person on which I could cast a shadow. And the cold, sterile scene I set primed that impulse.
Early on in our conversation, when I had asked about Zhou’s sexual identity, he mentioned how he “can’t really separate one set of identity from the other [sic].” As a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student from China — a context where queerness is “not socially discussed or engrained” — Zhou notes how differently he relates to his queer identity than other, American students at Yale might relate to theirs. To this end, Zhou organizes another group called Rainbow China Connect at Yale, motivated by a sense of responsibility he feels being in an environment where “gayness is embraced as normal.” His impetus seemed to brush on redistributive justice. I had hit a wall.
Zhou’s perspective was thoughtful, profound even. Building on his previous conversation of race and class positionalities intersecting with queerness, Zhou thinks “queerness is another advantage in an environment where you are already privileged, where you’re using queerness to claim other privilege.” This thought reminded me of what Keyes had articulated about privileged queers entering corporate spaces. To me, the key difference between the two is in their definitions of queerness. Zhou’s is just one of identity, not politics.
Take, for example, his impetus to study Computer Science. Seeing a dominance of straight, white people at the executive level of big technology companies, Zhou was inspired “not just to become a coder, but to become someone who can think about the larger picture to challenge the status quo.” He mentioned presidential candidate Andrew Yang and CEO of Google Sundar Pichai, who, though aren’t gay, are examples of people providing representation for Asian Americans and, more generally, Asians across the world. But how is this representation any different than that espoused by Jared and Tyler?
His answer boils down to something Zhou said when I asked him if he would agree with Tyler and Jared’s claim that Pride Corp is not an activist group. He thinks they are “absolutely right,” given that “it’s not in the mission statement” that Pride Corp should play an activist role. To Zhou, “it’s up to the individual what they make of Pride Corp,” where activism and structural change come into play through representation. Zhou continues: “I always want a challenge. For me, I always feel the urge to make a difference.” He echoes his previously stated drive to challenge the status quo. To this end, Zhou sees pink capitalism as an opportunity for queer folk who are marginalized across different axes of race and class oppression, like himself, to “reflect on what it means to get those resources” that groups like Pride Corp provide. Zhou is riding the pink wave to his own world of liberation, and he knows it.
As much as I tried to harbor animosity towards him, I found Zhou’s motives clever, his passion endearing. Much like Keyes had expressed before, and again in a follow-up interview, I thought to myself, Who am I, with my financial privilege, to critique Zhou and even Tyler for their ability to game the system? The old me would have told myself: You’re a queer. Now, I don’t know what I would say.
Overcoming my growing personal attachment to Zhou, I managed to push back against his arguments. As much as he’s gaming the system, Zhou is still joining it. He admits that he’s been questioning how to “work in the existing system with the understanding that you can make a difference, you can change it,” adding that he’s “always questioned ‘the system.’” He goes so far as to say that he actually doesn’t like capitalism, but finds it hard to escape. Hopeful, he believes “what you can do, being a person in the world, is define your ethics for yourself, so you are living a more authentic life that has more meaning.” He goes further, arguing that “just the fact of attending Yale is also a way of being in a capitalist machine.” I asked about the people who come out of Yale to do social impact-oriented work. His response: “They cannot deny that they get resources from the reputation that Yale has, from excluding other people, from exploiting other parts of society.” We ended around there. I was not fully sold on his arguments, but I was no longer fully sold on mine either.
Who gives a fuck? You know what I mean?” Daniel Yadin, MC ’21, a Peer Liaison for the Office of LGBTQ Resources, was responding to my question about representation. The Trumbull dining hall was noisy and crowded at the height of its late lunch hour, and I hoped that the recording of our interview would be audible. He had a lot to say.
Whereas Keyes and I were still struggling with the concept of a queer universality, Yadin had long abandoned that fever dream. If queerness is not a monolith, “What is it?” he asked, indignantly rhetorical.
I asked him if he thinks finance is anti-queer. In his characteristic style, he responded with more questions: “Is [finance] harmful disproportionately for queer people? Not acting in line with queer values? But what are queer values? If it’s not part of the critical project, whose critical project?” For Yadin, evidently well-versed in queer theory, the concept of queerness is still nebulous. Yadin contrasts the lack of a unified queer community to the left-leaning Israeli-American community in which he grew up. He was frustrated when his friend decided to join the Israeli Defense Force. He justified his reaction; he and his friend “were in a community that had values that [they] were contending with together,” values that were in opposition to what he sees as violent Zionism. Yadin doesn’t identify a corrolary universal queer community with a shared set of values. “These fucking random gay people who wanna go to Goldman, I don’t give a fuck what they do. People will go to Goldman all the time.” His apathy was explicit.
Yadin finds issue in “pointing fingers” and “policing the boundaries of queerness.” He wonders: “Maybe we need to evolve past ‘queer.’ These people are queer. They’re doing what they want to do with their own queerness, and if that identity term — or what that identity has become at least — allows for that, why are we attached to it so much?” So what, then, are we left with? Yadin is “more interested in developing an identity group that does the same identity work as ‘queer’ but also has more in it that is anti-capitalist, that is actually radical,” positing the addition of suffixes like “queer-Marxist” or “queer-anarchist” as options moving forward. I wondered if queerness had become so diluted, so fragmented, that it is no longer radical. Unsurprisingly, Yadin was quick to respond: “Look around. It’s obviously not.” He claims that “a lot of the people who present as ‘queer radicals™’ here are rich, grew up rich, [and] have never done any kind of radical study.” There are holes in his blanket statements, but I don’t think he is too concerned about them.
The conversation turned back to finance. Yadin said, “People want a job at Goldman Sachs to get rich, either to maintain their current class position or to attain a higher one.” I asked him about how race and class factor into these claims. “It’s true that people need to survive.” He is not interested in the psychology of a queer, low-income student entering the world of finance to support their family. “You can make a judgement whether you think their choice is right or not,” he says, “but the conditions are created by capitalism.”
Yadin — in his cynical, blunt way — pointed to more overarching threads of capitalism. He asked, “What’s connecting Pride Corp to the millionaires in Fence who shop at Savers?” Suddenly, my thrifted pants felt heavier. “That’s me,” I chimed in, somewhat ashamed. He appreciated my frankness. Yadin is understanding of that fact that “we’re living in a corporation. We’re studying all of this in a corporation.” Yes, pink capitalism rears its ugly head in groups like Pride Corp, but I wondered if there was something more sinister about its covert manifestations, those closer to my identity. As if he were reading my mind, Yadin said, “Obviously what [Pride Corp] is doing is egregious and pathetic. But everyone does some pathetic things, and it’s way more generative to turn the question on yourself.”
I took his advice and began to wonder how I have deployed my queer identity to obscure from the fact that I’m a cisgender man of economic means. Queerness, as I told Yadin, has been the perfect mirror in front of which I put on poorface. Borrowing from that imagery, Yadin says the problem of “queerness as this thing that unifies people across generations and across every other kind of disparity is that you can have a cis gay man who is a millionaire and goes to Yale looking in the mirror and seeing Sylvia Rivera. Because they’re both queer.”
It’s no surprise that Yadin — like Keyes, but more harshly — discounts representation as “the easiest diversity [for a corporation] to have because you can just get white dudes who are gay, and that counts as whatever points they think they might be getting.” He was picking up speed, now talking about identity politics: “So often, the phrase ‘as a blank’ — ‘as a gay man’ — is a marketing tactic.” Yadin recognizes that one’s identity can be deployed towards a professional end with the knowledge “that it carries a certain cachet.” He adds “all these labels are created under capitalism, and they all progress under capitalism, where the impetus is personal success. […] All people become brands, and all self-expression becomes marketing.” Though what he was saying was not news to me, it was still sobering.
My discussion with Yadin reminded me of a conversation I had earlier that day, with Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies professor Evren Savci. Crammed into a half-hour slot during her packed office hours, I had too many questions for her, and she had an abundance of answers. What resonated with me most in our unrecorded conversation were her thoughts on how representation risks overriding politics. According to Savci, discourse surrounding representation centers the subject’s body — and the way their body has been labeled — rather than their politics. It’s what makes all the difference between hiring a woman and hiring a feminist, to paraphrase her words. When I brought this up with Yadin, he agreed.
Both Yadin and Savci see the obfuscatory nature of identity politics emerging in concert with the dilution of the term “queer” and subsequent expansion of the queer community writ large. On this note, Yadin remarked: “The first gay man running for president. Okay, who gives a fuck? […] That doesn’t make him radical.” The heated conversations surrounding Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign are not new. A white, male veteran with an Ivy League degree and work experience in finance running for president is an easy antagonist for many progressive voters. Add the label “gay” to the mix, and we begin to see discourse not unlike that in Yale Daily News columnist Jacob Hutt’s piece on Buttigieg — “Poster Boy Pete.” Hutt claims that the candidate is a “stark distinction from the profit-driven former CEO of the Trump Organization” and then mentions his experience at the “hallowed McKinsey” in the same breath. Contradictions abound. And though Buttigieg doesn’t use the word “queer” to describe himself, that’s not the point. The point is that others do. Hutt did.
Applying Yadin’s arguments, I wondered if there were any other famous queers whose capitalist ways slipped under the radar as a result of their identities. I thought of Ellen DeGeneres. Once praised for her radical presence in the media as an openly gay talk show host, Ellen has recently come under fire for spending time with former president George W. Bush, DC ’68, at a football game in Texas. Ellen is clearly not immune to the powers of pink capitalism, a matter of fact long before her public cameo with the Republican president. Still, until recently, I saw Ellen as different than Buttigieg, more radical, more queer. If Buttigieg reflects the politics of Pride Corp, does that make me Ellen?
At this point, I am left with more questions than answers (I just asked myself if I was Ellen). I can confidently say that I still believe in the power of queerness, that as an identity category or a set of politics, queerness is liberatory in nature. But what, then, does that liberation entail?
For members of Pride Corp, queer liberation might mean liberation within capitalism, or even at the heart of it. It is liberatory to join the system. For those in opposition, liberation might mean liberation from capitalism, from class itself. These modes of liberation are contradictory. Yet, at the same time, they are complementary for someone like Zhou.
Moreover, while queerness can be and has been powerful in theory, is it relevant to a critique of capitalism in practice? Or is it obfuscatory? Centering sexual identity in this discussion made it clear to me that queer discourse — in the context of identity — can often distract from, rather than promote, conversations about class and race. After all, the queer community, however one might conceive of it is not a monolith. Why does Zhou need a group like Pride Corp to achieve his liberation, if his liberation is liberation from class? Why is there no FGLI Corp?
I’m starting to buy into Yadin’s suffixes. Maybe “queer Marxist” or “queer anarchist” would allow for more productive discourse after all.
Across a table of sugar cookies and colored frosting at the Office of LGBTQ Resources, I sat down with some board members of the Co-Op. I was curious about an exchange that Keyes had mentioned to me between the Co-Op and a consulting firm.
Earlier this year, the Co-Op board received an email from a McKinsey & Company scout, asking them to plug an event to their panlist. This sparked a series of discussions among the board on whether or not to disseminate information that the board members may or may not ideologically agree with. “Being an umbrella organization is weird,” a board member stated. Ironically, by the time they had come to a decision to commit to “making sure that every queer voice on this campus has a platform” and “that queer people get to make their own [informed] decisions,” the McKinsey event had already passed.
People showed up. Some applied, are applying, will continue to apply. The world turns.