Pride, and why I’m not sure I have it.

Last weekend was Gay Pride Weekend, and of course the annual Toronto Gay Pride Celebration.  I skipped the parade, but did end up going down to Church St. for a few hours in the evening to meet up with some friends.  I’m glad that I decided against spending the whole day there, as even a few hours of it was somewhat depressing.

Don’t get me wrong; the weekend is always full of fun events.  When I’ve attended Pride celebrations in the past, I’ve always had a pretty good time.  But it just seems more and more that Pride has lost touch with its roots, becoming a mass-media fueled circus of stereotypes.  And in the places where glimpses of those authentic roots can be seen, they’ve stagnated, not keeping up with the times of a changing world and society.

My biggest problem with Pride, as it exists today, is that I’m no longer sure whether it’s helping with the cause of acceptance and integration.  Pride arose out of the oppression of the 1950s and 60s, when there were no laws protecting against sexual discrimination, and being openly gay (and especially cross-dressing) could get you arrested as a “sexual deviant”.  One of the driving forces behind the formation of Pride Weekend, in particular, was the Stonewall Riots, when violence erupted following a particularly brutal police raid on a well-known gay establishment.  And so in the beginning, Pride was about being confrontational and in-your-face.  It had to be.  Gay people were facing violence, and were tired of just lying down and taking it — they wanted and needed to fight back, in a very real and physical sense.

It’s that sort of confrontational behaviour, though, that I worry is no longer helping.  Laws have changed, and while homophobia is still a definite problem in the world, it’s no longer overtly enforced by the system (in this country, at least — I know there are still places where being openly gay can get you arrested or killed, but I’m talking about Canada at the moment).  In the 60s and 70s (even into the 80s), marching nearly naked and screaming “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” involved taking a huge personal risk.  You could get arrested.  You could lose friends, family — even your job, since anti-discrimination legislation was still being developed, and it was still considered socially acceptable for a parent to disown their gay child.  Now the Pride parade is full of those sorts of displays — it’s considered quite acceptable behaviour during the celebrations — and it just comes off as people who’ll take any excuse to get naked and yell things.  It’s not a statement, it’s not risky; it’s not even risqué.  It’s just public indecency for its own sake.  And public indecency for its own sake probably isn’t helping.

One of the greatest challenges facing non-hetereosexual individuals today is the conception that being gay is inextricably linked to promiscuity, STIs (especially HIV/AIDS), and extreme sexual behaviours.  Gay people are “abnormal”; they lack values which are common to heterosexual society.  This is the gay that is most often seen in the media: party animals who can’t settle down with just one partner, who are obsessed with the superficial (how many fictional gay characters are hairdressers, makeup artists, or designers?), and who are ineffectual, especially when it comes to tasks usually assigned to their biological gender (gay men who can’t play sports; gay women who lack emotion and interpersonal skills).  Above all, gay people are different from straight people in very noticeable ways.  Pride plays into this stereotype, especially when the participants are waving their junk around, wildly partying, and labeling themselves (often literally, with stickers or buttons or the like that loudly and proudly proclaim “GAY”, “TRANS”, etc; more often in symbolic ways, such as by wearing rainbows or behaving/speaking in stereotypical manners).

I can’t help but feel that in the face of such stereotypical images, non-heterosexuality hasn’t been accepted by the general public … it’s just been shoved into a convenient and comfortable category.  Gay people are harmless.  Just let them have their parties and their hair gel and they’ll be happy.  And so people tolerate gayness … but they don’t accept it.  It’s kept separate from them, hermetically sealed off away from their “family values”.

But then we come up against questions like gay marriage, and the right for non-heterosexual couples to adopt children, and whether gay people should be able to become elementary school teachers.  These things don’t fit into that comfortable stereotype.  These things scare people, because now they have to re-define their definition of what a gay person is — and people hate uprooting their preconceived notions.  They’d rather continue to assume that we’re all fun, ineffectual, and sexually depraved:  not ideal people for beloved socio-religious institutions like marriage, and definitely not the sort of people who should be raising or teaching children.

In the face of these new challenges, these new steps along the road to normalcy, Pride should be changing as well.  Couples should march together, holding hands, dressed professionally.  Those gay individuals who have children (adopted or biological) should bring them along.  Displays of public indecency should be viewed as indecent, not as an expression of one’s sexuality.  Amid the celebrating of who we are, there should also be mention of what we want — petitions circulating in the crowds, and speeches being given on street corners about necessary social change.  People shouldn’t label themselves with pins or stickers that say “GAY”; they should blend into the crowd, so that gay and straight people cannot be told apart and mingle freely.

Sometimes, I think, the most radical thing you can do is to defy people’s expectations.

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4 Responses to “Pride, and why I’m not sure I have it.”

  1. A good chunk, maybe even the majority of the parade is certainly the wagging wangs and overdone trannies, but the more important groups, like the queer youths, teachers, police, EMS workers, city workers, and supportive family are modest (and not in size) collections of queer people and those who support them looking and dressing like I assume they do every day, or at least any day where they’re planning on walking under the boiling sun for five bloody hours. These, I think, are the groups that are doing the most active campaigning for equal queer rights.

    Then again, it’s inarguable that the more… elaborate groups get the most press. I’m not sure I can bring myself to say that they’re harming the movement, but they certainly don’t help.

    I touched on this a little during our post-parade wanderings, but I think it’s worth repeating and emphasising (and clarifying… we both know how coherent I am when trying to form an opinion into a sentence).

    Postscript: I intentionally did not mention the political parties or banks above. I don’t think anyone believes they honestly give a shit about queer rights past the fact that gay people vote and have money too (sometimes).

    • Obviously it’s not everyone who’s there who is behaving indecently, but it’s very much a part of what Pride (the media-fueled, extremely straight version of Pride that we know today) is all about. And as long as that remains the straight world’s image of what “gay” means, there’s not going to be a lot of progress.

  2. […] I have my own issues with Pride celebrations (see last year’s post on the subject for more details).  I didn’t bother to take the day off work, and won’t be attending […]

  3. I was recently having a discussion with a friend about something like this, I quoted someone’s OKCupid bio (that the person who found it sent to me) about being vegan, demi-sexual and a whole whack of other major niches, and the friend I showed this to said “that’s a good thing, and do you know why?”. I said “No, why?”

    She said “because if guys like that, 22 year old barely out of high school kids are jumping on board with all those niche lifestyles, then that means it’s becoming mainstream enough for that to be able to happen”. I agreed partially with her, but not entirely.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, and it’s something i’ve also noticed – niches often go from being “underground” directly to being turned into a flashy consumerist party. And once “average people” DO get on board with these niche things, they basically take it over – they become the “public front” of it, while the original people fighting for the ACTUAL cause get buried in the shadows again. Gay pride seems to have become taken over by people who just think it’s fun to dress up and act silly and party. People love having reasons to party. It seems like people are willing to look past just about any transgression if you’re willing to hoist a brew with them.

    “Real activism” rarely involves anything resembling a party. Because you’re fighting against an established system, it’s hard, it’s a grind, it doesn’t happen overnight, and most people ignore you or tell you you’re wasting your (or their) time and you really have to believe in it to keep fighting for every inch you get. I think that it has been figured out (not sure “who” to say exactly is behind this) that if you can find an excuse to make a spectacle/party out of a cause, you actually derail it, even though more people are ultimately participating, they aren’t actually focused on the message or the deeper meaning, it’s just another excuse/opportunity for escapism. It seems like more a sense of “yeah life is hard I want to take a break!” than “yeah this specific cause is important because of x and y reason and I support the people who are devoting their lives to make it better”.

    This is why it concerns me so much that western society is so fixated on “partying”. Sure people want to have fun and take a break from the stresses of life, but it says something that those who skip partying to really focus on making progress with something get called boring, no-fun, uptight… yet they might just be the people who are really making change happen.

    And it’s even more concerning with how easy it is to get a positive reaction from many people at the mention of free alcohol, vs mentioning an important issue (even a success in an important cause). It really is easy to misdirect people and if you put a beer in their hand they’ll probably shrug and go with it.

    In fairness, partying CAN be a community experience, but there’s a difference between “partying” for the sake of partying, and actually sharing a meal and drinks and a complete experience with each other. Like where everyone contributes and shares vs just dumping a keg on a table and letting people loose on it. Again, it’s a matter of where the focus is. When I see things getting turned into a “party” I know it has jumped the shark. What I like to see is a “community experience”.

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