As most gays and their gay-friendly counterparts know, June is Gay Pride month. Like with Black History Month, it is meant to be a time set aside to celebrate who we are, to come out of the closet and be proud of ourselves and our achievements as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered, and so forth. But some of us don’t feel so proud around this time of year. In fact, some are ashamed to be lumped together with what many view as an embarrassing spectacle that further outlines our differences from “normal” straight folk.
This month, cities around the world will be celebrating with parades and events, as they do every year. Gay pride parades are said to have their genesis in the legendary Stonewall Riots which occurred in June, 1969 when patrons – from drag queens to “regular Joes” – fought back at police harassment at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar. The following year, an anniversary commemorative parade was held, effectively the beginning of annual gay pride parades. Over the years, pride parades – and the gay rights movement itself – have undergone notable transformation. What began as a demonstration of defiant activism mutated into a brash display of gay identity as defined by the personal politics of the time, as well as unabashed sexual freedom.
The problem with the gay pride parade, and the movement itself, is the same problem faced by any large sociological or political movement with an umbrella that is too big. There are too many different kinds of people, with different opinions and goals pulling it in too many directions. Over the years, the movement has needed to evolve, just as the feminist movement did. Stonewall was about standing up and showing that we existed (not just in seedy darkened corners) and that we weren’t going to be pushed around anymore. The 70’s were about coming out, literally, and claiming our sexual freedom. Bathhouses thrived, and the stereotype we often see associated with gay pride parades was born. Drag queens, leather daddies, naked circuit boys, rampant drugs and promiscuous unprotected sex. This is the image the local news trots out each June to show what those “colorful” gays are doing, and to reassure traditional suburban families that this “other” exists only in the big bad city, not right next door to you. This is the image that sells. But this is not what the majority of gays and lesbians are like. Not the ones that actually live in your neighborhood, and not even in attendance at the parades themselves.
In fact, the handful of gay pride parades I’ve been to (starting in the mid 90’s) have been rather underwhelming. Perhaps it is just a Chicago thing, and the other ones around the country are like an amped-up episode of Queer as Folk, but my experience has been rather vanilla. Sure, you still have the go-go dancers and the drag queens. But at a certain point it becomes sort of a feeling of “so what.” The most controversy I ever felt was years ago when my partner, Melissa, her then-husband, and I agreed to march on behalf of a local political candidate. We thought it would be cool to be in the parade and what not, even though we had to hold signs. We were already well into the parade when we realized the candidate was a Log Cabin Republican. We quickly snuck out of the parade and ditched the signs and ran away.
Some reject the notion of the parade altogether, citing an undue emphasis on sexual orientation as the sole identifying factor of a group of people with which they identify. The truth is, that is how we’ve always been defined and it will be a hard label to shake off. In the 80’s, the gay sexual revolution came crashing down when the AIDS issue blew up. “Gay” became synonymous with “AIDS” and, admittedly, most gay rights groups became AIDS activist groups. Beginning in the 90’s, and snowballing today, we face the issue of marriage equality. In each case, we are defined in some part by our sexuality, our libido, whom we choose to have sex with. The push for marriage equality seems to be an attempt to show that we are not all about our sex lives or our bedrooms – that we want real, legitimized families like the rest of America – but once again, it is something that comes down to our gender and the gender of whom we choose to love. And so, when celebrating our diversity and our right to be who we are at a gay pride parade, it is hard to divorce the sexual identity element from our struggle for equal rights. Politicians will mingle with drag queens, who will rub elbows with PFLAG, who can’t help but grin at the glistening muscle men. And so on.
Is this wrong? It calls to mind the debate several years ago about Queer as Folk itself. It was a brazen, no-holds barred look at gay life. Not everyone’s gay life – a magnetized, soap opera-tized version of gay life. Much like the exaggerated makeup on a drag queen’s face, or the elaborate pageantry that sometimes goes into a pride parade. It was a caricature of several types of people who may exist in real life. Or stereotypes, as one may argue. Those same people may also argue that the parade is detrimental because it puts those stereotypes on display and makes us look bad to the mainstream world in a time when we are trying harder than ever to assimilate into that world.
I think there is validity to the concern that we don’t want to come off as a bunch of freaks and perverts. Who wants to be painted in such an ugly light? But I think it’s also important to remember – no matter what we do or how “normal” we try to act, mainstream conservative society will always find a way to vilify us and exclude us from their world. Why should we turn our backs on the drag queens and leather daddies who stood up for our rights in 1969, and who should still have the right to be who they are today? Should we ban them from the parade just because the evening news is going to point a sensationalized finger at them? That seems hardly the spirit of inclusiveness and diversity we’ve claimed to support over the years.
I would caution any of you “normal” queers who just want to fade into the woodwork that we will not get anywhere as a movement if we do not stand up for everyone involved – gay moms and dads, drag queens, transgendered men and women, etc. Truly, the gay community looks less and less like a community these days, and more like a bunch of fractured niche groups bumping into each other. To me, that’s not a good thing. Perhaps a parade, which gives us all a chance to mingle at least that one time each year, can be viewed with the positive spirit in which it’s meant, whether you’re covered in plaid or waving your naked muscled arm to the beat.