Tuesday, July 9, 2019


I went to San Francisco last month for a meeting of the gay men's discussion group I like to attend when I can.  The topic this time was "Life After Pride."

It took me awhile to realize that "Pride" referred to the accumulated apparatus of Gay Pride observance, not to the individual, non-institutional pride in being gay that is the primary sense of the term for me.  When someone says that they're gay and proud, I don't take it as a pledge of allegiance to the Human Rights Campaign and to the corporations for which it stands, or as a cheer for Our Team and its merchandise, but as a rejection of the shame that our society has always insisted we should feel.  My understanding played no role in the discussion, either as the organizers planned it or in what we talked about that afternoon.  The subject was the institution of Pride parades.  That's a valid topic, to be sure, and we found plenty to say about it.

I've always been ambivalent about "pride" as the word for a stance of LGBTQ affirmation, and I know I'm not alone among gay people in that, but I think I am in a minority.  In choosing the word, the movement followed the example of Black pride, which involved the same rejection of shame by people of color in a racist society.  I doubt it would have caught on, though, if many of us hadn't found it agreeable.  At the same time, association with the institutional manifestation of the annual Pride parades assured that its meaning would drift to refer to floats, marching bands, parade marshals, and flag-waving.  Which are not bad in themselves, perhaps, but they're not the point.

The increasing involvement of corporations was predictable, and probably unavoidable in a capitalist country.  We are Americans, after all, and we're used to everything in our lives being commercialized, branded, bought and sold.  And why shouldn't our institutions tap into the same mechanisms of sponsorship, trademarks, and endorsement that pervade every other American institution?  For most gay people, there's probably no conflict in the idea, though it's also American to lament the commercialization of Pride, no less than we lament the commercialization of Christmas at the same time we participate eagerly in it. What could be more assimilated than that?

A major theme in last month's discussion was that Pride had once been principled, political, and now it's just a big raunchy party.  I argued then that this is at best simplistic and unhistorical, and I wish I'd come prepared with evidence.  But it's a common complaint among the gay men I talk to, and like most nostalgia it's just amnesia turned around.

Luckily, I found a book that gave me some of the evidence I needed: The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History (NYU Press, 2019), edited by Marc Stein.  It assembles contemporary reports of the Stonewall uprising and the changes that it inspired in the gay movement, along with the first commemorations on both coasts.  You don't need to trust historians' reconstructions of what Pride used to be, you can see how it looked at the time.

From Document 184, Kay Tobin Lahusen's report for Gay magazine, 20 July 1970:
The flyer from the umbrella committee of sponsoring groups stated: "We are united today to affirm our pride, our lifestyle and our commitment to each other.  Despite political and social differences we may have, we are united on this common ground.  For the first time in history, we are together as The Homosexual Community." ...

The thousands of marchers filed into Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, moving past two gay couples at work (?) breaking the world’s kissing record. . . . The only planned activity in the Park was sponsored by Gay Activists Alliance, which provided an abundance of body contact by conducting sensitivity games in the soft grass of the meadow. Their gay love pile—composed of dozens of warm, wiggling bodies in one fantastic heap—let forth the most spontaneous, if inarticulate, yelp for liberation heard all day. Throughout the meadow, gay couples cuddled, kissed, laughed, and listened to themselves being described by announcers across the band of their transistor radios. Television cameras ogled at the open show of gay love and affection and solidarity. The Gay-In went on until well after sundown, after which GAY’s reporter was told love knew no bounds.
From Document 185, "1200 Parade in Hollywood, Crowds Line Boulevard, The Advocate, 22 July 1970:
Over 10000 homosexuals and their friends staged not just a protest march [my emphasis], but a full-blown parade down world-famous Hollywood Boulevard.

Flags and banners floated in the chill sunlight of late afternoon; a bright red sound truck blared martial music; drummers strutted; a horse pranced; clowns cavorted; “vice cops” chased screaming “fairies” with paper wings; the Metropolitan Community Church choir sang “Onward Christian Soldiers”; a bronzed and muscular male model flaunted a 7 1/2–foot live python. 

On and on it went, interspersed with over 30 open cars carrying Advocate Groovy Guy contestants, the Grand Duchess of San Francisco, homophile leaders, and anyone else who wanted to be seen, and five floats, one of which depicted a huge jar of Vaseline, another a homosexual “nailed” to a cross. ...

Laughter and applause also followed the Gay Liberation Front Guerrilla Theatre entry, a gaggle of shrieking “fairies” wearing gauzy pastels and being chased in all directions by stick-wielding “cops” sporting huge “vice” badges, the “Vaseline” float also entered by a GLF group, the several clowns in costume and white-face, and a nodding and bowing “witch doctor” in grass robes and African mask entered by the Society of Pat Rocco Enlightened Enthusiasts.
As I argued in the group, there was plenty of raunchy partying going on in Pride at its origin (or should I say "Nativity"?).  The same sort of crude, shameless, offensive behavior that offends many now was present in 1970, and given the lower visibility and harsher repression that had characterized gay people's lives up till then, it would have been even more shocking at the time.

Which isn't to say that these marches weren't also "political."  The turnout for the first Christopher Street West Parade was smaller than it might have been, for example, because of "the long battle to get a Police Commission permit, which was finally resolved only two days before", according to the same report.  They had political overtones and ramifications simply by virtue of being open, uncoded, massive LGBTQ public events.  They were not, however, "political" in the same way that demonstrations and protests against discrimination and repression are; but they weren't intended to be.  They were intended, first and foremost, to be fun.  It was just that gay people having fun in public -- not just in bars subject to raids and other harassment, but in the streets and parks in broad daylight -- had an inseparable political dimension.  That considerable numbers of gay people reject fun as a political goal just indicates how assimilated we are.  What once defined Puritanism -- the fear that someone somewhere might be happy -- is something that many of us can relate to.

People sometimes ask if we still need Pride.  On one hand it doesn't matter: Pride celebrations under whatever rubric are almost half a century old.  (Though they commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969, they began a year later, in 1970.)   They're popular events, they have a lot of mainstream support, everybody enjoys a party.  And it's no small achievement that a cultural creation of one of the most despised groups in America in my lifetime become a highly visible, taken-for-granted feature of American life.  If the observance is shallow in many ways, among gays no less than among straights ... well, so is the observance of Christmas and other holidays.  It seems to me that the press/media coverage, including the reporting of the history, is on the whole better than the coverage of Christmas, maybe because it's still more contested.  If people are open to knowing the history, it's easy to learn each summer.  Need it or not, Pride is not going to wither away in the foreseeable future.

In the sense I prefer, we certainly still do need pride, though maybe the co-optation of the concept by Pride Inc. would make it worthwhile to find a better word for it.  But young LGBTQ people are still struggling and suffering; alcohol and other drug abuse, depression and other problems are widespread among LGBTQ people of all ages.  Whatever you want to call it, many or most of us still need to feel good about being gay.  Pride marches may hold out the promise of something better somewhere, but they aren't enough by themselves.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't have them, but we do need something else, something more, as well.