Because I lack the ability to manage a calender, my recent trip to MFT accidentally coincided with Boston’s Pride. Given this year’s somewhat well-meaning, but misguided and intellectually weak, militaristic theme, I am not entirely disappointed. From most reports, it was a bit of a yawn (Though I was more than pleased to see Governor Deval Patrick marching).
Many cities across the globe mark gay pride in the month of June. In the U.S., this always brings a complicated mixture of feelings and opinions from within the queer community. Those living outside of major urban areas feel excluded from Pride events. They (rightly) argue that those living in areas like New York or San Francisco have little understanding about the daily struggles of being queer in a place like Caldwell, Texas.
Likewise, some queer folk wonder about the term “pride” itself. They suggest, with a certain logic, that same-sex desire is no better or worse than opposite-sex attraction. It is, they argue, therefore nothing of which to be proud. It just “is.” In some ways, this type of questioning suggests the many concrete changes that the gay pride movement has brought about in North America. It seems a bit premature, however, to declare that type of victory as sexuality is still one of ways that this society organizes people.
For myself, I have lately been wondering about the ways that Pride rallies have become sponsored by liquor companies or other firms that seem more interested in pink dollars than any real sense of social equality. Don’t get me wrong. I think that Pride Parades still have a place and I am not ready to toss them aside quit yet. Who doesn’t love a party?
What does concern me, though, is that Pride marches have become disconnected from the revolutionary intent that brought them into existence. Beyond drinking Stoli for a day, there doesn’t seem to be much about Pride that is tied to real sexual freedom in this nation.
According to the accepted history, Pride events started in June 1970 to mark the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots in New York City. Those riots had pitted some mighty angry drag queens against an abusive police force. Raids on gay bars like the Stonewall Inn were an accepted, if not celebrated, part of law enforcement for most of the twentieth century. On June 28, 1969, however, the patrons at the Stonewall Inn had enough and decided to shove back at the police. Personally, I always suspected that Judy Garland’s death on June 23, 1969 contributed to much of the anger within the community (She was so young! Just 47!).
The following year, on June 29, 1970, members of the Gay Liberation Front and thousands of men and women marched from Greenwich Village to Sheep Meadow in Central Park, proclaiming “the new strength and pride of gay people.” The New York Times covered the event, giving an unusual number of references to the different colors of silk banners that the participants waved. In between all the descriptions of rich purples and deep greens, the paper did manage to quote some of the march’s leaders. Michael Brown, one of the key figures in the Gay Liberation Front, stated their goals explicitly, “We will never have the freedom and civil rights that we deserve as human beings unless we stop hiding in closets or in the shelter of anonymity. . .We have to come out into the open and stop being ashamed or else people will go on treating us as freaks. This march is an affirmation and declaration of our new pride.”
In another instance, a 27 year old carpenter stated his reasons for marching. “It serves notice on every politician in the state and nation that homosexuals are not going to hide anymore,” he said, “We’re becoming militant and we won’t be harassed and degraded anymore.”
For a time, the Gay Liberation Front and other radical groups challenged queer folk to interrogate the ways that homophobia and sexism had impacted their own individual psyches. They argued that people with queer desires faced daily psychological (if not also physical) assaults that distorted our self-esteem. Expressing a desire to even kiss somebody of the same sex meant that you were, at best, mentally ill and, at worst, a threat to all of western civilization. Queer men and women consequently had no legal protection against losing their jobs or their apartments because of their sexual desires.
To declare, therefore, that one was “proud” of being a homosexual was a revolutionary idea for 1969. It was a direct counter to the notion that being labeled homosexual was something shameful. Slogans like “Say it Loud, Gay is Proud,” intervened in homophobic discourses and institutions that alleged that being gay meant being alone, miserable, and monstrous. Queer activists argued that every element of society’s expectations about gender and sexuality needed scrutiny and revision. Equality could only be obtained when every adult could explore their sexual interests without fear of social or economic consequences.
That message has sorta gotten lost over the past three decades. Today, there is an increasing tendency among queer folk to misconstrue entering mainstream society as equivalent to sexual freedom. In reality, assuming the values of privileged heterosexuals only maintains a homophobic and sexist status quo. It rewards those queers whose sexual interests and gender identities most closely match middle-class heterosexual standards (Those same standards, btw, don’t necessarily serve the best interests of real-life heterosexuals, either. That, though, is another entry entirely). Some queers become so invested in trying to ensure their own shaky position that they disown other queer folk who don’t fit with mainstream expectations. Bar boys, non-monogamous relationships, or leather-clad lesbians become “embarrassments” to the ever-aspiring assimilationist queer. Rather than fighting for all of our sexual freedom, they seek only to satisfy their own personal ambitions.
Many queer individuals, as a result, reject the notion that there is any ethic of community. They imagine individualism to be the real goal. Indeed, we are even seeing backtracking as some individuals no longer see being out as an important and critical political act that helps all queer people. Far from Brown’s imperative to stop “hiding in closets” 37 years ago, being out is now seen as a matter of personal choice. Rather than a language of “gay pride” or “community,” they revert to tired notions of ambiguity and coyness as if they are something new.
The recording artist Mika comes to mind. Until I learned just how screwed up his personal politics are (and self-serving he is), I thought he had promise. He recently complained, however, that the queer community isn’t taking to his music like he expected. Mika wants the queer bucks, but doesn’t feel any commitment to making a personal sacrifice for the larger community himself.
As a result, Mika refuses to answer questions about his own sexuality. "I never talk about anything to do with my sexuality, I don't think I need to. People ask me all the time,” he told a London reporter, "In order to survive I've shut up different parts of my life, and that's one of them, especially this early in my career, I don't really feel that it's necessary to know in terms of my music.” In other words, it’s fine for other queer people to be out, but I am not going to sacrifice my own career. Mika makes an explicit statement that he cares more about his personal material success than any obligation to other queer people.
I don’t really care if Mika's preference is men, women, or a combination. Obscuring and evading the question, however, is only self-serving and actively harms the queer community. By making sexuality something which “just isn’t discussed,” Mika and others like him make it more difficult for queer people to live open lives. It keeps in place the notion that being straight is superior and being queer is something to be hidden.
Indeed, mainstream society rewards individuals like Mika for keeping quiet about his sexual identity. If an individual is ambiguous, then they are “given the benefit of the doubt” that they are really straight. I have no doubt that Mika would pay some material and personal consequences for publicly claiming a queer identity. If he wants to be part of the queer community, though, we have the right to expect that he cough it up. The closet rewards one person, being out benefits the entire queer community.
In a context where people like Mika thrive, it is easy, and even fashionable, among a certain crew of queer people to disparage ideas like “gay power” as antiquated or outmoded (no pun intended). Such mockery, though, risks undermining the very real challenges that took place in this nation around issues of sexuality.
Pride marches developed as part of an on-going struggle for sexual freedom that was fought year round. Queer activists took their militancy to the doorsteps of institutions that denigrated our lives and desires. On May 14, 1970, for instance, members of the Gay Liberation Front disrupted and eventually forced an adjournment of an American Psychiatric Association conference on “sex problems” in San Francisco. The Gay Liberation Front took issue with a particular paper that discussed the use of electro-shock therapy as a treatment for homosexuality. Protesters screamed during the panel “this is barbaric,” “sadist,” and “torture.”
Today it appears that the queer masses have largely abandoned a revolutionary militant stance in exchange for capitalist product endorsements. Last month, George W. Bush nominated James Holsinger to be Surgeon General. Thirty-seven years after the GLF directly challenged the APA, we have a nominee for the nation’s top doctor who has written that “gay sex is unnatural and unhealthy.” Most queer people in the U.S., though, seem largely unaware of this record and are fairly indifferent to politics.
If we don’t continue to fight, however, I promise you that Stoli Incorporated isn’t going to do it for us no matter how many fifths of vodka we buy. It is only if we strive to ensure that all people have sexual freedom that we can claim anything to be proud of.