Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pride for Sale

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.


Dorian said...

Right on! I'm frankly baffled by the "post-gay" mindset, as so much of it seems predicated on attitudes of entitlement. It's almost an attitude of "I'm not personally oppressed, so why should I bother?" The only thing I see in American culture that's similar is the attitude some young women have towards feminisim.

Bill S. said...

I'm not one for marching, but I always figured that coming out was the very least that I could do for The Cause. My entire family knows, all my friends know, my coworkers know. I even did panels on human sexuality in college. I've had people tell me that I was the first gay guy they ever met; I let them know that I'm just the first gay guy they knew was one. At this point, it's not even about being brave or anything of the sort: I just never want to be in the position where I feel like I have to ignore casual homophobia because I haven't come out to the people around me.

I sort of think that maybe the idea of the gay community has faded as AIDS has been perceived as less of a threat. When I first came out, AIDS was sort of the rallying point for the gay community. As the gay community has focussed on topics that seem less immediate and apocalyptic (gay marriage, for one), maybe it's diminished the sense of urgency that we felt when I was 18. It's late, or else I would expand on the thought; it's just something I think about.

Morrissey pisses me off with his ambiguous sexuality shtick, and he, at least, has earned the right, if only because of his longevity. I am not extending that courtesy to Mika, especially when musicians who have come out (and whose music I prefer) have done fairly well for themselves.

Roger Owen Green said...

In Albany, there was a group of Presbyterians who marched in the parade. I was one of them. I'll write about it when I get the pictures. But at least here, I think the parade is still important.

Population One said...

I'm proud of you, Gay Prof.

Doug said...

Something I've noticed is that people have stopped going to parades and marches because of all the sponsorship. They feel their gay dollars are going to straight companies who don't care about our cause. In the process though, our cause loses their participation.

I acknowledge that straight companies are making money on pride events, but I still go to show my support. Pride events show me what life could be like if we were totally accepted in society. We could walk down the street holding hands, exchange a kiss at a restaurant, and just be ourselves. What a concept.

tornwordo said...

I'm not a big fan of the parades. They are boring now. We should be having rallies instead by now. (I do like a party with my brethren, however.)

Come out Come out wherever you are! That's the first chant of the rally. What do you think? Let's start a movement. Only when "out" is no longer a career liability will everyone do it.

Josh said...

I'm not sure if Prides are as far gone as all that. Just looking at the Boston Pride lineup, there were a few politicians and a few companies. But what really overwhelmed me was the number of churches and other faith based groups. What's your take on that trend? Part of the mainstreaming of gaydom or something else entirely?

PS One big upside of joining the mainstream would be having a kid to put this bib on:
How can you resist that?

Earl Cootie said...

I'm for both the political and entertainment aspects of Gay Pride events. Big fabulous parades, small town picnics, parties, speeches, rallies, grandstands. It's our Liberation Day. A time for outrageous celebration as well as for somber reflection and calls to action.

Tenured Radical said...

Nice post, Gayprof. For my Politics of Sex after Stonewall course this year I re-read and taught an essay from Allan Young and Karla Jaye's important early collection, Out of the Closets and Into the Streets, which is still a relevant book. I taugh Allan's essay, in which he says memorably, "We will not go straight until you go gay!" which struck me as highly relevant to the assimilation-through-affluence model you refer to. Plenty of queers *have* gone straight, as you point out.

That said -- the queer business community has always been pretty conservative, I think.


Anonymous said...

The thing about Morrissey is that his ambiguity resulted from genuine confusion and was not a deliberate career choice. God knows Morrissey has never really been that bothered by his public image.

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.

I read that and instantly thought of all the gay personals where the writer declared that he was "straight acting." I can sympathize with wanting to distance oneself from stereotypes, especially since we still exist in a society where "experts" are shown on mainstream television news outlets, declaring that they've "scientifically proven" that lesbians really are masculine and gays really are effeminate. But there's something tragic about someone who is revolted by the idea that someone will guess that they are gay. It doesn't speak well to the health of the LGBT community.

Unknown said...

That was a very thoughtful and interesting post. The assimilationist trend in gay politics is mired in delusion, as far as I'm concerned. I'm not interested in being a beggar at that particular table.

Red said...

I am momentarily regretting the dissolution of my blog, because if it were still around I could point to my inarticulate rant about sexual oppression and not wanting to be assimilated into mainstream anything anymore—the post where I was mad about the security staff of a certain New York "leather" bar appearing whenever my fly opens. You've stated the case a lot better, if less luridly.

vuboq said...

now i feel all guilty about listening to my Mika CD ... *le sigh*

Bigg said...

Living in a part of the country that it still mostly of a hatefully homophobic mindset, I think I probably view Pride events (which, for the record, I've never been able to attend) a little differently.
Out here in fly-over country, being a known homosexual can still get you fired from your job, harrassed on a daily basis, and even killed. Marching in a parade takes the ultimate set of guts, because straight people definitely attend on a "day-at-the-zoo" basis. Out here, Pride is still definitely a revolutionary act.
With that said, I'd love to hear you lecture someday, Gayprof. This was wonderfully written.

Marius said...

The closet rewards one person, being out benefits the entire queer community.

I couldn't agree more. It took me a while to realize that for myself. As you mentioned, homosexuality was once considered a mental illness by the APA. Fortunately, many gay men and women fought this label with a passion that is rarely seen today. I find it strange that gay men and women don't realize the significance of the APA's decision to remove homosexuality from the DSM. We owe a lot to the activists who risked so much for us. The fight isn't over.

Great post!

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

Thanks for posting this, Gay Prof.

I haven't been to a pride march in a few years. When they sold out, they got boring.

Vodka and rainbow shit. *yawn* you can't assimilate and throw a good party. Also, some folks just can't assimilate. (nobody would ever mistake me for a stright grrl)

Roger Owen Green said...

Of course, if you REALLY wanted to go to a Pride March, you could go down to NYC next weekend.

Roger Owen Green said...

Did you see the article in TIME mag (liked by Mark Evanier here:
2007_06_15.html), suggesting that the gay revolution has been all but won?

dykewife said...

i'm going to my very first pride parade tomorrow. i'm not going to march or ride on a float, but i'm going to be amongst the throng of people watching.

i think the event, though it may have lost some of it's militant and revolutionary edge, is still important to those who are newly coming out, newly finding themselves and working to find a community.

Anonymous said...

When I was newly out, (5 yrs. ago) going to Pride in Chicago the first time was great--the spectacle as well as the sense of belonging to a much larger cause. And, I had my shirt off!

Locally, it doesn't have the same impact in my (much smaller) town; yet it does bring out a sense of unity in the gay community. So often we focus on the differences we have with each little group: the bears, the leather guys, the twinky dance boys, the softball girls, etc., and we see each other as separate. Pride is one event that shows our diversity and acceptance (grudgingly) of others.

AcadeMama said...

Thought-provoking post! In fact, it prompted me to post my own response and questions.

Antonio said...

Great post. I'm still a little surprised that the "refuse to discuss personal life" thing still works. I guess in some ways it can be helpful. Newspapers and magazines can't print the headline "Clay Aiken confirms he is gay".

Even so, every single time I've heard someone refuse to answer the question I've immediately assumed they're gay.

This Boy Elroy said...

You hit the nail right on the head with Mika. How convenient for him and all the others that take his stance. They keep their queer in the wings for when the career is in the shitter and they need some fast quick press.

Mika is just a Freddie Mercury karaoke artist, another exhibit to lend credence to an argument that suggests that originality in the music industry is dead.

GayProf said...

Dorian: "Post gay" people annoy me more than ex-gay people.

Bill S.: I agree -- Coming out is still the easiest and most effective strategy that we have as individuals to create social change.

ROG: I didn't mean to imply that Pride wasn't important. I think that it is, but I am concerned that corporate sponsorship is distracting from the political elements of the marches.

B.: I am proud of you, too!

Doug: I think that Pride marches do still provide many benefits like the ones that you suggest. This occurs regardless of the corporate sponsorship.

TornWordo: I would love to see more concrete discussions within the community about the need to be out.

Josh: I am not going to fault people (queer or otherwise) for having religious beliefs. As long as their beliefs don't result in the infringement on other people's rights or prevent them from thinking critically, I don't conceive religion as a bad thing.

Earl: I like a good party, too. Sometimes I wonder, though, if we missing those other bits.

TR: You are right, there have always been conservative queer folk. I also don't want to over romanticize the GLF or the 70s in general (which is another trend). Still, there seems to be less interest in challenging the conservative elements in the queer community than in the past.

Chad: I have no investment in Morrissey, but I don't think that we can make excuses for people regardless.

On the other hand, I think that we are complicated enough to enjoy their music without endorsing their bad personal politics. Freddie Mercury, for instance, creeps me out as a person. He was closeted in terms of sexuality and race and his HIV status. I am not prepared to say "it was just the time." He had the opportunity to fight for people on all of those fronts and declined it.

Still, he left an impressive musical legacy that can't be denied either. Acknowledging one does not eradicate the other.

Teresa: I am hopeful that the queer community is about to wake up from that assimilationist delusion.

Tom: Somehow I think that I would prefer the lurid version over my own...

VUBOQ: As I recall, wasn't it my and Cooper's raving about Mika that prompted you to buy the CD in the first place?

If you have already paid for it, I am not sure Mika will really suffer by you not listening to it anymore. It's just a matter of not giving him additional money to support his little closet.

Bigg: I think that there are many undergraduates who would gladly give up a seat in my class for you if it meant that they didn't have to hear me lecture.

Marius: I think the speed at which things have changed has left some people forgetting about how much work went into the movement. It also, I think, makes them feel that things are okay when, in fact, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Les: you can't assimilate and throw a good party

I think that we have a new slogan for the bumper stickers!

DykeWife: I agree that Pride events still provide important avenues for the queer community to connect. I just wish that we exercised a bit more control over how we organize those events.

Marlan: I often hear that Pride Marches were really important for different people as they were first coming out. This suggests to me that they are still profoundly relevant.

AcademeMama: I am not sure I have the answers to those questions...

Antonio: Yep -- People who identify as exclusively straight never avoid confirming their hetero-ness.

This Boy Elroy: Alas, I had high hopes for Mika because he seemed to pay so much homage to Freddie Mercury. It turns out, though, that he is also happy to replicate Mercury's closetedness as well. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

I'm right there with you on the advertising. I was squicked last year to see the Travelocity Gnome decked out in leather-daddy gear all over NY Pride.

As for what we're proud of, I always had the sense that it was more of a matter of pride in not losing our humanity or our identities in the face of an oppressive larger society.

I've been very fortunate. I'm young(ish), I'm female, I grew up in a city, and my family are all fire-breathing leftists. I have not been much oppressed. I march for two reasons: to support the many who have been, and to feel once a year what it's like to walk among my people.

And because, well, it's a hell of a show.

Dorian - I agree with you 100% on the "post-gay" and "post-feminist" things. One of my least favorite things about my generation.


Anonymous said...

I have to disagree. It's impossible to know all the internal stresses and external circumstances an individual goes through, no matter how much scrutiny their lives have. I don't think it's "bad personal politics" to choose ambiguity; it's simply a personal choice, and as such it should be respected.

(Now, then there's denying one's homosexuality or bisexuality while being an advocate against gay rights, but to me that's another matter entirely...)

GayProf said...

Patashoqua: I am just guessing that the Traveloicty Gnome was not dressed that way with a real sense of irony.

Chad: The personal is political.

goblinbox said...

I'd bet you cash money that our tender young Mika is constantly coached by his handlers not to come out.

I really doubt what he's doing is his choice; he's got record label execs telling him how to be a star. Maybe cut the kid - and all the other young performers and athletes who are at their handlers' mercy - some slack in terms of outing themselves.

Anonymous said...

Eeek. I don't know if I'm too late, but I really want to get in on this sort of discussion!

I am a 32 year old gay guy living in Chicago, and I have until last month had exactly 1 gay friend in my life besides boyfriends, and I am that guy's only gay friend besides his husband; in fact he loathes Boystown and refuses to set foot into it. The thing for me is that while I want to support gay rights and gay people, I feel like an outsider in the gay community and have rarely met a gay man I had any interest in befriending.

When I go out to gay bars it is because I like beer and I like gay sex. I would like to have a husband so that I wouldn't have to go out to gay bars at all.

Aside from the bars, I don't feel any attraction for gay community besides the sense of obligation/guilt for reaping freedoms without contributing to furthering them, and I am interested in finding a way to do that. So far my best option seems to be working in AIDS in some capacity, or at least volunteering. But as far as socializing with gay people, all attempts to do so have been at best boring--I don't enjoy the music that most gay men enjoy, I find the pervasive air of "fabulosity" and drama extremely annoying, and I find there is a lot of backbiting and needless interpersonal strife in groups of gay people.

Anyway, I am conflicted: I would like to be a part of a community, but I just wish the community were very at all appealing to me.

Anonymous said...

Last line that I left off: I am gay in that I have sex and romantic relationships with men, and the only reason I would ever want to be a part of a gay community--the reason such a community even exists!--is that there are some people who would persecute me for that single facet of myself.