Note: This was originally written in 2006 and posted to my Livejournal. At some point, I transcribed it to appear on my website, then promptly forgot to link to it. Sigh. Anyway, I've gone over it and it's still pretty relevant today, so here it is. - June, 2012
Well, we're only a couple of weeks away from San Francisco Gay Pride, and the annual “Cavalcade of Reasons Why Pride Events Suck” is in full swing. Gay.com did a feature a few years ago in which they had people write in their thoughts—good, bad, and indifferent—and sorted them into some semblance of order.
I'll just start out here by saying that I enjoy Pride events. While I don't quite thrive on big public spectaculars like them as many people do, I do enjoy going and seeing everyone doing their thing. I generally insist that I have a purpose at these events; otherwise I get bored easily, but that's my issue with most public gatherings, not just Pride. So every pride, I try to have a purpose in the Parade (my first two years in SF, I finagled a spot carrying the big leather flag, then I helped carry ACLC's banner, the past two years I've worked as a Contingent Monitor for the Leather Contingent) and something to do during the festival (working at ACLC's booth or bootblacking, interspersed with two-stepping).
So, let's see what we've got:
Pride is too commercial
Pride is not family friendly
They only show drag queens and leathermen
There's too much drug use
How can one be proud of their sexuality—something they can't control
The need for Pride events is past
We have nothing to be proud of
It's just a big party; it's not about pride anymore
Argument #1: Pride is too commercial.
I can't argue with the fact that Pride is very commercial. There are a number of corporate sponsors (breweries, distilleries, airlines, personal lubricant manufacturers) and the festival is largely focused on people selling goods and services. This is a given for any large Pride festival. Why? Big events take money. Insurance, permits, photocopying, water for the organizers and volunteers on the day of the event—these all cost money. As an event grows, it becomes much more expensive to produce. The only entities with sufficient money to bankroll such events and with any reason to do so are large corporations. In exchange for their support, corporations get their logos applied to various items associated with the Parade and Festival. They get advertising, plus customer goodwill for their support of the event. It's a win-win situation.
So it's to both the corporations' and the events' benefits that such arrangements are made. Does this mean that corporate sponsorship of Pride events is by definition a good thing? No, of course not. It's up to the individual Pride event's organizers to determine how much corporate sponsorship is appropriate for their event. Events in smaller cities that can get by with fundraisers and at the door donations often eschew corporate sponsorship for a variety of reasons. For example, the amount of pre-planning and negotiation necessary to obtain sponsorship is often prohibitive, particularly with a small organizing committee. However, for the kind of large Pride events that draw many people from all over the world (which is a common goal for many larger Pride events), the money that corporations provide can be absolutely essential. The only other way that such large-scale events could exist is if the admission charge were significantly increased. For example, Renaissance Faires are somewhat similar in scale and entertainment level to Pride Festivals—a large number of people gathering en masse to enjoy entertainment provided largely by volunteers (or extremely underpaid employees) and to purchase goods and services that are not commonly obtainable from most mainstream stores. Renaissance Faires are pretty darn expensive for what they provide you (essentially, access to the various shops and a number of free shows). I used to work at the Bristol Renaissance Faire (one of the larger ones, located between Chicago and Milwaukee), a regular price adult admission for Bristol is nearly $20. The SF Pride Festival costs $3, and that's a voluntary donation that gets you a sticker for $1 off all food and drinks. If you were to charge $20 to get into a Pride Festival, no one would attend.
Corporate sponsorship allows for another important factor, particularly with large festivals like SF's. Non-profit organizations that provide a workforce through their members have an opportunity to make money to support their work. By participating in SF Pride (not to mention Dore Alley and Folsom Street Fair), Alameda County Leather Corps has been able for the past three years to eschew their former practice of taking 5% of the net proceeds of fund-raising events for administrative costs. By dedicating one day of work for twenty people, we have been able not only to donate all of the net proceeds from our events to their designated charities, but also to distribute unused funds at the end of the year to more charities. Through our participation in Pride, we have had the ability to donate thousands of dollars more a year to deserving charities. This would not be possible without corporate sponsorship.
Finally, what's so wrong about commerciality? Many people argue that the only reason corporations sponsor Pride events is because they want a piece of that sweet sweet gay dollar. Forgive me for being snide, but ALERT THE PRESS! CORPORATIONS DO GOOD THINGS BECAUSE THEY WANT TO MAKE MORE MONEY!
Yes, corporations see us as potential customers. And I think that's just peachy. Capitalism is probably the only system in which queers have absolutely equal (if not slightly more) clout than the sexual majority. Capitalism is the great leveler. Our money spends as well as anyone else's, and for a corporation to recognize that is, in my opinion, a giant leap forward for us gaining more general acceptance.
Argument #2: Pride is not family-friendly.
Again, the argument itself has some validity. Many things that happen at Pride Parades and Festivals are not geared toward children. I sympathize with those people. Family friendly events are nigh impossible to find.
Wait. No. I'm wrong. Screw that. My sexuality does not involve children. Complaining that Pride events are not family friendly is like complaining that a mosque is not an appropriate place for a Christian prayer circle. Well, DUHHHHHH! You don't insist that bars become family-friendly. Merchant Ivory films aren't exactly decried for their lack of child-oriented themes. Some things are just for adults, and I think that Pride parades are a) arguably one of those things and b) not all that child-hostile in the first place. Yes, there are some displays of affection that probably go too far. Yes, skimpy clothing and tight leather is not your standard family fare. It's probably a little confusing for kids to see men dressed like women. Big deal. Any parent worth his or her salt should be able to defuse potential problems. A friend of mine, when asked by her daughter why there was some guy leading his boyfriend around on a leash, simply said, “That's how some grown-ups play 'Cowboys and Indians.'” Kids get playing. Most inexplicable things done by queer folk usually boils down to some sort of play. Go with it.
This leads me to a specific issue that I feel needs to be dealt with. Many people speak of the fact that they or someone they know were traumatized as a child by seeing some sexual or kinky behavior. Personally, I believe the blame for that trauma is misplaced. I feel that, barring actually witnessing a rape or heavy SM scene, the trauma came not from viewing the act, but from not having their questions or fears relieved by discussing what they saw with anyone. It's pretty common for a child who happens to walk in on his or her parents (I use a straight couple here for illustrative purposes only) to think that “Daddy was hurting Mommy.” I would say that witnessing one's father abusing one's mother (or thinking that you did) would be pretty traumatic, but by simply explaining what was really going on (in a level of detail appropriate for the child's age), that trauma goes away, leaving several hundred questions just waiting to embarrass the hell out of the parents at inopportune moments. Likewise, witnessing a sexually charged act that doesn't suggest violence will most likely confuse a child primarily. Confused children ask questions, and when a parent reacts either aghast that the child “saw that!” or angry that they allowed the child to see it (or even angry at the child for seeing it), the child feels ashamed or even worried that they did something wrong, and such emotions attach themselves to the act that the child witnessed, warping their perception of sexual behavior. Ultimately, this is all borne of our own warped perceptions about sex. Many of us feel that sex is dirty or shameful or just plain wrong, and that to expose children to it, even accidentally, will permanently destroy their psyche, and that simply isn't true. Children are resilient, are utterly curious, and are bound to eventually stumble across something sexually-oriented and confusing. It is at that point that the parents hold the key to the child growing up with a healthy attitude toward sex. By neglecting to direct the development of a child's attitude toward sex, usually due to embarrassment or shame on the parent's part, the parent pretty much insures that the child will grow up with that same embarrassment or shame.
Sorry, where were we? Oh, yeah. Ultimately, Pride events are not exactly Disneyworld, but they aren't a strip club either. Coincidentally, that describes most of the world and the media images children are exposed to every day. Parents are expected to help the child navigate through this imagery. If you don't feel capable of doing that as a parent, then don't come to Pride events with your children. Frankly, if you don't feel capable of doing that as a parent, don't have children.
Argument #3: There are only drag queens and leathermen there.
All right. First off, stop basing your opinion of Pride Events on those damn thirty second squibs they do on the local news. TV news depends on ratings, and let's face it, drag queens and leathermen are interesting, particularly to straight folks who aren't exposed to them on a regular basis. You have to admit that TV news rarely covers the entirety of any story.
Second, watch it with the sweeping generalizations. San Francisco annually has the parade, including the Women's Motorcycle Contingent and the Adult Children of Hippy-Dippy Gay Liberals and the Slightly Right of Center Mixed Gender Madrigal Chorus, covered on live television. I believe that similar coverage is provided in other major urban areas, but I'm not sure. Coverage is provided to every group who participates, not just those who dress funny.
For that matter, what the hell is so wrong with leathermen and drag queens? It was drag queens who initiated the Stonewall riots. Leathermen and drag queens represent two of the main charitable fundraising sources in most queer communities. Not to sound bitter, but when was the last time you saw a group of “assimilationist” (for lack of a better term) gays raise several thousand dollars for a charity in one evening. It happens weekly in the leather and drag communities.
Please note that I harbor no ill-will toward those organizations and individuals who are less visible in their dress and behavior than drag queens and leatherfolk. It is a truth that the queer community's strength lies in its diversity. However, it seems that any discussion that touches on visibility in the queer community tends to lead to more mainstream queers decrying the domination of the public eye by “those types”. That's not to say that some animosity toward “mundanes” doesn't exist in the leather and drag communities, but those attitudes have always seemed to me to be largely reactive to the prejudice we receive from the mainstream queers (which tip-toes dangerously close to "They started it!", but what are ya gonna do?).
Finally, pride parades are populated mainly by what are generally termed “affinity groups”—that is, groups of people who share a common interest. Personally, I believe that most of the feeling that the most visible portions of the gay community dominate pride celebrations is based on selective memory. Since they are so much more (let's face it) flashy than, say, Log Cabin Republicans, they stick in people's minds much more readily and thus take a larger part of people's recollections of the event.
One other thing: Those skinny twenty-two-year-olds in the tight shorts, combat boots, and harnesses? Generally don't even consider themselves leathermen. They just don't. And at most pride parades you can't hardly sneeze without knocking a few of them off a flatbed truck blaring “I Will Survive,” so there's another reason I don't buy the “leathermen and drag queens” complaint.
Argument #4: There's too much drug use.
I don't know if I'm just Little Mary Clueless over here, but I seriously have not seen much in the way of illicit drug use at Pride events. Excessive drinking, yes, but that's true about any large gathering of people where alcohol is available (refer to my comparison of Pride events to Renaissance Faires; when I worked at Bristol I developed the theory that they WANT everyone to get roaring drunk, to encourage them to buy some of the bizarre crap that the vendors have for sale (the starfish-on-a-stick comes to mind.)) Now, drug use in the gay community is, of course, an important issue to many (that's a totally different article), but I think Pride events are probably comparatively sober compared to, say, a given night in the Castro, or (more to the point) a circuit party or IML.
There's also a point to be made about how relevant concerns about drug use are. While I agree that, vis-à-vis the attitude of the general populace toward drugs, everyone seeing the gay community as nothing but a bunch of cracked-out tweakers (never mix, never worry, never mind) is probably detrimental to the community's image. But, I repeat, I haven't seen that much drug use, so I have trouble really “feeling” the argument.
Beyond appearances, at what point does a person's drug use become the business of a random Pride attendee? It's true that people on drugs can be an annoyance, but I think that fears of personal safety based on the presence of drug users are overblown. What are we talking about here? I can imagine the club drugs (Ecstacy, GHB, Ketamine), pot, Crystal Meth, and poppers, and that's about it. And the worst effect that those drugs will have on bystanders is to annoy the living shit out of them. I have encountered far more “dangerous to other people” inebriation from alcohol than from any of those drugs.
Pride is a non-structured event. If someone is doing drugs and irritating you, move away from them. Pride festivals are huge. There's always somewhere else to be. If the person is actually posing a danger to him- or herself or others, there should be a police officer or safety monitor within eyeshot. They are there specifically for this kind of thing. Point the person out to the cops and let them do their thing and be done with it. Don't throw the Pride baby out with the drugs bathwater. [I sincerely cannot tell if that last sentence is funny, merely coherent, or insane gibberish.]
It comes down to the following; public drug use is, by and large, a negative thing, particularly in large crowded events. But I think the negative aspects are largely overstated, particularly in contrast to the legal use of alcohol at the same events.
Argument #5: How can one be proud of their sexuality—something they can't control?
Argument #5a: The need for Pride events is past.
Two more fair points. To be proud of being gay is a little like being proud of being left-handed. Uhhhh,...bravo? We spend a lot of time arguing that one's sexual orientation is not a decision one makes, therefore how can one be proud of it.
While that is an accurate statement, I think it's a little reductive. The notion of Gay Pride is based on two divergent concepts. First off, pride is considered to be antithetical to shame, at least in our touchy-feely world (we won't discuss the Seven Deadly Sins aspect of Pride here). Queer folk have long been indoctrinated with the notion that being queer is shameful, sinful, an abomination. That shame builds up in our lives. It manifests in so many ways. I am an adult gay man who lives in quite likely the most gay-positive area in the world, and I still hesitate when revealing my sexuality to someone for the first time. A few weeks after I started my former job, I mentioned at a minor work social function that I two-step on weekends. One of my male co-workers asked me where, and I told him about where Sundance Saloon was located. He then asked me about what kind of crowd danced there, and I froze. I just couldn't say, “Well, it's mostly a gay male crowd, but we welcome everyone.” I panicked and said something bizarre about not knowing how to answer because I didn't have much of a frame of reference. I was briefly back in the closet, and that was largely because I still had the knee-jerk response that I needed to hide my sexuality. Because it was shameful.
To me, Pride events are partially a means by which individuals in the Queer Community may expunge some of our feelings of shame, fear, and awkwardness. For one day a year, I know that there is no fucking way that someone will express any sort of outrage or shock over my sexuality without risking the wrath of a thousand FABULOUS defenders.
When I see acquaintances of mine from the bars out on the street on a regular day, I'll offer, at most, a nod and “Hey.” Who knows how they feel about even minor public displays of affection? I know I'm not comfortable about people I only vaguely know giving me a hug on the street. But at Pride Festivals, I can hug whoever the fuck I want to, and no one can look askance at me (other than the person being hugged, but that never happens to moi.)
The reason that the phrase Gay Pride seems so odd is that the English language has no word that means “absence of shame”. That's what Gay Pride is about; it's not about being proud of being gay, it's about being unashamed of being gay. The language just hasn't caught up yet with something that looks snappy on a banner.
The other aspect of Gay Pride has been best expressed by Joe.My.God, when he said, “Saying 'Happy Pride!' is really just a shorter, easier way of saying 'Congratulations on not being driven completely batshit insane! Way to go for not taking a rifle into a tower and taking out half the town! Well done, being YOURSELF!'” Gay folks catch a lot of shit from a lot of people. Most of us build filters in our perceptions to ignore the low-level “you're evil/sinful/sick/wrong” noise that we find in our everyday signal. But no one's filters run at full efficacy. Some of that crap still makes it into our brains, and every year when we empty the lint screen on our collective psyche, we also should take a few hours to simply be proud that we've made it another year without going totally frit.
For another thing, Pride parades and festivals are also a venue through which people can band together with their queer brethren and sistren and say, “Look what we did with our sexuality.”
Okay, that didn't come out right. What I meant was that Pride events are an opportunity for queer-oriented organizations to present themselves to the community at large and take some pride in their accomplishments. Granted, not all of the contingents in a Pride Parade are going to inspire more admiration than, “Oh, look! Their feather boas all match!” but a significant part of the Pride experience is a chance to say, “These people and I do something wonderful and useful and good together.” And that's Pride I can totally get on board with.
Argument #6: We have nothing to be proud of.
Ah, the argument of the queer killjoy. No matter what you do, no matter how much money you raise, how many smiles you put on the faces of happy queer dancers, how many PWAs whose meds, food, rent, or cat's vet bills you pay for, it's never enough for some people. We are still shallow, racist, misogynist, lazy, ageist, looksist, promiscuous, disease-ridden failures. We will never live up to their standards, because their standards are a) impossible to reach and b) completely at odds with those of the killjoy standing five feet further down the parade route.
Yes, the gay community has problems with race and age and political unseriousness and appearance and the continuing popularity of Madonna. But so does the rest of the world. We're not gods. One's sexual preference is not a higher calling. We're humans; imperfect. We're going to screw up. Repeatedly. Does this mean we don't get to have fun occasionally?
Let me put it this way. I know a lot of people who aren't racist. Who love women and men equally irrespective of the differential between their sexual attraction to each. Who treasure the older generation. Who practice safe sex religiously. Who are monogamous. Who actually understand the intricacies of the law, and the need for sensible leaders. Granted, I don't know anyone who embodies all of those aspects, but I know a metric shitload of people who embody at least three. Every year, these people (of whom I am honored to consider myself a part) pull more than their weight in making this world a better place to live in; a better place to be queer in. These people build up good karma every year, and if they want to have a party because they are proud of the things they've done, then they have the right to invite all the shallow pretty-boys who wouldn't know sensible foreign policy if it sang “Mamma Mia” on American Idol that they want to invite. You don't like it? Throw your own party and only invite the best of the best. I'd buy just the small sushi platter, though. ::Merman moment::Just don't RAIN on our PARAAAAAAADE! [Yes, I know it was actually Streisand; "Merman moment" is funnier.]
Showtunes aside, there's a notion that shows up often in some schools of thought (I encounter it continually in discussions of libertarianism) which is that of “The perfect being the enemy of the good.” There are those in this world who will constantly reject things that are improvements, things that ameliorate the ills of the world that we live in, simply because those things aren't perfect. By insisting on the perfect, we reject the good and drift further away from our ideal.
No one has ever said that the queer community is perfect, and thus we deserve to celebrate. Personally, I think that the fact that many, if not most, of us are still trying our damnedest to make this world a world we want to live in is more than enough reason.
Argument #7: It's just a big party; it's not about Pride anymore.
This one's easy. You don't like parties? The gate's thataway.
Happy Pride, everyone. Happy overly-commercial, family-inappropriate, crazily-dressed, drug-addled, alcohol-fueled, pointlessly-proud, out-dated, imperfect Pride! You want to hash this out a bit more? Grab a margarita and meet me on the dance floor.
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