I’m seeing a lot of talk right now on the interwebs about who belongs at Pride. And most of it seems to be trying to address at least two separate questions, but mushed together. I’m going to try and disentangle them here a bit. The first question is: Who gets to claim they’re queer? I wrote about that in part 1 of this post.
The second question is: Who should be taking part in this specific annual celebration, and how?
While questions about identity labels swirl year-round, this time of year is where we get questions about who belongs at Pride, specifically. In the last number of years, this question has coalesced on smaller questions of whether, on one end of the spectrum, cops should be in the Pride parade; and, at the other end of that spectrum, whether groups such as Black Lives Matter or, in the past, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, belong. It’s a conversation that also extends to access barriers, such as set-ups that make it difficult for folks with disabilities to attend, or prohibitive costs for entry. And it extends to the question of whose sexualities are acceptable for public viewing—I’ll get to that in a minute.
I’ve written in the past about my take on the question of uniformed cops at Pride. For me, this one is a clear no. Pride began as a reaction to, and protest against, police brutality against queers in the mid-twentieth century. We still have problems today with police brutality and huge tensions between police both over-policing and under-serving the queer community—and let’s note that some of us don’t even want what are typically considered police services at all, and think it’s time for a totally new model. All this to say, it’s really not a stretch to ask cops to step aside and let us do this without joining in on the party they might just as easily be raiding. And that includes cops who fall somewhere under the rainbow. Come as yourselves, as individuals, but leave your uniform and your state-sanctioned murder weapon at home.
Beyond that, I personally have no problem with various community groups taking up space at Pride celebrations, even if I don’t feel affiliated with them myself, as long as they either stand under the rainbow or identify themselves as allies who support us and seem to have some grasp of what that means (hint: it’s not just about selling us pink products). I do have a problem with banks, corporations, right-wing political groups and their interests squeezing out queer people, groups and concerns. This seems obvious to me: if you work against queer interests, you don’t belong in either a queer celebration or a queer protest.
In keeping with that, I very much question the current tendency for the media and certain mainstream LGBT organizations to inquire as to whether various politicians plan to march in the Pride parade, and then tsk-tsk at those who don’t. I’m not sure when marching at Pride became a criterion by which we judge politicians who cruise for pink votes utterly regardless of their actual political positions, but it’s gross. Homophobes don’t belong at Pride. As such, it is perfectly appropriate that Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford would skip the march. They’re the guys we’re marching against! What baffles me most is that Toronto Pride’s official reaction to this is disappointment. That tells us a lot about their values. We’re a long way from queer liberation when Pride is sad that homophobes aren’t marching.
Respectability politics are back, and they’re blander than ever!
But it’s not just cops and banks who try to sanitize the community. Conservative gay factions have long tried to push the margins out of Pride in favour of a “respectable gays only” approach. I still remember how in the early aughts, Laurent McCutcheon, a community leadership heavyweight in Montreal’s francophone gay arena, publicly advocated for trans people, bi people and kinky people to be formally excluded from Pride parades because they gave the community a bad name. This message stung when I was 21 and Twitter hadn’t been invented yet, and it stings again on Twitter twenty years later.
So you’ll pardon that hearing the same thing today—and from young queers, no less—just feels like recycled respectability politics coming out of the mouths of people who weren’t even born yet when leatherfolk and pervy queers were taking the leadership in areas like HIV/AIDS activism, safer sex education, anti-government-censorship efforts, consent politics, feminist sex shops, queer studies, ethical porn and so much more, laying the foundations for the progress (and easy access to consumer products) some people are fortunate enough to take for granted today.
I honestly don’t care whether it’s conservative people old enough to be my parents or young enough to be my kids; if your idea of queer community has no space for kinky people, you’re ignorant of a lot of the history, politics and lifetimes of labour to which you owe your own relative safety and rights.
I saw a tweet go by the other day decrying kinksters because we apparently “stigmatize the queer community as sexual.” Stigmatize. As sexual. What did you think queerness was rooted in—interior decorating? Wedding ceremonies? Perhaps our timeless tradition of chaste strolls in suburban malls? Come the fuck on. With the puzzling exception of political lesbianism in the ’70s and ’80s (the misguided mini-movement within feminism in which heterosexual women identified as lesbians without actually wanting any part of lesbian sex or relationships), the history of queerness is the history of marginalized sexual orientations, and resistance to oppression based on those sexual orientations. The vast set of rich subcultures that have grown up around differences in sexual orientation would simply not exist without the sex part. (Even the ace folks who identify with queerness acknowledge its basis in sexual orientation, including their own, and not taste in drapes.)
But think of the children!
One of the justifications I’ve read for this “no kinksters at Pride” stance is that it might disturb the children. Which is terribly ignorant about history.
It used to be taken for granted that queers shouldn’t have kids because our sexualities were so unacceptable. If you were a gay man, you were just categorically excluded; there was no way in hell anyone would let you adopt, and you generally couldn’t make kids yourself. If you were a lesbian or bi woman, you might have children from a previous heterosexual relationship, or be able to find creative ways to get sperm to make babies alone or with a same-sex partner. Fertility clinics wouldn’t work with you, so it was strictly DIY. If you succeeded in making babies, you stood a serious risk of having them taken away if anyone found out you were queer. Trans folks who had kids pre-transition were encouraged by doctors and psychiatrists to divorce their spouses (if applicable) and either remain closeted around their kids or cut off all contact with them.
These things have only barely changed within my lifetime. The Lesbian Mothers’ Association formed in 1998 in Montreal with 40 members. Ten years later it merged with the Papa-Daddy Group (gay dads) to create the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-identified (LGBT) Family Coalition. These people fought for some of the most basic family-related rights you can imagine: the right to parent at all, to be treated at fertility clinics, to adopt, to have two parents listed on a birth certificate who weren’t a mother and father. They began this work before equal marriage was even really on the agenda, and were successful both before and after same-sex marriage rights were achieved in Canada.
I fully support all this progress. And given their decades of work fighting against the message of “your sexuality makes you unfit to be around children,” it’s a bit rich to see queer parents turn around and foist that very argument on other queers. The completely backwards idea that the rights of queer people’s kids to not see a pair of chaps (?!) should supersede the rights of fully-grown queers to appear at Pride the way they’ve done since before queers could even imagine having kids at all just kinda blows my mind. I mean I suppose it’s weirdly kind of cool that queers today would have enough kids to make those kids’ Pride-related needs a concern? But that parents would feel justified in telling anyone else to stay home from Pride in order to accommodate them is nothing short of ludicrous.
Beyond the history question, this whole discourse just screams of cowardly parenting. At Pride you are likely to see gyrations, tongue kissing and bare skin of various kinds, but it’s not like people are busting out the Crisco and calving gloves on the street corners. You are also likely to see feather boas and glitter and leather, because these are long-standing signs of fabulousness and rebellion, which is the whole damn point. Your polo shirt and chinos are welcome, but if you think your pleas for propriety will, or should, have an ounce of impact on queer dress styles, I invite you to peruse the entirety of human history and also get over yourself.
As well, lots of the glitter-and-leather people have their own kids, and have figured out how to manage. So maybe if you can’t bring yourself to say, “Kiddo, some people enjoy wearing fancy clothes at this kind of party, now let’s go play in the rainbow sandbox,” don’t bring them to Pride. You’re allowed to be not ready to explain all the facets of the community to your offspring. But it’s beyond uncool to try and shove fellow queers out for your convenience. That is not how this works.
Pride as protest vs protesting Pride
But here’s the thing. These days it’s starting to feel like pride, the historic tradition of claiming the right to exist and *gasp* be happy with orientations, genders, practices, identities, lives—and wardrobes!—that refuse a normative approach, is a very different thing from Pride, the annual festival/march/event series celebrating a watered-down, tidied-up version of all that. At least in Toronto and some other major cities, we’re at or nearing the point that Pride is a beige, bank-backed, perimeter-policed, corporate-sponsored, VIP-ticketed event, and where protest is quashed rather than encouraged.
As such, I’m not sure what it’s celebrating anymore, but up until this week, it sure wasn’t feeling like a place for me. What happened this week? I’ll get to that in a sec.
Twenty years ago, Pride was a space where I felt I could be most myself, and where I could protest the way the world treats queers. Today, it feels like a space hell-bent on imposing a rigid idea of what and who is acceptable in a way that increasingly excludes me, and I find myself wanting to protest the way Pride treats queers—and, it seems, the way queers treat queers. But I’m apparently old and grouchy so last year, I chose to skip the whole damn thing in favour of spending time with friends as far away from a parade route as I could get. I thought to myself that maybe someday when I had more energy, I’d attend (or help organize) some variety of alternative Pride, like Bricks & Glitter.
I appreciate that some folks are invested in Pride, and think it’s not past the point where we can turn it around. I also appreciate that Toronto isn’t the bellybutton of the world, and that Pride in other places might have an entirely different flavour or meaning. But speaking at least about here and now, until this week, I was becoming less and less interested in elevating the importance of this particular battleground, and more interested in exploring non-Pride options for celebrating and lifting up queerness.
So what the fuck happened this week to change my mind?
Nazis happened, that’s what. Specifically, far-right hate groups attacked Hamilton Pride last week (that’s an hour outside Toronto), and I’ve heard through the grapevine that they’re planning to march in Toronto this coming Saturday, the same day as the Dyke March, and to disrupt Pride.
I was all set to hang a couple of flags on my balcony and invite friends over for brunch. But it’s 2019, the year we can get fuckin’ married and see our parades taken over by glad-handing cops and corporations thirsty for our precious rainbow dollars, AND have fellow queers tell us our sexualities and appearances are unacceptable, and STILL be harassed by people who want to exterminate the whole fucking lot of us, all at the same time! Yay. Progress.
So now I have to put on my stompy boots and my leather and go out there and march. Because while I will absolutely criticize the way Pride has drifted from its roots, and the way some queers seem to forget their own history and try to shut others out of queer space, there is no goddamn way I’m going to stay home and sip a mimosa while the far right is showing up to lay hands on my fellow dykes. My skin is in this game, so Pride is where my skin and I are going to be. And—as always, but perhaps especially right now—it’s not a game at all.
Happy Pride, everyone.