Another Pride parade in New York City has come and gone, the 20th to be exact since I came out. For 20 years I’ve always had an on-again-off-again relationship with that bitch; he upsets me and we scream at each other and I swear to never see him again until I do, my hopes back up from cherry-picking memories of us, only to be disappointed again. This year, like most, I stood him up; I feel like I have a valid excuse this time living and working three thousand miles away.
I could pretend that this ambivalence originated with some sort of wokeness, but the truth is that it has always been, more or less until very recently, practical. At first, as a 19 year old club kid who did not yet appreciate, but still took full advantage of, the accidental beauty that is youth, and for whom a pre-gentrified Chelsea was only a tunnel ride away, between the twelvish hours we were kicked out of Tunnel Sunday morning and would arrive at Limelight Sunday night, I wanted to shave, shower, nap, and plan out another cute outfit; the last thing I wanted to do was sit outside in the heat of late June and watch a parade.
Later, after my clubbing had calmed down, I found myself, with very little interruption, working in some capacity in retail until I was able to patch together enough adjunct teaching work to pay all of my bills. Ask anyone in retail when their last weekend day off was; if they have ever gotten one, they will most likely need to look it up because it happened so long ago. This made my interactions with that bitch sporadic at best.
It has then only been a handful of years where I was able to reliably attend NYC Pride. My first recent attendance was in 2015. I was excited to attend; this was the year, after all, the Supreme Court ruled we gays and lesbians could legally marry. Perhaps that bitch and I could finally patch things up and have some sort of relationship. But, as this unpublished memoir piece discusses, larger issues around how the police are used to monitor and punish queer young bodies of color in public spaces–issues which, because my white body has always benefited from white supremacy, I did not begin to think about until I started teaching, and listening to, African American and minority students–frustrated any possibility of pride in my identity that year. And, it seems that, year after year, this never changes. Despite Pride’s celebration of the Stonewall uprising which directly and violently confronted police brutality, NYCPride has never seen a problem with getting in bed with the NYPD who, as of 2016, has paid out almost half a billion dollars between 2009 and 2016 in court settlements, a large amount of that number due to the mistreatment, beating, and/or death of black and brown bodies.
As someone who has spent most of his out life reading LGBTQ histories and queer theory, the hypocrisy of that bitch blows my mind. We can get a feeling for just how far Pride has steered from its original intentions, as Michael Bronski points out in his article on Charles “Charley” Shively and the Gay Liberation Front of the early 1970s:
Fag Rag, though produced by a collective, was very much Charley’s, and it was in Fag Rag that he published his influential essays that theorized homosexuality as a transgressive, liberative force. In an age of gay rights, gay marriage, gay adoption, gay Budweiser and Levi’s ads, it is arresting to consider the degree to which Charley, along with his Gay Liberation comrades, felt homosexuals should remain outside of the mainstream—that queers were meant to be at the helm of the destruction of society as we know it.
Out of the Stonewall riots of 1969—a violent anti-police action that in its memorialization has been largely defanged—the Gay Liberation Movement formed. Gay Liberation saw itself as a vanguard of the New Left. Central to its politics was the battle against gender and sexual oppression as well as racism, capitalism, and imperialism.
Forged in the crucible of anti-war protests, Black Power, second-wave feminism, and drugs, sex, and rock and roll, the first wave of the Gay Liberation Front had two interlocking demands: political revolution and for gays to “come out.” The first, Manhattan-based group, formed just after Stonewall, was composed of women and men trained in the civil rights and anti-war movements, Students for a Democratic Society, and earlier reformist gay rights groups such as the Mattachine Society. At its inception, Gay Liberation—drawing on the insights of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, and R. D. Laing—theorized that sexual and gender repression were the basis of, or at least seriously implicated in, all forms of social and political oppression.
Now that popular culture is full of neutered gay characters and same-sex marriage is jejune enough to be in ads for financial planning, Gay Liberation and Fag Rag can feel like lights in the darkness, reminders of a not-so-distant past when it was possible to believe that our culture was on the cusp of monumental structural change in the direction of greater equality and personal freedom. Notably, they also prefigure our present day’s radical youth movements, from Black Lives Matter to Bash Back!, which have actively turned against the accommodationist rights-based movements that characterized much of the 1980s and ’90s.
In addition, we can see this revolutionary mindset in Boston Gay Liberation Front’s Ten-Point Demands Presented to the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami (which can be found if you scroll to the bottom of Bronski’s article). For this conversation number nine is the most interesting to me. It demands, in part, “the formation of a people’s police to be organized by those most subject to police brutality: third world groups, women, lesbians, faggots and poor people generally.”
Of course, at this point, there has been a lot of discussion about why Pride, and our movement in general, has strayed so far from its radical origins. In regards to Pride specifically, we have white (and I would argue cis) supremacy at work. As homonormativity was naturalized over the last 40 years-ish, the ones who begin seeing the most benefits were white cis members, who then more easily moved into the middle and upper classes where they no longer had to worry about police brutality since they were now part of the segments of society who control the use of the police. We white cis gay men and lesbians who have made it, so to speak, want our party at whatever social cost. Period. Pride is emblematic of the larger willful blindness of our white cis members to the struggles of our queer and trans brothers, sisters, and non-binaries of color.
So after all of that discussion, that bitch sounds toxic. Why can’t I quit him? Why do I still feel guilty when I stand him up?
First, we need to talk about visibility, no matter how problematic that visibility might be. I know that I am cherry-picking to an extent here, but after 20 years I still believe that regular and sustained visibility and affirmation of our identity is vital to countering the still insidious homophobic narratives that have been used to control both our bodies and our minds for the last three thousand years through a mixture of religion, the state, and medicine. I think part of the reason why Pride never meant that much to me in my early out days is because I already had a supportive family system in place. I was never afraid to come out to my family; I was, at the time, afraid to come out to the rest of the world, a world in which reparative therapies were yet to be condemned by the APA, where trashy daytime talk shows entertained (and in my young mind, legitimized) homophobic nonsense, where no high schools had any semblance of a group for queer youth for fear of being seen as indoctrinating. But, no matter what awful and nonsensical (though I didn’t understand that at the time) things the world said to me, I could always go home to an affirming household.
20 years later I realize just how lucky I was. One of the wonderful things about New York City is how it is a destination for what the rest of the world doesn’t want, what the rest of the world sees as problematic. While my husband and I have friends whose parents from far away states support them in every way, we have just as many friends who have escaped unsupportive and mentally and/or physically abusive households. In these instances, both the public and private spheres are working together to reinscribe their marginalization. Andrew Hahn has a searing memoir piece regarding his own internalized homophobia reinforced by almost every social contact point in his life, a story about a same sex relationship he has before being shipped off to college at the notoriously homophobic Liberty University. For Hahn and the people my husband and I know who escaped similar home situations, I imagine that the regular and sustained positive affirmation of their queer identities that is Pride is one of their only respites from those other sustained and regular homophobic discourses in the spaces of their families and homes, spaces we are all taught to believe are supposed to be inherently safe.
And in our current political climate with a President who only knows how to relate to despots, who, along with his devout followers, pine for authoritarianism, visibility for any marginalized group is more important than ever. I look around the world to what is happening in Egypt right now with the state’s queer crackdown, to the queer genocide still occuring in Chechnya,to Putin’s use of homophobia to extract political gain. One doesn’t need to draw a very long line from these instances to Trump’s recent crackdown on immigration, where, after he ripped children away from their parents and locked them up, he “fixed” the problem he created by locking up the families together indefinitely and arguing that they deserve no legal representation. For most of us queers, especially our queer members of color who understand America’s own history of genocide in a visceral way, we understand how quickly these kinds of techniques can move from one marginalized group to the next which, I believe, is one reason (the other being the in-your-face nature of the story which is normally hidden within the functions of routine white supremacy) why the same center left homonormative members who have no problems with Pride have also been outraged by Trump’s latest foray into immigration and authoritarianism. And, of course, if the state is not directly doing these things to us, it is allowing religion to take up the cause as seen by these stories of recent torture in gay conversion settings still legal in 41 states. Regular and sustained visibility won’t necessarily eliminate these problems altogether, but it does help to push back against the discourses which create them.
One of the things that interests me lately in regards to our conversations about Pride is how easily we can identify elements of white supremacy, but how hard it is for us to also identify the complex ways in which capitalism informs Pride. If we look at the history of this country, both entities, white supremacy and capitalism, need to be addressed. One can not function properly without the other.
First, a positive aspect. I must acknowledge the temporary but still revolutionary act of rituals like Pride within a capitalist system. There is a lot of power in marginalized groups circulating money within their own group. My husband, along with most of our other drag and burlesque performer friends, have full calendars for most of June, to the point where some of them are so exhausted by the actual day of the parade that they are unable to attend. During Pride queer owned and operated bars make enough money to, at worst pull themselves for a little bit out of the red and, at best, have a few bucks left over to put away for a rainy day.
Of course, in tandem with these revolutionary acts, are the acts by corporations which reinscribe our oppression through the myth of liberation as a consumer. While we are circulating our dollars within our group, the ruling class buys their way into our ritual with floats that blast “Pride Classics” like, say, “It’s Raining Men,” buys their way into our ritual through free rainbow flags and complimentary drinks and banking brochures, forwarding the narrative that liberation can be found if we allow these groups to strip us of the semiotics that marginalize us and then sell those items back to us for a profit, thereby oppressing us in an even more comprehensive way than we were before.
Along with the ways in which, both good and bad, consumerism operates within the ritual of Pride, we also need to look at the ways in which the alienation caused by capitalism plays into Pride. One of the hallmarks of capitalism is alienation; this was not only posited by Marx in the 19th century but shown by a large slice of modernist work in the beginning of the 20th century. (Kakfa’s “Metamorphosis” comes quickly to mind as one of the most famous examples). The mechanization necessary to sustain and expand capitalism must be internalized by its workers, thereby divorcing them from vital aspects of their humanity. I think that just about everyone has a story to illustrate this, a job in which they just showed up and did what the boss told them to receive a paycheck, feeling little to no connection to whatever that actual job was. For queer workers then Pride can act as a yearly connection back to that full humanity. In that way, it can be revolutionary. However, very quickly, once this act has been ritualized, it only feels revolutionary, morphing into a way to reinscribe oppression as it simply becomes an annual outlet which then makes that alienation during the rest of the year bearable for the queer worker.
If that bitch, Pride, has taught me anything over the past 20 years, it’s the limit of identity politics within the framework of capitalism. Identity politics argues that liberation happens with equality, but when one looks at that within a capitalist framework, this can only be equality within a class of oppressors. One way that any of us, no matter our identity, measures success is through our accumulation of money and material things. In other words, if you were poor, are you middle class now? As an adult, do you have more than you parents did? At 30 do you have more than you did when you were 20? At 40 do you have more than you did when you were 30? If the answer is yes, then you have succeeded. This is the same measure identity politics uses. But, of course, this accumulation comes at a cost, at the exploitation of someone else’s labor. Identity politics has internalized the same measure of success the individual uses in capitalism: If I am now exploiting a class of which I was a formerly a member, I am a success. This is not true equality or any kind of actual liberation. It is a faux liberation that is incapable of delivering what it promises, equality for everyone. It is one side of the same kind of faux liberation offered to us by corporations, one side of the same kind of faux liberation we feel annually when temporally connected back to our true identity the mechanisms of capitalism tears us apart from for the rest of the year.
If we want true liberation, true equality, then we need to go back to the more radical basics of our movement put forth by groups like The GLF and figure out ways to construct new relationships which intentionally defy the framework of capitalism rather than capitulate to it and assume it as natural. I would argue that aligning ourselves with this latest iteration of revolutionary movements, such as Black Lives Matter, would be a good start.
In the meantime, that bitch, Pride, and I will keep screaming at each other and then making up, only to break it off again.