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The perpetual discourse over LGBTQ Pride, explained

The fights over Pride are really about whether Pride is even political anymore.

A man in the New York Pride Parade wearing shiny silver briefs and nothing else.
Some people do not want to see butts at Pride!
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

Every big American holiday is accompanied by unspoken, terrible traditions that make us feel like we’re celebrating them right. Thanksgiving will almost always involve a dry turkey. Memorial Day, the first “summer” holiday, is almost always accompanied by bad weather. New Year’s Eve sucks, and if yours is great, you’ve done something terribly wrong.

And June, a.k.a. LGBTQ Pride Month, like clockwork, will always be preceded by a fight over who comes to Pride, and what they look like.

Fighting is ingrained in the DNA of Pride, which refers to both the month of June, when the US celebrates LGBTQ rights, and to a series of events in specific cities. Pride began as a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City — after being subjected to relentless police brutality, arrests, and raids on gay bars, nightclubs, and bathhouses, LGBTQ people stood up and fought back. The first Pride march was held the next year and became a symbol of resistance as well as a demand for LGBTQ lives to be recognized as equal.

Now, 51 years later, the fight looks a lot different. This year, the most vocal fight isn’t so much about the government’s role in justice or equality, but a debate about harnesses, leather suits, ball gags, and furries. People are fighting over whether kink and fetish have a place at Pride marches.

While fighting about the merit of nipple clamps on parade can seem facetious, especially compared with more serious issues facing LGBTQ communities, it’s actually part of an older and ongoing tension that revolves around sexual identity and mainstream acceptance.

The fight for LGBTQ people to be recognized as equal by mainstream society has often been stylized as a fight about what’s “normal” (e.g., loving someone regardless of your and their gender is a normal thing and should be accepted). But that equation has historically turned into an incremental fight over respectability, with LGBTQ people compromising certain aspects of their lives for baseline recognition. At the same time, there’s been an increased debate over police presence at Pride.

But while fights over kink and the cops at Pride seem disparate, they both center a question about the importance and relevance of Pride and Pride Month celebrations, about who exactly gets to be visible, and how. They bring into focus an existential crisis for Pride itself: Is there any political clout left in what’s considered an important celebration of LGBTQ rights? Is this fighting all for naught?

For corporations, celebrating Pride has become as ubiquitous as major holidays. Cities, politicians, banks, media companies, clothing brands, big-box retail shops, and every entity in between celebrates and recognizes Pride Month; many have merchandise or swag to go with it. At marches and parades with TD Bank floats and Mastercard banners, is kink even out on display? And is something as corporate as Pride itself really about queer politics and queer issues at all?

The “Kink at Pride” debate is about respectability politics

Pride In London 2019 Celebrations
Marching in leather during summer is no easy feat.
Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/Getty Images

One of the things that LGBTQ people quickly learn when they come out is that the “sex and respectability at Pride” discourse is like the villain in a horror movie who is never, ever truly defeated, even if you burn the bones.

In 2018, the Advocate reminded us, listicle style, that Pride has always been about sex; in 2019, parents debated openly about kink and whether it was suitable for children; and in 2020, it was written that the debate will never go away. The debate over whether men in chaps should be allowed at Pride goes back to at least 2013, when Barack Obama was president. Though her remarks were not exclusively about sex and kink, gay liberation activist Sylvia Rivera famously lit into the New York City Pride crowd in a 1973 speech about how the predominantly white middle-class people at the gathering were ignoring sex workers, transgender people, and incarcerated queer people. She was booed.

The current fight over kink at Pride was foisted upon the LGBTQ community like many other fights: through social media. It’s virtually impossible to get across depth or nuance in a 280-character tweet or 35-second, front-facing TikTok, let alone one complaining about sexual indecency at Pride.

@slurpyprincess

here's a little rant: clearly i'm anti yt g@ys #pride #pride2021 #lgbt #queer

♬ original sound - caden ✨

Of the myriad tweets and TikToks seemingly designed in a lab to challenge my fortitude, the debate against kink and Pride was crystallized in a series of tweets by left-wing YouTuber Vaush. He weighed in on May 24, asserting his “no kink” position because kink is not family-friendly:

On the surface, this looks a lot like arguments of the past. Historically, the idea was that you can’t have kink and fetish on display because children might see. No doubt, tiny young humans seeing things that their parents don’t want is a concern that transcends sexuality and gender.

But what’s different in this 2021 iteration is the usage of “accessibility,” and its connection to the idea of consent. The idea is that, hypothetically speaking, a person — not just unsuspecting children with their parents — who shows up to Pride and sees an exposed piece of flesh or a glimmer of genitalia did not consent to it and could possibly be harmed by it, thus limiting their access to Pride. The solution, ergo, would be to have a non-sexual Pride that everyone could attend (but don’t accuse the solution of being “sanitized”).

Vaush’s solution for a place where people feel safe isn’t invalid. There are big parties and celebrations — comic book conventions come to mind — where consent rules have to be printed out and said aloud because of complaints about people crossing said boundaries.

But in the context of Pride, it’s complicated. Queer history is often about resistance to norms and embracing radical existence, so engaging in respectability politics — the idea that marginalized groups need to behave or act in a certain way to validate the compassion shown toward them — flies in the face of those goals.

“Respectability politics is the wedging weapon that conservatives have always used against the queer community — getting us to turn against each other by always trying to live up to their ideas of what a human should be,” said Robin Dembroff, a professor at Yale who specializes in LGBTQ philosophy.

Dembroff explained to me that the respectability game is slippery. If you’re willing to exclude people based on their bedroom fetishes and kink, the worry is that then you’ll exclude already-marginalized LGBTQ members like sex workers, incarcerated people, and substance users.

Instead of broadening mainstream culture to accommodate the humanity of the LGBTQ community as a whole, respectability politics asks a community to change itself for mainstream sympathy. It’s not hard to see why many LGBTQ people, regardless of kink tastes, take issue with installing exclusion or policing behavior at Pride celebrations. Queerness, at its core, is a rejection of that respectability.

“Queerness isn’t just about who you want to fuck, you know? Being queer is still fundamentally rooted in having a political resistance to hegemonic ideas of how humans ought to be,” Dembroff said. “And it’s about whether or not you’re an ‘acceptable’ human.”

Can Pride be radically political if it’s so corporate?

The curved video screen over the entrance to a Chase Bank building in New York City displays a rainbow flag for Pride month.
Chase is proud to celebrate Pride!
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Last month, Heritage of Pride, which organizes New York City’s celebrations, announced that it would ban the NYPD from marching because of concern from activists about police presence and how police have treated Black, Latino, and transgender communities. The decision also calls to mind how the very existence of Pride and gay rights was a response to policing and police brutality in New York City. Cities like San Francisco, Denver, and San Diego have instituted a similar ban on uniformed officers at Pride.

The debate over police presence at Pride, not unlike the debate over kink or queer representation at Pride, seems to indicate that many still see the politics within the Pride celebration. But all these arguments over who and what Pride should be about hinge on the subjective individual interpretations of Pride as a symbol of LGBTQ politics.

In recent years and especially in major cities and metropolitan areas, Pride has become a very popular corporate opportunity.

Big-box retailers like Target and Walmart have designated Pride collections where you can buy T-shirts that say “Born This Way,” or a “gender inclusive” T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Ally.” Skittles, in a marketing campaign, removed the rainbow coloring on its candies to make a point about “only one rainbow matters” during Pride. And TD Bank, Mastercard, and Goldman Sachs are among the companies that are very happy to celebrate — and remind you they celebrate — Pride through floats, giveaways, special deals, and dedicated “Pride” sections of their websites.

It’s easier to list the national companies that don’t celebrate Pride than the countless ones that do. And, to be clear, these companies supporting LGBTQ rights is infinitely better than going against them. But the wholesale corporate sponsorship of Pride raises the question of Pride’s political relevance if it’s become so entrenched with capitalism.

“This is all just about selling shit, right?” Greta LaFleur, a professor at Yale who specializes in the American history of sexuality and queer and trans studies, told me.

The corporatization of Pride has been a disappointment for many queer people, including LaFleur and, frankly, myself. As she explains, it’s more about selling a product and asking consumers to purchase their way to some idea of equality than it is about wrestling with the issues — health care for trans people, incarceration, homelessness, sex work, and substance abuse, etc. — that face the LGBTQ community.

If Pride has become so corporate, then at what point does Pride become a product itself? Does all this corporate gesturing rob Pride of measurable political impact?

“This is a bummer of an argument. There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Why even fight about it? Because Pride is useless to fight about — because Pride itself has no political purchase anymore,’” said LaFleur.

The worry over sanitizing the politics of Pride, respectability politics, and even New York City’s current debate over a police presence at Pride then seem like moot political points if big banks and retailers have already commodified the commemoration. How radically inclusive can queerness be if it’s sponsored by corporate entities?

Maybe Pride is now less of a political symbol and more of a corporate fundraiser that handsomely benefits big companies. And what people are fighting for may be more about the spirit of Pride than the actual product.

LaFleur posits that organizations working for LGBTQ rights did an efficient enough job at styling and marketing the fight for equality in extremely specific ways, including respectability politics.

For example, same-sex marriage becomes the signature win of the last decade, while health care for trans youth is hardly spoken about. Pride in this context, then, becomes the one month of the year, a container of sorts, where LGBTQ activism is expected but comes in the form of facile financial support to mainstream causes.

“Gay rights then becomes this easy thing for people to sign on to, and what’s an easier version to sign on to than Pride?” LaFleur told me, explaining that the challenge is to look beyond Pride and the once-a-year fight about leather-flanked glutes, and think about LGBTQ issues every day.

“You’re not writing letters to incarcerated people, you’re not getting phone calls from the prison system that are charging fucking $5 a minute to talk to someone who’s been locked up for 20 years. You know what I mean? Like, all they’re asking for you to do is put on a fucking Target rainbow shirt, go to a parade on a really hot day, and, like, watch all these gay people get drunk,” she said.

While you could argue that’s a terribly bleak outlook of LGBTQ rights and Pride, it feels like the natural endpoint to that 1973 scene in which an audience booed Sylvia Rivera while she chastised them for not caring about trans people and incarcerated people who don’t fit with what Pride “should” look like. The wholesale corporatization of Pride would be carved from her nightmares.

“You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown into jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation, and you all treat me this way?” Rivera, who died in 2002, told the 1973 crowd. “What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!”

I can’t imagine what she’d say about the fights we’re having now.

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