Crossing Over: Spiritual Reflections on Pride Day

The observance of lesbian and gay pride day has its origins in an event that has taken on the proportion of legend. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 symbolize the beginning of the lesbian and gay liberation movement. In the heady atmosphere of the late 1960s, with the student, anti-war and countercultural revolutions in full swing, the police in New York City conducted what was then a routine raid on a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall catered primarily to low-income gay, lesbian and transgender patrons who were used to police harassment. On the night of June 27, 1969 something extraordinary happened. Instead of routinely submitting to the harassment and brutality, the patrons of the Stonewall fought back. The situation quickly developed into a street riot, with the police seeking shelter in the bar until reinforcements arrived to do battle with the enraged crowds in the streets of the Village. The riots continued for three nights with pitched battles between gays and the New York City police.

To understand the significance of Stonewall is to appreciate what sexual minorities were up against. Homosexual behavior was illegal, and same-sex desire considered pathological, immoral and sinful. The public expression of same-sex desire or of a homosexual identity was to risk losing everything: job, family, home. The places where gay people could meet were, for the most part, underground, furtive, and constantly under attack from thugs and police officers. Most importantly, gay men and lesbians themselves believed themselves to be flawed or perverted. Attempts at reform on the part of homosexuals before 1969 were tepid and fraught with the contradictions that come with self-hatred.

Like the first gunfire of the American Revolution, the Stonewall Riot was the shot heard around the world. It became possible to fight back. Taking their cue from the civil rights and anti-war movements, within which many gays and lesbians had been active, the Gay Liberation Front was formed within weeks of the riots, and within months similar groups had sprung up across the continent. These groups took direct action, picketing, protesting, zapping, held sit-ins, teach-ins and guerilla theatre demonstrations. They began consciousness-raising circles and newspapers, all spreading the until-then unheard message “Gay Is Good.” Stonewall changed the way that sexual minorities viewed themselves forever.

A year after the Stonewall Riots a newly energized, politicized lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in New York decided to mark the anniversary by having a protest march, the last weekend in June, starting in Greenwich Village and ending in Central Park. Called Christopher Street Liberation Day, nobody knew how it would turn out. Or indeed, if anybody would even show up to march through the streets for no other reason than they were gay or lesbian and wanted to defiantly celebrate these identities as good in the face of all that said it was not. Similar marches took place in other cities. Thousands turned out for it. A tradition was born.

As the lesbian feminist and gay liberation movements blossomed in the 1970s, so did the commemorations of the Stonewall Riots at the end of every June. Now celebrated as “Pride Day” the parades swelled with people exuberant in their newfound sense of themselves. The exhilarating pride they felt as gays and lesbians organized unions and caucuses, publishing houses and bookstores, softball leagues, marching bands, religious organizations, churches and synagogues, professional associations, magazines, political and self-help organizations and as each one of these paraded up the main streets of North America and Western Europe. No longer marked by secrecy, shame and isolation, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities celebrated the momentum of coming out in festive parades and demonstrations.

Pride is not just a community on parade, a celebration of our diversity and accomplishments. Though obscured now, in our time of greater visibility and equality, it is also a festive observance of the journey out, the crossing over from underground to aboveground, the journey from darkness to light. The merry-making and partying that mark Pride tap into profound spiritual cultural traditions of gay and lesbian subcultures.

The campy self-presentation inherent in drag balls, costume balls, masquerades, and gay revelry draw us into a world of festivity and fantasy. The fantastic, the imaginative, are not merely flights of fancy, flighty escapes from the world. The utopian visions of many radicals have been, after all, a kind of political fantasy. Festivity and fantasy point past the real to what is possible, what could be.

The political nature of festivity and fantasy can be seen in the medieval European celebration of the Feast of Fools. The Feast of Fools began at Vespers on the day of New Year’s Eve with the chanting of the Magnificat, that celebrated passage from the Gospel of Luke where the mother of Jesus declares: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” It was a period of time in which roles were reversed: the beggar with the bishop, the fool with the lord or sheriff. Lowly clerics painted their faces and strutted about in the robes of their superiors. There was cross-dressing in every sense. Masks were put on, outrageous ditties sung in the streets, and all the stately rituals of the church and court were mocked. During the Feast of Fools, every social convention and custom was ridiculed, every ruler lampooned by the common people.

As you might imagine, the Feast of Fools was criticized by higher ups, being condemned outright by the Council of Basel in 1431. Nevertheless, it survived into the sixteenth century, primarily in Germany and France, eventually being transformed into various theatrical and homosexual traditions. It represents in many ways the class conflict of the times, the peasants keeping alive many of their folk traditions while expressing resistance to feudal and ecclesiastical rule.

In gay slang, we talk about camp. When something is overly exaggerated and theatrical, it is campy. Camping is the practice of extravagant mannerisms, usually parodying or mimicking something or someone. It is ironic, playful, and biting. In the sixteenth century, on Shakespeare’s stage, it was illegal for women to act. The parts of women were played by boys. This act of cross-dressing was known in English as camping. Camping is the corruption of the French word campagne (or the Italian campagna), meaning not only countryside, but the level playing fields where travelling theatre troupes entertained. Campaign and campus are related English words. Theatrical troupes played on such fields throughout the medieval and early modern period. Such troupes often kept alive the spirit and practices of the Feast of Fools through the performance of political satires.

In gay and lesbian slang we also talk about drag as the act of cross-dressing, or more recently any kind of costuming or self-decoration (office drag, for example, being a suit and tie). Drag queens represent a particular kind of theatrical self-invention. Drag performers are known for dressing up like famous people in order to parody them. Drag queens are fantastic, fabulous creatures more than they are impersonators of women. In the restrictive binary of “male” and “female” there is nowhere else to go if one is not male–but female. Drag occupies a place along a gender continuum, not male but not female.

“On the drag” or “flashing the drag” was English slang right into the nineteenth century for men dressed in women’s clothing. It comes from an older English slang word for a cart used for hauling (or the street such a cart was pulled down). The main drag, we might say, in a town is its main street. Drag racing is, of course, the practice of driving down a strip of road.

These are possible linguistic remnants and echoes from the days of the Feast of Fools where the dressed-up or cross-dressed were dragged in carts along the main streets, parodying the well to do and powerful. The folk traditions kept alive by such festivities as the Feast of Fools are rooted in even older, pre-Christian European religions. These were likely animistic and pagan traditions–pagan in the root sense of the word meaning “country-dweller.” Christianity in Europe was, for the longest time, an urban phenomenon. The pagans or heathens of the countryside, the heaths, continued to practice their animistic, earth-centered traditions, other fragments of which survive to this day in such things as Halloween and Easter eggs.

The Inquisition actively suppressed the old religion of pre-Christian Europe. It is interesting to note the kinds of things that became illegal and persecuted. It became illegal to hold processions of men dressed as women in carts down the main streets; it also became illegal to wear animal skins in such parades. Could it be that the Church was trying to stamp out the burning embers of nature-based religion of the peasants that seems to have included a role for gender-variant behavior? Was it banning sacred parades of people dressed up as the goddesses, gods and animal spirits of their nature religion? We know that by the twelfth century, homosexuality was conflated with heresy and the two were actively persecuted.

There are many fascinating anthropological studies that link cross-dressing, same-sex desire and sacred function. In many cultures across the globe, certain shamanic, healing and mediatory roles were assigned to gender-variant people. The shaman impersonates the spirit of powerful animals, in many societies, taking on the persona of power animals. The shaman is able to cross over into the spirit world and return. It is possible that remnants of a European nature-based religion that included the sacred function of cross-dressed, homoerotically-inclined shamanic figures has survived through the Feast of Fools, the troubadours, and western theatrical traditions and is echoed in contemporary gay and lesbian slang and sub-cultural practices.

As late as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, one of the few societal niches that afforded gay men a place to be themselves was the theatre, the world of the performing arts. Theatre, itself rooted in pagan rites, reenacts transformation. The curtain rises, the veil between this world and some other is lifted, and we are transported into a world beyond the ordinary world. Where players use costume and makeup to take on the personae of people who are not themselves.

Celebrating Pride Day, we draw on these rich traditions and associations. Reversing roles, as happened in the Feast of Fools, is a critique of such roles. Power and gender arrangements are shown not to be natural or God-given, but made up by humans. They can be unmade. The inherent critique of power involved in reversing roles also taps into our powers to transform ourselves. Masquerade, costume, camp and drag remind us of our ability to create ourselves anew, to become fabulous. We can cross over, we can enter a new world. This is what social change movements do, showing us how personal and social transformation are possible.

Celebrating Pride Day, we evoke our powers of becoming who we are, our potential to be all that we are meant to be, by drawing on the theatrical, shamanistic threads in western European lesbian, gay and transgender subcultures. It has the possibility of simultaneously being political theatre, protest and ritual.

The central metaphor of Pride Day is one of coming out, coming out of the closet. It seems to me that coming out is a profoundly spiritual occasion. Yet in a world that cannot appreciate gayness, it is a spiritual occasion without ceremony. Jewish kids come of age with a Bat or Bar Mitzvah, Christians with confirmation, but no similar rite of passage exists for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who make the difficult, treacherous passage from the closet to the daylight. There exists no formal apprenticeship, no ceremonial initiation for us as we wake up to the inward truth of who we are.

The themes of transformation, of passage from the ordinary world to an extraordinary one, of shamanic crossing over that are all inherent in Pride Day make it a psychologically and spiritually powerful event for sexual minorities, we who have been denied ritual expression of our wrestling with the power of being. It is for this reason that Pride celebrations can be emotionally charged and moving events for many of us.

We remember the Stonewall Riots and their important place in defining a change of consciousness, where sexual minorities came out of hiding. At Pride Day, we remember our past and festively celebrate our hard-won freedoms. Like the Jewish festival of Passover, it is a yearly reminder that we came out of oppression. Pride Day is a dramatization and reenactment, like the ritual occasion of Passover, of our coming out into freedom. On Pride Day, we celebrate our arrival, like the “coming out” balls of debutantes.

Celebrating our coming out, our crossing over, we invite those we love and those who love us to join us. Not only to support the equality, dignity, and worth of sexual minorities, but to create with us a new world. Not only to demonstrate our opposition to oppression, discrimination and unfair treatment, but to journey together on a road of personal transformation, celebrating the possibilities–for all of us–of becoming who we truly are.