“Gay Pride is for Straight People”

I was in Toronto recently for Pride Day. I notice that these days, most North American cities no longer celebrate Gay Pride Day, nor do they celebrate Gay & Lesbian Pride Day, or LGBT Pride Day. It’s just Pride Day.

I had thought for the longest time that this was because of our own ever-growing alphabet soup of nomenclature, trying to create the broadest coalition of sexual minorities. We want all sexual and gender dissidents included.

In Toronto, for example, the call goes out from the organizers to “LGBTTIQQ2SA” constituencies to come out for the week of activities culminating in a parade on the final day. That just gets too complicated to keep saying so “Pride Day” truncates all those letters (and one number) for the sake of conversational ease.

It has also occurred to me that plain old-fashioned shame, ironically, could be the reason for the erasure of the word “gay” in one of the biggest celebrations of queer (and other) identities on the calendar.

After the Dyke March on Saturday during Pride Week, I asked my friend if she would be coming to the next day’s parade. “Are you kidding,” she said wrinkling her nose. “Gay Pride is for straight people.”

I laughed out loud, realizing the wisdom in her pithy remark. “It’s not really for us,” she continued, joining my laughter.

More than a million people turn out for Toronto’s Pride parade. The parade participants and spectators fill the streets to watch the hours-long parade and attend the street fair that takes place on dozens of streets closed to motor vehicles. Most, I would venture to say, are non-LGBTTIQQ2SA people.

It has become de rigueur to complain about the commercialization of Pride Day. It’s worse than Christmas. Corporate sponsorships and participation in the parades and street fairs have generally crowded out the community-based groups and small (queer-owned and oriented) businesses that were the mainstay of Pride Day in years past.

Pride Day has become little more than an opportunity for multinational corporations—everything from banks to alcohol companies to automobile manufacturers—to market their wares to gay and lesbian consumers (all those other letters don’t seem to interest them).

And it’s a day for straight allies to demonstrate their solidarity with sexual minorities. Even the ones who are not only doing it because they want to take your money.

But that’s a post for another day.

I want to tell you about the straight people who come to Pride Day.

They come to Pride Day because it is fun. They come because it’s a fantastic party with really good dance music. They come in costume, masqueraded in makeup and body paint and glitter. They wear feather boas and skimpy shorts and fierce leather boots. And I’m talking about men, women, older, younger—straight people of different cultures. They make of their bodies a demonstration, a celebration, and they do it in a very queer way. They vamp, they cheer drag queens and leather dykes, they kiss their same-sex friends on the mouth.  Gender nonconformity and same-sex desire are being both celebrated and enacted by these participants and spectators who do not ordinarily identify themselves with queer constituencies.

It’s like Saint Patrick’s Day, only instead of being Irish, everybody is “gay for a day.”

For one day of the year, a whole city comes out for play and revelry that celebrates all kinds of sexual desire and the fluidity of gender expression. For just a little while, the erotic, the body, is at the center of a civic celebration, along with subversion of norms around pleasure and gender and propriety.

The kids who come with their heterosexual parents have the right idea: this year, I saw a number of children dressed in masks and capes, in disguise as their favorite superheroes. It’s like Halloween, but with Mardi Gras beads instead of candy.

It’s an occasion for presenting a self that is hidden, a secret identity –like Batman and Spiderman crossing over between their secret self and their public self and back again. The children understand intuitively the costuming, the disguise, the crossing categories of identity — and show up as Batman and Spiderman.

It’s an occasion for the hidden self cloaked in shame to reach for the light. Anyone who has ever had a secret to shamefully hide comes out and takes pride in themselves on the main street in the sunshine.

It’s an occasion for presenting a sexualized self to the world, and not just to one’s private admirers. It’s an occasion for playing with the boundaries of gender and self-expression.

What person, working their nine-to-five job in their grey wool suit, wouldn’t want that? What person who chafes under the restrictions allowed to their gender wouldn’t want this? (I love how straight men show up in their kilts or sarongs).

Eroticism is exciting. Life would be a drab routine without at least that spark. That’s the point. Why has all the joy and excitement been concentrated, driven into that one narrow, difficult-to-find alley of human experience, and all the rest laid to waste? There’s plenty to go around within the spectrum of our lives. (Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution)

Eros is banished from that everyday world. And in the world created by queer carnival, it is allowed open and public expression.

Carnival: the one revolutionary impulse beating inside the disco rhythms of Pride Day that are my hope for resistance to the day’s complete takeover by consumerist capitalism.

Historically, carnival is the occasion for inversion of the social order. It exposes the power relations in a society as malleable, the social structures as able to be subverted. The pleasures of the body that have been banished from public view, from the polis, from the political, erupt in a joyous abandon during carnival. The pleasureless world of speeches and manifestos, boardrooms and offices, factories and classrooms are swept aside in an explosion of festive Eros.

The liberation of sexual desires and the resistance to the repression of what is queer is going to be a party. To rebel is to revel; the words are related. ACT UP, Queer Nation, Reclaim the Streets, Carnival Against Capital, Occupy Wall Street and others have the right idea. Nothing is more deadening and unsexy, than traditional protests, marches and demonstrations.

When the occasions of our joy, our jouissance, our pleasure, are the sites of our rebellion and resistance, of course our rebelling takes the form of revelry.

In Pride Day, we have the potential to turn up the volume of mockery and transgression inherent in its role as latter-day carnival. There are elements of Pride Day that mark it as spectacle, as entertainment. And yet there is also mass participation—even from heterosexuals and their offspring.

Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World)

Everybody participates through costume, drag, the overt expression of desire, the playfulness around gender stereotypes—even when there are barricades that separate “spectators” from the parade, or “audience” from performers on stage.

A major part of Pride Day happens after the official parade, when everybody unofficially parades up and down Church Street. Drag queens, muscle boys, Brazilian dancers with enormous headdresses, the outrageously clad and costumed, pose for pictures, accept the accolades of passers by, and dole out kisses and winks. And yet everybody is acting like they are fabulous, and kiss, wink at and squeeze total strangers.

Some people are completely naked, others merely shirtless. Others are conventionally attired but wear masks, horns, glitter, rainbow leis. Others are in leather chaps and harnesses, jockstraps, bras. Everybody is in on this street party, this display; every body is on display, with their tattoos and piercings and body paint.

In a way, the LGBT liberation movement has been pioneering a politicized social change movement around sexual freedom and expression. Despite the many ways the revolutionary impulse in this movement has been co-opted and dispersed, the potential is still there.

Ultimately, I think the future will not see a divide along the lines of sexual orientation at all (i.e. “straight” vs. “gay”). I think we will have sexual dissidents and gender transgressors of all sexual orientations on the one hand, and on the other, people of all sexual orientations committed to bourgeois conformity and propriety. (The biggest complainers about the nudity and cross-dressing at Pride Day that I have ever known were gay men).

That so many “straight” people participate in Pride Day reminds me of a column I read by the novelist Jane Rule in The Body Politic in the 1980s. I clipped it out and saved it for a long time because of it’s essential truth.

If straight people have the decency to be modestly ashamed of their own sexual natures, what right have we to be proud of ours? … Everyone is supposed to be ashamed. … We won’t move freely in the world until all people are required to confront their sexual natures in order to understand, take responsibility for and celebrate them, as we have had to. For no one who is disappointed or ashamed or frightened of his/her own sexuality is to be easily tolerant of anyone else’s.

Her column was titled “Straights Come Out.”

At the root of our oppression and marginalization as sexual minorities is erotophobia—fear of Eros, the repression of sexual desire, the refusal of one’s sexual nature—as well as the enforcement of rigid gender stereotypes. That heterosexuals participate in some way—even for one afternoon, even in the context of a banal civic celebration framed by corporate consumerism—is for me a measure of hope.

Everybody has closets of sexual shame to come out of. Everybody has closets of body shame to come out of. Many long to come out of the drab, grey everyday into a rainbow-colored world in which they are fabulous.

So maybe it’s not so bad that it’s no longer “Gay Pride Day” or “Lesbian and Gay Pride Day” or “LGBTTIQQ2SA Pride Day.” Maybe simply calling it “Pride Day” is portentous of a future world in which everyone who has reclaimed their bodies and desires marches together up the main street in the sunlight.

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3 thoughts on ““Gay Pride is for Straight People”

  1. Yes! Yes! I love this.

    I think it’s starting to happen in the UK, too – I saw people with “straight but not narrow” T-shirts at World Pride in London. Also, lots of heterosexual Unitarians and their kids turned out to march in the Pride Parade and carry banners celebrating diversity. The best banner was “Unitarianism – a very queer religion”. Awesome.

  2. If I’m not mistaken, “LGBTTIQQ2SA” stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirit…and I’m guessing the A is for asexual.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and am wondering if the changing of Pride happened too fast, and in a way that is not good. It seems as if it became a market–commercial interest saw potential–and the real reason for Pride got shuttled off to the corner so that liberal minded “straights” could show how liberal minded they are. Is that good for the conversation that needs to keep happening in this country about gender and sexuality?

    Is Pride going to become like MLK Day–trotted out once-a-year to show how much progress has been made while leaving the hard work (and discussions) not done or kept quiet?

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