Pride: Bleaching the rainbow

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The A&W float at the 2012 Victoria Pride Parade. –Hugo Wong (photo)

The A&W float at the 2012 Victoria Pride Parade. –Hugo Wong (photo)

“Gay for a Day.” If you’ve been to a large Pride event in North America, you may have seen those words printed across a pink t-shirt. The shirts are meant to show support for queer communities and have been sold by g-fad as part of $20 kits in the weeks leading up to and during Pride celebrations. The kits include the pink “Gay for a Day” t-shirt, LED sunglasses, Mardi Gras beads, a referee’s whistle and a little rainbow flag. Because, as Georgia Straight columnist Helen Halbert noted in 2010, g-fad’s mission of raising awareness and understanding of queer communities “can be achieved by buying into stereotypes. Never mind the Stonewall riots, screen-printed novelty shirts are where it’s at.”

These t-shirts are just a small marker of a shift from the radical, political origins of the gay and lesbian liberation movement to what UVic MA student Dann Hoxsey terms “the homogenization of Pride parades.”

Stonewall Was a Riot

Pride parades didn’t just magically spring up because queer folks are genetically coded to enjoy rainbows and hot pants (although both those things can be a lot of fun). They’re founded in a history of oppression and resistance, something that isn’t included when g-fad makes you “Gay for a Day.”

Pride celebrations often ignore the fact that there is more to being queer than a giant party. Straight people probably wouldn’t have wanted to show up to the 1969 Stonewall Riots, the original Pride “parade,” in a “Gay for a Day” t-shirt.

While many people know of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, few know they were the result of violent police repression. The Stonewall Inn, located in New York’s Greenwich Village, was home to artists, poets and those living on the margins of society. Both Greenwich Village and Harlem had large populations of queer folks who found something of a sanctuary in these more liberal communities.

However, conflicts with police were common for both New York’s queer and racialized communities. Homosexuality was illegal, and raids on gay bars were not uncommon. Many of Stonewall’s clients lived on the margins of the margins: young queer folks of colour, queer working-class folks and homeless queer youth. People were arrested during raids if their identification cards did not check out, if they were wearing full drag or, for those with bodies read as female, if they were not wearing a minimum of three pieces of feminine clothing. Arrests were determined by “verifying” the sex of patrons in the washroom.

However, on June 28, 1969, the tables turned at what started as a typical police raid at the Stonewall Inn. Patrons dressed as women were taken to the bathroom; it was standard procedure. But those who were found to be violating the police’s standards for appropriate dress refused to be arrested. Those waiting in line began to refuse to produce identification. Together, Stonewall’s patrons banded together to resist police repression of their community.

Things escalated as police waited for a patrol wagon outside the Inn. They had released some of the patrons, but these people did not leave. Instead, they lingered outside and their numbers grew as people from surrounding areas saw the crowd and the police cars. The crowd grew restless and taunted the officers. As the patrons who were being detained were brought out in handcuffs, scuffles began. One individual arrested for wearing men’s clothing was fighting with four arresting officers. Reports from those present say it was this person’s shout to the crowd of, “Why don’t you guys do something?” that turned a tense police raid into an all-out riot.

What ensued was a three-day war between police and the communities that most frequently found themselves on the short end of the billy club. Resistance was resilient and queer, with chorus lines of drag queens singing “We are the Stonewall girls / We wear our hair in curls / We don’t wear underwear / We show our pubic hairs” as they were beaten. It was violent and chaotic, but for many it was also beautiful. Something that had been hidden behind closed doors in rundown bars was now in full public view.Has the fight been won?

“There certainly were other occasions when people had fought back against police repression, but at least mythologically, [the Stonewall Riots were] the major time that lesbians and gay men, rather than just taking police repression and violence, decided to fight back and rebelled in the streets for three days and three nights,” explains Gary Kinsman, a professor of sociology at Laurentian University who co-authored The Canadian War on Queers. “That’s what’s marked by Pride Day celebrations and that’s what’s sort of seen as leading to the initiation of the contemporary gay men and lesbian liberation, and, in a broader sense, [the] queer liberation movement.”

Compare the Stonewall Riots to modern-day Pride parades in cities across Canada and it may appear that the battle has been won. Queer organizing in 1969 was marked by struggle and violence, while in recent years, hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to the streets to watch three hours’ worth of floats. However, Stonewall also marked the formation of a new queer liberation movement. Other gay rights movements existed in the 1960s. The Mattachine society of New York, for example, tried to demonstrate that homosexuals were not so different from the heterosexual mainstream. This was disrupted by the distinctly anti-assimilationist politics of Stonewall.

Today, parades are sponsored by corporations like TD Canada Trust and seem to declare to the world that the LGBT community is just like the heterosexual mainstream. Straight people walk around in “Gay for a Day” t-shirts. But bullying of queer youth, struggles of queer folks living in poverty and the targeting of queer folks of colour by the police hasn’t gone away. It has once again been pushed to the margins of the queer community as Pride parades have been sanitized and corporatized.

A Radical History

Pride Parades started in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. They were politically charged and intrinsically linked with the radical left and the working class.

“Pride marches . . . were very clearly organized to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, the rebellion,” says Kinsman. “So they carried forward some of that type of politics of being contestative and transformative.” Kinsman adds that marchers “saw that our liberation as queer people was bound up with the liberation of all the other oppressed and marginalized people in society.”

In Canada, Pride parades also engaged with local politics. The first large-scale march was held in Toronto in response to massive bathhouse raids in 1981. Three large, political gay and lesbian organizations were operating in Toronto at the time: The Right to Privacy Commission, Gay Liberation Against the Right Everywhere and Lesbians Against the Right. Members from these organizations formed the first Gay Men and Lesbian Toronto Pride Committee and held Toronto’s first large-scale Pride march with 1 500 participants.
The march stopped outside Division 52, the police division responsible for the bathhouse raids, chanting “Fuck you, 52.”

“It really did capture a lot of the spirit of Stonewall, but also the spirit of the resistance to the bath raids and the spirit of the resistance . . . in the lesbian communities through Lesbians Against the Right,” says Kinsman, who was a founding member of Toronto’s Pride Parade Committee. “There were a lot of supportive straight people who came out, too, especially from the feminist movement.”

Pride events across the country, like Toronto Pride and Victoria Pride, still take place around the end of June, in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. Other cities, such as Vancouver and Montreal, celebrate in August and commemorate the 1971 We Demand demonstrations. These Canadian demonstrations took place to demand true equality in response to the 1969 decriminalization of homosexuality.

White Picket Fence

The anti-assimilationist gay liberation movement, as opposed to mainstream gay rights movements, has also been a predominantly working-class movement. This played a huge role in the organization of gay issues in 1980s Toronto.

“In Toronto, at the time of the resistance to the bathhouse raids, the Right to Privacy Committee, the main defence organization, became a mass organization. We had meetings of 1500 people,” says Kinsman. “And at that point in time, there certainly were professional middle-class people involved in these groups. We needed their skills . . . But in some ways they were subordinated in the interests of largely grassroots, bar people, largely working-class people, coming out of our communities and in our movements.”

However, as the years passed, Pride movements began to shift. As the bathhouse raids died down and the large political organizations that had mobilized in resistance to them began to fall away, an emerging gay middle class became more visible. The result? A reshaping of what Pride societies are asking for.

“You’ve actually seen the emergence of these middle-class layers who come to dominate these forms of organization,” says Kinsman. “They want to be let into the more mainstream heterosexual middle class. So they will fight around certain narrowly defined lesbian and gay questions, but they don’t want to raise … profound questions about class forms of organization or about capitalism or even about gender relations or about racialized relations in our society.”

Does ignoring the issues faced by queer folks living in poverty, queer folks of colour, queer folks who challenge the binary gender system and other queer folks who don’t quite fit in with the “we’re just like you” mode of activism sound familiar? It’s the same exclusion that created the conditions for Stonewall.

Radical versus mainstream

The Liberal Party's Pride float –Hugo Wong (photo)

The Liberal Party’s Pride float –Hugo Wong (photo)

“When you go back historically and look at it, this has always been a point of contention within the Pride parade. There’s been this idea — ‘Let’s march to show the world that were just like them’ — and at the same time, there’s other people saying, ‘Let’s march to show the world we’re here, we’re queer and we’re proud of it,’” explains Hoxsey, whose research is on the Toronto Pride Parade and the exclusion of queer folks with controversial political messages, such as Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. “Those two kind of groups are always in tension, and they’re still in tension, and this is something that’s not seen in the parade.”

Both Kinsman and Hoxey point out that Pride parades, particularly in large urban centres, strongly reflect the louder and much more culturally accepted “we’re just like you” message.

“There’s been this whole construction of ‘queer’ in some ways . . . coded as being white and middle class,” says Kinsman.

And it’s those white, middle-class issues that often dominate discourses around gay rights. Marriage, for example, is frequently seen as the gay issue, especially in the United States. It’s exactly the type of issue that is not only palatable but understandable to the hetero mainstream. The Vancouver Pride Parade even had a small Conservative Party contingent last year.

“They are trying to really narrow down the acceptable means of being gay. I mean, what kind of people do you see at those parades? You probably see thin, able-bodied people who are in committed, long-term relationships who are being all happy and squeaky clean,” says Leah Grantham, a student and activist who recently transferred  to UVic  from Montana. “What does that say to people in our community who are Indigenous, who are HIV-affected, who are disabled, who live in extreme poverty? I mean, the Conservative Party of Canada is not helping out those peoples, so what kind of message is being sent there?”

For some queer folks who aren’t white or middle class, marriage may not be of prime concern. What’s left out of Pride parades is awareness of the daily violence and oppression faced by many queer folks due not just to homophobia and transphobia, but also things like heterosexism, cissexism, capitalism, racism, colonization and ableism. But when we think marriage makes everything all right again for queer folks, and Pride parades are little more than corporate-sponsored parties, these conversations aren’t had.

“People who want to go big need to appeal to a more homogenous crowd,” says Hoxsey. “It appeals to more people by offending less. This is tied in with how radical politics gets pushed to the side.”

Hoxsey points to the example of an 2009 interview with a member of the Winnipeg Pride committee who said, “Part of the parade is to show people we’re not extremists, we’re real people.”

“Extremists,” according to that organizer, were drag queens and butch women. These same “extremists” were at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots and disproportionately affected by the police raids in the 1960s. These are just some of the folks who are being excluded by the mainstreaming of Pride.

However, demanding justice for all and building our communities was exactly what Pride was originally about.
“Pride was a place for political questions to be raised, for solidarity with other oppressed and marginalized groups to be raised, and now that’s actually been defined out of the history of Pride,” says Kinsman. “Oftentimes people in the more mainstream in Toronto in terms of Pride will simply say, ‘This has nothing to do with us.’”

Corporatize Gay

The TD float at the 2010 Vancouver Pride Parade –Gemma Karstens-Smith photo)

The TD float at the 2010 Vancouver Pride Parade –Gemma Karstens-Smith (photo)

The erasure of working-class liberation politics from the history of Pride parades in favour of white, middle-class, mainstream politics is perhaps most clearly seen in corporate sponsorship.

“I am really uncomfortable with the idea of corporate sponsorship for something that is, at its heart, an activism and social justice community,” says Grantham. “There were not corporate sponsorships marching with other groups throughout history in social justice movements. And I think that corporate sponsorship runs the risk of making Pride parades and the queer community lose its soul.”

Businesses form a huge portion of parade contingents and frequently have the fanciest, flashiest floats.

“In Toronto Pride, it’s in some ways easier for a bank to have a float than for a community-based organization to have a contingent, a political contingent, in the parade,” says Kinsman.

This creates a gross disparity between the voices that are heard. Miss Pussy Liquor tried to remedy this by founding Genderfest in Vancouver, a collection of events meant to provide a community-based, inclusive alternative to existing Pride celebrations.

“If you watch the parade, you’ll see a great imbalance in what kinds of resources different organizations have to get involved,” says Liquor. “So, for example, a bank may be able to have a sea of matching-shirt-wearing employees (who may or may not be gay) handing out rainbow flag-covered swag and a massive float for the parade. An organization that serves the community in a grassroots way like a trans drop-in service will be an endearing ragtag bunch of folks who worked up the courage to march in front of everyone in front of their homemade banner. Both organizations will be there; it’s just that one has the money to make themselves more visible.”

Corporatization also has practical implications and restrictions. For example, Trojan is a “bronze sponsor” of Vancouver Pride, and no other condoms are allowed to be visible during any official Pride events.

In Vancouver, where Pride is sponsored by TD Canada Trust, the mainstreaming and corporatization of Pride has happened at the exclusion of some members of the queer community.

“Last year at Pride there were very few events that were created for the communities I migrate in,” says Liquor. “Among the issues I found with many of last year’s official and unofficial Pride events were: a lack of events for people of a variety of genders (most events are for men or women only), a lack of forethought for accessibility concerns, lack of affordability and a scarcity of events held in East Van, where large portions of the queer community are living and loving.”

Genderfest events are among a host of community-based alternatives that accommodate communities that might not fit nicely into the slick packaging of corporate Pride.

“We’re at the point where the main sponsors for the Toronto Pride Parade are banks, the bastion of conservativism,” says Hoxsey. “You have these muscle-clad guys wearing tiny little bikinis and a TD logo temporary tattoo put above their crotch, and people see that as a sign of progression and unfortunately it’s not. It’s a sign of niche marketing.”

The word “Pride” itself has been a registered trademark since 2006, held by Pride Toronto for the use of official Pride societies under the umbrella organization Fierté Canada Pride. Community events that have used the word have been targeted for not being sanctioned by official Pride societies.

Turning spectacle back into statement

The end result is an event that functions more as a tourist attraction than a political or community action.
“Pride parades now no longer have this objective of actually trying to build our movements, of trying to — especially in a more political or more radical way — build alliances with other oppressed groups. Instead, they’re largely these occasions for people to come and be spectators and watch,” says Kinsman. “It’s no longer really a participatory thing; it’s much more a spectacle to be watched.”

In spite of this, Pride parades are still part of a tradition of radical action and serve an important purpose.
“You have a lot of people that are opting out and saying, ‘I’m not going to go; there’s no point in being involved,” says Hoxsey. “[But] if the stage is ceded to those with ‘we’re here, we’re queer, we’re just like you’ interests, then that’s a problem. We need to not give that up.”

Hoxsey says there are still moments of transgression and folks raising political questions that challenge the parade’s mainstream veneer.

“That’s where there needs to be a focus on more conversation about how to make the parade more accessible to those people,” he says, “as opposed to how can we streamline the parade so that it appeals to everybody. I don’t think the parade needs to appeal to everybody.”

Kinsman agrees that while Pride is important, it needs to be transformed from its current, mainstream politic.
“We need to begin to focus on . . . different groups of queer people who are marginalized and excluded from that particular notion of what queer rights are supposed to be,” says Kinsman. “We need to broaden it out and to return to the radical roots of where Pride actually comes from.”

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