We're here, we're queer, I'm sick of it

The gay pride agenda is about partying, not politics. It's time to talk about "gay equality."

Published June 30, 1999 9:00AM (EDT)

Gay pride month is finally over, after a big weekend of partying and parades in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and other cities around the world. Millions of people commemorated the Stonewall rebellion, the shot-heard-'round-the-world brawl in 1969 that catalyzed a movement. We got together and restated positions on everything from hate-crimes to gay marriage, and if dykes on bikes, feather boas and shirtless gym boys are any measure, a good time was had by all.

In the midst of this good-natured celebration of Stonewall, however, a reappraisal of the pride strategy is beginning to emerge. After three decades, the politics of pride is beginning to look a little stale and out of step with the times, and it is becoming clear to both gay people and our straight allies that we need to take a new step forward. With June's pride celebrations over, that step is to ask what the politics of pride has left undone, and why.

Gay pride has been an enormous success. It's increasingly safe to come out, we've won passage of a few gay-rights laws and it's becoming politically expedient (at least for Democrats) to support us. But there have been setbacks. Anti-gay legislation like the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is the law of the land. Brutal hate crimes like the murder of Matthew Shepard are reminders of what can still happen to any gay person in the country -- or even straight people suspected of being gay -- if we're in the wrong place at the wrong time. We need to understand why we seem to take a step back for almost every step we take forward.

The usual answer is simply that we're up against a deep, powerful prejudice. There's more to it than that: The politics of gay pride is in a rut. It seems unable to appreciate its own success or acknowledge that circumstances have changed. Instead, pride is becoming an end in itself.

Once pride was essential to curing the shame of the closet. Today it is the medication we're addicted to. Once pride captured the spirit of a revolution. Today it is too often the gay equivalent of pro forma patriotism. Once pride made a compelling moral argument. Today it is becoming the Ten Commandments on every wall. And when pride in the simple courage that it takes to come out of the closet in a hostile world turns into complacence and ideological rigidity, it threatens everything that we've won so far.

Recognizing this isn't easy.

A few years ago, Bruce Bawer, the author of "A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society," was almost burned at the stake as an allegedly sex-negative, assimilationist conservative by gay activists without much more tolerance for questions than their counterparts on the right. Among other blasphemies, Bawer suggested that stereotypes reinforced by gay publications and events might have the same negative effects as stereotypes promoted by anti-gay conservatives.

Even gay activists as outspoken as Larry Kramer have been charged with neoconservatism for asking forthright questions about the overt sexualization of gay culture. The resulting fury has said less about Bawer and Kramer's arguments than it did about the touchiness of their attackers.

I've been through a limited version of this treatment myself. I recently wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times that asked whether gay pride might be easily -- and needlessly -- misunderstood. In a circulated response, Robin Tyler, executive producer of the Millennium March on Washington for Equality, objected. She insisted that concern about how gay pride is interpreted is of no concern because everybody on the other side is an irredeemable bigot. She bragged, "The Radical Right is in decline ... We have the numbers and the commitment not to have to choose 'which fight,' but to continue to mobilize on all fronts." And equating pride with self-esteem, she asked, "How can you have too much self-esteem?"

Well, how about when it leads to conceit, overconfidence and solipsism?

Tyler's statements are an extreme example, but this is where overuse of the pride slogan is headed. And although it's frightening to think that anybody in a position of leadership in gay politics could actually believe that we are gloriously advancing on all fronts against an enemy whose tactics we can ignore, we can take some comfort in the fact that questions about the pride strategy are becoming more widespread, and harder to dismiss.

Today the questions are less about what other people will think of us -- does whipping the slave boys down Main Street send the right message? -- than what we think of ourselves. Do constant exhortations to gay pride encourage us to become self-absorbed?

As Dan Savage has recently argued, pride wasn't counted as one of the Seven Deadly Sins for nothing. "The fwap of rainbow windsocks is making us dull and slow," he writes. "Thirty years after the antidote arrived, gays and lesbians stand in renewed danger of being poisoned. The poison threatening us now isn't shame, however, it's pride ... we'll never be truly whole until gay people are neither crippled by shame nor addicted to pride."

Raising questions about whether pride is still effective is emphatically not to say that gay people need to tone down, fit in and ask bigots for acceptance. Most gay people, after years of pressure not to "flaunt it," are rightly leery of any suggestion that we should "assimilate." But we can't rule out consideration of a more sophisticated approach that allows us to become even more forceful and assertive about the need for equality.

In the reevaluation that this requires, we need to admit that pride isn't always helpful anymore. In some cases, in fact, it simply gets in the way. Like fabulous versions of Soviet parades to commemorate the October revolution, pride celebrations prop up the memory of a victory that, while no less important, is less and less relevant.

I started to understand the problem with pride through a conversation in an airport. The last flight of the night to my destination, Atlanta, had been canceled, and while I was in line for a hotel voucher, a straight guy named Will struck up a conversation with me.

For every gay person, daily life means coming out to strangers if you're not going to lie or go to absurd lengths to avoid the subject. So when my conversation with Will turned to why I was going to Atlanta -- my boyfriend lived there at the time -- I told him.

For a second, Will looked like he was afraid I would kiss him right there on the moving sidewalk. He thought he had been talking to just another ordinary guy in his mid-20s, not somebody gay. And to make matters worse for poor Will, he had even asked me to dinner at the airport restaurant.

To his credit, Will recovered quickly, and he asked if I'd mind answering some questions about what it's like to be gay. I didn't mind, but I was caught off guard by what he asked over the next hour. He was polite, curious and candid, but his questions were surprisingly negative. One of them was, "Why would anybody be proud to be gay?"

I don't know if Will -- a recent college graduate, a friendly enough guy and kind of a dude -- had ever seen a pride parade, but he had certainly heard all the politically correct explanations about gay pride and they made no impression on him. Or rather, they made the wrong impression. He continued to think that for some reason, gay pride meant that gay people are strangely proud of something alien and bizarre, like an illness or a bad habit.

Will was not a fire-breathing homophobic lunatic, he was just a guy who didn't know what he was talking about. Lots of talk about pride -- the cornerstone of gay politics -- hadn't changed what he thought he already knew. But a more direct approach, highlighting the discrimination that gay people still face, did.

The fact is that the concept of pride remains useful, but it's crucial to ask who it's useful for. It's useful to us to help counteract the shame of the closet, and it's a nice pat on the back for being honest about who we are. But people like Will -- and there are millions of them, and they can vote -- don't get it. Talk to anti-gay conservatives (as I make a point of doing, if for no other reason than a kind of clinical curiosity), and over and over again what you'll find is that they misinterpret the idea of gay pride.

At first it's easy to think, "Well, fuck them if they're not comfortable with out-and-proud sexuality." This is dangerous and unnecessary. It's true that we'll never reach the rabid anti-gay kooks, but writing off average people like Will assures that millions who might be persuaded to help us -- or who at least might be vaccinated against inflammatory anti-gay rhetoric -- will remain obstacles to overcome. These are basically well-intentioned people who are doing what's "right" based on the wrong premise. Shake up that premise and it gives them pause. It even, occasionally, changes their minds.

Pride can't do this because it doesn't take into account their false assumptions about us. The problem with pride is not that it's too in-your-face, but that it's not in-your-face enough. It doesn't state clearly what the gay-rights movement is really all about: equal legal and social treatment for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. The "gay pride" slogan doesn't reach people who don't already know the facts of sexual orientation. In fact, the rallying cry of pride may even have helped provoke the backlash against us.

The language of gay pride reinforces the idea that gay people are fundamentally different -- an impression to avoid if we can, given the way anti-gay conservatives portray our human rights as "special rights." In everyday speech, people use the word "pride" to talk about things they believe are special, extraordinary and exclusive. Talking too much about pride, therefore, can be counterproductive. Gay people base our claim to civil rights on the fact that our sexual orientation and our relationships are no different -- no more worthy of shame or pride -- than anyone else's.

Endless declarations about pride also reinforce negative stereotypes. Talking too much about pride can give the impression that we have something to prove, and that we still can't quite put the shame of the closet behind us. As Savage says, "Surrounding oneself with constant reminders to feel prideful is to constantly be reminded of shame ... American gays and lesbians act like cancer patients who, having been cured, remind themselves that they aren't sick anymore by dropping by the hospital every once in a while for a little chemotherapy."

The good news is that more and more of us are putting the shame of the closet behind us -- but this means that pride-based celebrations have less and less to offer. It's not that we're "unproud" of what's been accomplished, and we're grateful to those who blazed the trail. We owe them, but we also recognize that their efforts have paid off. We don't question our basic self-worth anymore.

Yet pride-based activism, with its constant doses of self-esteem, implies that the problem is never getting any better, and that we're all going to need pride pep talks and a rainbow-colored I.V. drip for the rest of our lives. That's not just depressing, it's not true. We're OK. Let's talk about something else.

What might a movement more focused on equality than pride look like? Well, nobody at the time knew exactly what Stonewall would lead to either, but a shift to a strategy that emphasizes equality instead of pride could be just as significant.

Gay equality -- which wouldn't be a bad replacement for the "gay pride" slogan -- would be more open to people who are "not proud," whether they are simply gay people who are over the need for self-esteem therapy, or straight people who support gay rights but see little point in participating in typical pride celebrations today.

As it is, lots of us continue to show up every year at pride celebrations out of habit. We usually have a good time, but we have only a vague idea of why we're there anymore. Showing support and being counted is all well and good, but take away the party -- we might even go so far as to call gay pride month "gay party month" -- and there wouldn't be much left.

There's no reason why we can't have a party -- and do we know how to throw one -- but it's a PR disaster if a party is the main way in which we as a group bring ourselves to the attention of society every year. The focus on gay pride ends where a focus on equality would begin. Pride has become an event in June, and a mantra the rest of the year. Equality is a cause.

A focus on gay equality could also change our thinking.

It would move us beyond the oddly passive "we're here, we're queer, get used to it" aspect of current pride celebrations. The fact is that we want people to do a lot more than get used to us. We want them to help us get the equality we deserve. Current pride celebrations are, at best, a roundabout way of motivating anybody to do that.

Finally, a new slogan like "gay equality" would help to make absolutely clear what we're after: legal and social equality.

When our message to the rest of society is "gay pride," people who aren't already on our side can comfortably ignore it and continue to think, "Who cares if the queers are proud?" If the focus instead were on "gay equality," these same people would be forced to argue that we either already have equality or don't need it. Those are arguments they cannot win, and often don't even feel comfortable making.

Pride helped get us where we are today. We're in a better position than ever to put tough questions to the people who aren't on our side yet, and to set the terms of this debate. But whether we are proud has become politically irrelevant, and this is no cause for alarm. The fact that we're outgrowing the need for pride is the biggest testament to its success.

By Christopher Ott

Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis.

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