Thursday, June 17, 2004
by Wayne Besen
In June 1969, a few courageous gay men, lesbians and drag queens fought back against police when they raided the Stonewall Inn bar in New York City. Back in those days, homosexuals were routinely harassed by police and could be arrested simply for frequenting gay establishments or dancing with someone of the same sex. This act of civil disobedience is generally recognized as the birth of the modern gay rights movement and commemorated across the world each June with huge parades.
Over the past few decades Gay Pride parades have become one of most celebrated, yet misunderstood events in America. Pride represents revelry for millions of people, but also revulsion from conservatives and some mainstream Americans who recoil at the in-your-face displays of sexuality.
Even relatively pro-gay friends of mine have trouble understanding how Gay Pride furthers the quest for equal rights. They ask, "How does a flabby guy wearing a leather jock-strap while gyrating on-top of a float help the cause? How does a person dressed as a six foot tampon standing on ten foot stilts bring understanding and help end discrimination?"
Well, it probably doesn't help. No one has ever said, "That half-naked lesbian wearing body paint, hot pants and roller skates really opened my mind. I think I'll call my Congressperson and demand he or she votes for gay rights legislation."
But to focus simply on a political message or gratuitous nudity misses the point. Gay Pride has evolved and is no longer just about politics. Today, Pride is a celebration that means many things to many people.
Think of it like Christmas. Some people are very serious about the holiday, having yard signs that proclaim, "Jesus is the reason for the season." Other people see it as a big party and say, "No, it's all about the new and exciting gifts and eggnog!"
The strength of Pride is the beautiful diversity of these mammoth gatherings that can amass more than a half million people in metropolises such as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.
Some people are at Pride representing gay associations for lawyers, doctors and airline pilots. Gay marriage advocates are always in abundance. There are mothers and fathers marching to support their gay kids. There are clergy representing pro-gay theological viewpoints. Some people are there to celebrate coming out. And, of course, others are there for the pageantry, spectacle and even exhibitionism.
Pride is not a tightly controlled event, nor should it be. It is an open invitation celebrating freedom and self-expression for everyone - gay or straight. And open invitations have a tendency to bring out the serious as well as the strange.
Gay Pride has morphed in to a slightly more political version of Mardi Gras. The only difference is that when straight people get naked for beads in the French Quarter, no one says, "Look at that decadent heterosexual lifestyle." It is clearly understood that this is the activity of a few individuals, not all straight people. The over the top displays at Gay Pride should be looked at through this same discerning, non-discriminatory lens.
Unfortunately, the media often tends to focus on the most outrageous images in the parade and affix political meaning where none may exist. And there is no shortage of nutty right wing groups who exploit these parades for financial gain. In their quest for self-righteous - or is it self serving - morality, these groups ignore hundreds of thousands of positive Gay Pride images and peddle the 100 scariest images to deceive their followers into giving money.
Recent advances in gay rights, however, make it clear that no matter how the media or special interests try to distort Gay Pride, the truth is slowly getting out. Each year the events keep growing and it seems no one can rain on this fascinating parade.