As we gear up for Pride Season, and since I haven’t spent a lot of time at Pride events over the past couple of years, I wondered, what is going on out there?
Several years ago, Christina Canterucci wrote a thoughtful article for the Washington City Paper regarding the history, evolution, and politics of DC Pride and LGBT Pride titled, “Swallow Your Pride, How a homegrown show of solidarity became a commercialized, one-size-fits-all party weekend.” She states, “Like so many gay political activists, to become one of the largest events on the D.C. social calendar, Pride has had to fall in line with moneymakers, straight allies, and mainstream culture, sometimes at the expense of the very people it should represent.”
And indeed, that happened in a significant way in Los Angeles this month when LA Pride organizing group Christopher Street West (CSW) came under the microscope and had individuals and organizations boycotting the event under the group #NotOurPride.
According to the reports of ThePrideLA.com, CSW planned to reformulate LA Pride in an attempt to specifically target millennials. The group intended to add the word ‘music’ to the title of LA Pride, which concerned not only the LGBT community but the city council. Taking a more legal, logistical, and liability based view, the city council became majorly concerned about supporting a “music festival” vs. a “festival with music.” Many LGBT community leaders were outraged about plans to raise ticket prices, to reduce the number of non-profits who exhibited, and a change in venues and event times for members of the lesbian and trans communities.
“CSW’s seeming shift of priorities sent shivers throughout the community, sparking concern about inclusivity, visibility and the intention of organizers. But it was the suggestion that CSW is engaged in an existential examination about the relevance of gay rights to the “millennial” generation that caused the greatest storm,” writes Troy Masters for The Pride Los Angeles.
#NotOurPride eventually voted to end their boycott of LA Pride when CSW agreed to some of their demands. (The Pride LA)
Turning back to Canterucci’s article, she explores the question “What has Pride become?” And I couldn’t agree more with her on the importance of asking this question. Pride parades and festivals today appear to be more about recognizing corporations and our straight friends and family who want us to know they support diversity and inclusion rather than acknowledging our history and celebrating LGBT individuals and organizations who are doing important work to ensure LGBT issues remain included in larger conversations about access, equity, and civil rights.
Pride events should provide a time and platform for celebrating who we are and for reflecting on where we have come from and what more needs to be accomplished for our community. Thank you, corporate sponsors, for your support. Thank you, friends and family, who support us. This is what we asked for. We appreciate it, please continue to support us. But maybe our Pride event is not the only way to support us. To corporations, why not place a commercial on a national television channel depicting a multi-racial gay or lesbian couple raising a child using your product or service.
Another area in which we should put thought and concern is what’s happening with major consumer brands. Several international brands have been creating Pride Collections catered to the LGBT market (which has buying power to the tune of $380 billion). There is Converse’s “Pride to Be,” Collection (I admit these are cute), Nike’s 2014 and 2015 #BETRUE Collection.
And recently, Levi’s and the Harvey Milk Foundation announced partnering to offer a limited edition Global Pride Collection for 2016 to “celebrate key moments in gay rights history.” The line includes gender-neutral products such as a ringer T-shirt and tank top, a “trucker jacket” with Milk’s statement “Hope will never be silent,” stonewashed shorts with rainbow embroidered watch pocket, hat with Levi’s batwing in rainbow colors.
And, to top it off, Levi’s Global Pride Collection includes paisley bandanas using Levi’s batwing logo (aka hanky’s, aka hanky code, aka a code from the 70’s used as a way for guys to discreetly signal their preferred sexual fetishes, positions, and interests). Hanky’s…hmmm…interesting…really?
On the one hand, it seems like a wonderful opportunity to raise the visibility of the LGBT community and for the foundation to raise what are likely to be much-needed funds (a portion of the sales are going to the Foundation). But I have to ask, how are these helping LGBT individuals? How does this add value to our community? Should I be investing in these companies for their perceived support of LGBT individuals?
We have come a long way since the Stonewall Riots in 1969, however, where are we now and where do we need to go? Some might ask, now that the modern LGBT movement is turning 47, is it having a mid-life crisis? I think I’d say yes.
In preparing this article I asked a few gay male friends for their thoughts on “Pride.” All are currently living in New York City and are over the age of 45 (the ages were 45, 46, 55, 58). One is African-American and three are white. I asked about where they were raised and where they came of age, what they remember about their first Pride event, and if they planned on attending any events this year. One friend came out in a smallish midwestern city. There was one gay bar which was a distance from him with the next nearest one being about five hours away. His experience in connecting with other gay people happened for the first time in that bar. As an adult he moved to New York City and jumped at the chance to get married in New York with the law was enacted.
There was definitely a common theme regarding attendance at their first pride event (which happened 18 to 25 years ago). For everyone, their first pride event (which was in New York City) was a major event and experience. All of them were in awe of the number of gay people in attendance and all expressed a sense of relief and comfort since this was one of, if not the first time, they had the opportunity to be an act as who they are without fear of discrimination. One friend never really came out until his 30s and interestingly he met his current partner about a week or two before attending his first Pride event. For him, his first Pride event was certainly a milestone in his life.
Some of my friends attended religiously every year and they reported changes in the “vibe” of the parade over time. The mood of the parades in the 80s was very somber since we were severely impacted by the AIDS crisis. Today all agree there is a lack of connection to, vision for, and identity for the notion of “Pride.”
This year all of my friends are less interested and are not likely to attend any Pride event because of the focus on consumerism and corporate branding. I think it is great so many companies support diversity and inclusion. But why are OUR PRIDE events being monopolized by corporate sponsors and consumer branding?
The importance of economics and the dollars to support the production of Pride events can’t be rejected, however, any business owner understands that when making a decision about what endeavors to pursue, one of the first questions to ask is what value is being offered to my company by doing this? This is the question Pride organizers need to ask as they engage with all corporate sponsors. They must ask themselves if the engagement is providing value to the LGBT community or are they just funneling more dollars to the corporate sponsors? I have a thought, how about requiring any corporate participant to make a financial donation, of even a nominal value, to one of the community-based LGBT organizations in order to participate in the Parade or other events? Isn’t there a way to find a balance of financial underwriting without losing an important opportunity to reflect on where we (the LGBT community) have been, where we are now, and where we are going?
It has been debated that gay, white men have benefited most from the advancement of LGBT rights and now hold many positions of power/leadership, have been acknowledged the most in the mainstream media, and in national level LGBT organizations. The other side of this argument is that some communities within the LGBT community have not fared as well or as quickly as gay, white men. I don’t and won’t argue that point. It may seem very Polly-Anna-Ish, but aren’t we all part of the LGBT community?
As members of the LGBT community, and this goes specifically to our leaders, we need to acknowledge and respond to the fact there are communities within our community that feel they are, and in fact, they are, marginalized by our own community and society in general. We need to work together for our common benefit while finding ways to understand and meet the special needs or concerns within specific groups. As a whole, I believe we are better off than we were in 1969 but there are still those within our community who struggle and those struggles are ours to share as a community.
Returning to the topic of “Pride,” rather than trying to be “mainstream,” and “normal,” with allowing greater power in the hands of a select few, I think it’s now time for those who are in leadership positions at the local, state, and national level to reflect and review with their constituents, what makes the LGBT community unique and identify the matters and issues affecting the groups among us that need further support to continue a struggle which is OURS collectively.