As 2019 is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and the 49th anniversary of the San Francisco LGBT Pride March, this seems the perfect essay topic to round out the month of June. It’s also the 30th anniversary of the first time I marched in pride, the 26th year since I was at the 1993 Million Queer March in Washington D.C., and the 7th year since the last time I did that slow walk down the mile or so on Market Street in June, tweeting on a whistle, waving my rainbow flag, and wishing I could sit down soon.
American Pride, American Anti-Pride
Our unique cultural history is full of expressions of pride and also full of disapproval. After all, some of the original European settlers were Puritans, “thrown out of every decent country in Europe,” as Bill Murray says in Stripes. Puritans were excessively anti, weren’t they? Plus the Catholics. Pride is the first and, therefore, worst deadly sin. Being proud in some religious interpretations meant you were unwilling to surrender–theoretically to a higher power–but logistically to the control of the straight white man standing on the pulpit.
It’s always seemed a bit ironic that the Puritans were seeking religious tolerance in the New World so that they could practice their religious intolerance, but we’ll let history sort that part out. Certainly, the New World liked the tolerance part of it and established that clear separation in government between church and state, which started to let different attitudes about sinning and behavior–including pride–blossom throughout society. When the writer of the Declaration of Independence becomes a Deist, fire and brimstone speeches naturally become less popular.
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
At the same time, these new Americans in 1776 were ecstatic about the nation they were bringing into being. John Adams wanted “pomp and parade” and fireworks, and the United States has celebrated just so for centuries now. Americans love to revel in their pride of country on July 4th, now replete with parades and festivals. It’s coincidental that the holiday comes right after LGBT Pride Month, but great that we can continue the celebratory spirit.
One creeping criticism of the LGBT pride marches and festivals lately has been that they exclude straight people. Many have tried to organize Straight Pride events. Of course, these already exist: if you’re Italian, it’s called Columbus Day; Irish, St. Patrick’s Day. Cities with winning sports teams get a parade. Veterans have two holidays. Christians get Easter and the entire month of December. Personally, if you want to have a Straight Pride event, I say go ahead. Even if you’re doing it to mock gays and lesbians, your event doesn’t subtract any pride from me.
Pride is not a zero-sum game. My pride in my self doesn’t subtract from your pride in yourself, whoever you are, gay, straight, Christian, pagan, police officer, CEO, cisgender, trans, non-binary, queer, or pansexual. Go ahead and march! Better yet, come and march with me…
At the same time, the rise in expressions of intolerance against other marginalized groups has led to an increase in gay-bashing, Internet trollism, and public expressions from people emboldened to crawl out of the woodwork. Just two months ago, the municipality next to my gym voted not to put up a rainbow flag at city hall–they’d be the 587th Bay Area town to do so, not exactly pioneering an idea. Still, a few of the speakers at the public hearing went back to the old lies about pedophilia, the gay agenda, confusing to children…really, I was surprised there weren’t accusations of witchcraft. Fortunately, the public outcry against the decision was substantial and sustained and the Dublin City Council voted 5-0 in early June to put up a flag. As has also been said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Ho Hum Stonewall
I almost hesitated to write about the topic because, apparently, pride has become boring. This is a nice round number anniversary for the Stonewall Riots in New York, a worthy time to remember that event which helped spark the notion that our oppressed community could respond, fight back, just not take it any more. Thus, there have been a plethora of shared essays and reflections on Stonewall, but many seem to take either a negative or “what’s the big deal” stance.
Harper’s June issue put together a bundle of eight essays about “Stonewall at Fifty.” However, each in its own way pooh-poohed the notion of Stonewall’s importance, either because the writers didn’t experience it personally, had experienced some other kind of discrimination that allowed them to use the opportunity of reflection as a bitching session, or simply found the whole idea passe. Another NY Times essay last week took great pains to point out that all the important gains came through legislation and courtroom decisions rather than from Stonewall’s “tale of fierce resistance.”
It’s possible that some of these responses are reactions to other, blander stories of celebration, but I find it disconcerting as a chorus. Throwing off oppression has to come in as many ways as possible, both through marching and visibility and through slow and painful pressure applied to institutions.
For me, it’s also little things. When Karin and I planned to march in 1995, with me seven months pregnant, we decided to wear matching T-shirts. Hers said, “She’s having my baby,” which in itself was innocuous as a slogan, also the title of a popular song. Mine was thus supposed to say, “I’m having her baby,” our wicked little joke that created cognitive dissonance by changing the pronouns. However, the T-shirt shop in the mall printed them wrong the first time, instead printing two copies of the “She’s…” version. We let loose with the full blast of our activist (and my hormone-filled) outrage at the poor young man that they had to be Re-Printed, Overnight, For Free, and Done Correctly, or there would be Big Lesbian Hell To Pay! I can never look at this picture of us at the march without remembering his confused look as he struggled to write down exactly what we told him.
A Culture of Don’ts
Hard-won rights have emerged from these marches, protests, congressional hearings, and courtroom battles. Significant gains have come in these last five decades. It’s not enough, but consider the mainstream attitudes back in the nineties, where Newsweek couldn’t even put a pair of lesbians on their cover without wondering whether that very cover had somehow gone too far? A particularly inspired activist designed a deliciously wicked anti-cover, which ran a week later in the Bay Area Reporter (both @1993).
What’s also noticeable, both in that anti-cover, and in opinions shared over the years, is that the LGBT community itself has fostered a culture of don’ts, of exclusion, and of “you’re not worthies.” Some of this is understandable, as we emerged from a group that was historically marginalized–fired from jobs, had children taken away, imprisoned–because of who we loved.
Yet sometimes this has engendered a kind of marginalized one-upmanship. I’m more oppressed than you because you are male or white or corporate or a police officer or cisgender or suburban or... take your pick. I remember a televised “town hall” discussion in the nineties where a young male ACT UP AIDS activist kept shouting down newly elected lesbian Supervisor Roberta Achtenberg because she was a politician and, therefore, part of the Establishment. Pam Walton’s 1989 award-winning documentary Out in Suburbia was panned by many LGBT critics because it was considered too compromising, too tame, and not representative of “real” lesbians. As a real suburban lesbian, I resemble that remark!
Fast forward to today, where every march-related story seems to include a critique. Several don’t want to allow corporate presence or corporate funding. Many parades have discussed or voted not to allow police officers in uniform. The dykes in San Francisco long ago split off to also have their own march. As that has swelled in size and popularity, I wonder whether it will also splinter off. I appreciate the idea that sometimes the demand for civil rights gets buried under the rainbow-flavored Baskin & Robbins brought to you by Kaiser sponsored in part by a grant from… but I still fail to understand the continuous intolerance within our community of others. We’re back to the Puritans again, wanting to fight for tolerance but being intolerant about it. Lotta LGBT people in this country work for corporations, lots on police forces. Where are they supposed to march? With their uniforms off? Hiding, like we all did originally… ?
Pride Is Like Fertilizer
This is my anti-marginalization incantation. Treat pride like fertilizer: Spread it around. Pride should be infectious. Let there be corporate sponsors. Let LGBT people march in police uniforms. Let ’em march with crosses or even MAGA hats–embrace tolerance. Let everyone be proud. Pride is not exclusive. Pride is inclusive.
I’m proud of being lesbian. I’m proud that I’ve been luckily, happily married for 42 years, have raised two brilliant and handsome children, live in the best town in the best region in the world, was born and raised in Detroit, did good work for a decent company full of supportive coworkers, write this blog, wrote a book because of my nerdy Olympics obsession, lost a teeny bit of weight last year, saved some people money on their taxes who really need it, am improving my pickleball, and know only smart and funny people that I am fortunate to consider friends, some fabulously LGBT and some gloriously straight.
I know you have a list. Join in. Be proud.