It's that time of year again: June is National Gay Pride Month here in the United States. Cities all across the country are hosting parades where hundreds -- if not thousands -- will flock to the streets to celebrate being out and proud.
But in a society where headline LGBT magazines put Nick Jonas or Liam Payne on the cover and news websites flood their readers with posts about which heterosexual athlete is most likely to come out of the closet, it's not exactly clear what there is to be proud of. Are we proud of a rich history of activism, defiance, and survival against all odds? Or are we proud of a fetishized image of quasi-straightness embodied in chiseled abs, blond hair, and lip service to white gay men?
I've written for this site before on how little my generation knows about LGBT history. Stonewall was a footnote in my American history textbook in high school. Harvey Milk was never mentioned. Alan Turing, Billie Jean King, and Frida Kahlo never came up. It was hard enough to get a white gay man into the curriculum, much less anyone else. While I worked with my school district to create a more LGBT friendly curriculum -- one that I hope they're continuing to implement with success -- there are only a handful of people I can name off the top of my head born before 1980 who would be considered prominent activists and historical figures. Even in the realm of pop culture, somewhere you would think we'd be slightly more proficient, few of my peers would be able to tell you who Candy Darling is or grasp the audacity of Wilson Cruz playing an openly gay character on My So Called Life.
When I came out six years ago, my understanding of what it meant to be gay was Kurt Hummel on Glee. Even though I didn't really see myself in him, it fit better in my mind than the mincing stereotype I so loathed yet saw parts of in myself. When the It Gets Better movement started, I watched every video I could, and bought the accompanying book. But something didn't sit right with me. As Travis Van Horn's piece "F**k You Dan Savage" put it so eloquently, the disconnect between a bunch of wealthy, powerful celebrities telling you that one day all of your dreams would come true and my reality was enormous. I didn't want to have to wait for things to improve. I wanted them to get better right now. Having an overwhelming amount of beautiful, tanned white people telling me that life was about to get great from their mansions in the Hollywood hills started to ring false. The same myth of the American Dream -- that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want -- started to crack.
So then I started buying the Neil Patrick Harris image of gayness. This paradigm involved acting, looking, and living as "straight" as possible: a house in the suburbs, two beautiful children, your voices deep enough to make people do a double take when you go out in public together. The white picket fence image of gayness said that people could deal with you being gay as long as you assimilated to heterosexual society. If you bought the white picket fence, baked apple pies, and took the kids to the soccer game, even the most backwards of homophobes would at least begrudgingly admit you were tolerable. In essence, you had to be straight in every way but your partner for society to accept you.
Forget about the Marxist and critical race theory implications of this image. Boil it down to its roots, and put into practice at a pride parade. Philadelphia's pride parade, an event which my adoptive home will host later in June, has a sponsor list which includes Red Bull, Yuengling, Coors, and Blue Moon Café. Out of the twenty-eight sponsors listed on their website seventeen are bars or alcoholic drink brands. Los Angeles Pride has been condemned as a "gay Coachella" which has sold out to commercialism as per an article in the LA Times. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly or moralistic, Pride has turned from a celebration of resistance and difference into an excuse for primarily young white men to wear briefs in public and get sloshed.
Many others have lodged similar complaints. The Philly Pride organizers scoffed at a tweet from a #BlackLivesMatter supporter and queer man of color who voiced opposition to the board's extension of Grand Marshall status to G.O.A.L. in a public post on their website. Last year, the Pittsburgh Pride parade infamously had Iggy Azeala headlining their concert before queer people of color got her pulled. Events for lesbians and transgender individuals at LA Pride were reportedly much shorter than those for gay men until protesters got them extended, according to the LA Times. Essentially, Pride is no longer for the LGBT community, it's for those members of the LGBT community who are the best customers for the sponsoring brands and who fit an image of lithe, young, white male gayness.
In a year where the issue around transgender Americans' access to bathrooms has become the hottest of topics, it saddens me to see commenters on sites like Queerty calling transgender individuals "sick" and calling for the T to be dropped from the LGBT acronym. Like any other community structured around identity, there are prejudices and divisions among different demographics. It's part of human nature. But there must be something we can do as part of Pride to show that we are indeed proud of all our community members. Can we address the serious issue of teen homelessness through a fundraising campaign or donation drive? Might we take a look at funding HIV/AIDS research and treatment, particularly in lower income communities and those consisting mainly of people of color? Maybe we could encourage visible solidarity with transgender activists working to end solitary confinement in prisons. Having fun and celebrating what it means to be LGBT is a great practice -- as long as it doesn't come at the expense of others or ingrain other stereotypes and prejudices.
This year, just like for the previous five, I'll be sitting out my local pride parade. I hope to be reading about Sylvia Rivera or watching How To Survive a Plague. There's so much to learn about the LGBT community, and still so many gains to be made. Visibility is no longer enough -- it's action and education that will truly make a difference.