Celebrate Pride and Push Against Oppression

As we celebrate at Pride festivals, it is important now more than ever to understand what these festivals symbolize so that we can begin building a better future.

Many individuals in our community feel that the achievement of marriage equality marks the pinnacle of equality. But a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed an even split in opinion from LGBT+ respondents about the best way to achieve equality: 49 percent said the LGBT+ community should become a part of mainstream culture and institutions such as marriage, and 49 percent said they should be able to achieve equality while maintaining their own distinct culture and way of life.

In examining the history of LGBT+ persons, I want to encourage discussion and reflection on our shared political purpose. Every person has a potential role to play in the restoration of LGBT+ politics and the continued push away from injustice and toward justice. Under the threat of an executive order that would legalize discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, such a critique is necessary to preserve the lives and safety of LGBT+ persons everywhere. 

Each June, LGBT+ persons all over the country gather to commemorate a legendary movement in their political liberation. The origin story varies, but most historians point to the summer of 1969, when riots broke out all over the country as LGBT+ people began to protest an overtly oppressive political system — most notably, the police brutality and murder occurring in the streets.

Being gay at that time meant that one could be subjected to electroshock therapy, chemical castration, frontal lobotomy (brain removal), and numerous other indignations. The movement that crystallized in the wake of violence by radical LGBT+ protesters drew upon the strategies of the movements that had come before them – women’s liberation, the Vietnam war protests, black civil rights – and other activists who collectively identified themselves as “the New Left.” These early organizations used Pride parades, marches, demonstrations, and symbolic acts of resistance as a reaction to larger historical and political forces shaping their era.

Moreover, because “coming out” often meant cutting oneself off from societal resources, members of the movement were not afraid to use violent protest — after all, in some cases, they were already facing death and therefore felt they had nothing left to lose. The LGBT+ persons living in this era were galvanized by a shared affinity for each other born out of their experiences, but also the need to express a suppressed rage for a system of oppression.   

As the LGBT+ movement began to march into the 1970s and 1980s, mob-owned gay bars gave way to new LGBT+ managed institutions. Using the ideas of liberation and prideful acceptance of one’s identity signified an era of newfound freedom and increased internal fragmentation.  While the strategies of the 1960s were successful in gaining some basic human rights, internal arguments were left unresolved. These included debates on just whose community, or whose notion of community took precedence.

To resolve this issue and preserve some internal sense of identity, new configurations of identity (or subcultures) began to emerge. Among gay men, this came through the labeling of oneself as either a “leather man” (an identity that personified and embraced the label of gay as deviant and oversexualized) or a “gay clone” (individuals who adhered to dominant societal conventions of masculinity through normative behaviors and dress, or what we might now refer to as a jock).

Some read the 1970s as a hedonistic or even excessive period, but the effect was a divide between “good gays” and “bad gays.” The 1980s exacerbated the internal divides over organizing strategies, further fracturing of gay identity by shaming leather men as harbingers of the AIDS crisis. A more contemporary example of this is the “slut shaming” toward individuals taking PrEP, a drug used to prevent becoming infected by HIV. The argument is that somehow these drugs invite hedonistic, and often risky, sexual behaviors — an argument similar to the one used by abstinence-only sexual education advocates.

Today’s LGBT+ movement is the result of the historical and political controversies in previous decades.  The critique that Pride has lost its original political purpose is indeed a valid one.  Festival producers who I spoke with now organize and frame it as, “merely a music festival and nothing more.” Many Pride festivals around the country now charge admission, which for some, including organizers of an earlier generation, represents a shift away from the movement’s core values. Instead of aligning themselves to helping meet the real needs of LGBT+ persons, these individuals have aligned themselves with corporate interests. To be sure that this is not just speculation, consider the struggle between grassroots organizations seeking to organize rallies and political events, all without the consent of officially recognized “Pride” organizations.

As a sociological phenomenon, however, Pride still contains within it an important function for LGBT+ persons — the celebration of one’s identity, giving visibility and voice to the marginalized, and providing a safe space to gather. There are no better examples than in towns and cities that to some degree lack a unified and centralized LGBT+ center and suffer the oppression that comes from living in the Midwest. In these areas, Pride events attract many who live in rural communities and seek a momentary relief from their daily struggle.

Although those from geographically privileged areas such as Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles might patronize such “flyover states” as backward, their shallow, narcissistic personalities blind them to the fact that they have been turned into domesticated servants of the culture industry (a concept first described by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their seminal work Dialectic of the Enlightenment¸1944).

Instead, these flyover states should be exonerated for keeping the promises of Pride alive. Here, Pride and ultimately the validation of oneself (the true purpose of pride) through identification with other like-minded people is most needed, appreciated, and found wanting. However, even rural spaces have been tainted by the commodifying tendencies of the culture industry as they seek to emulate the more “successful” Pride events.

The modern LGBT+ movement is best understood as being born in the shadow of its past.  Although we have gained more freedoms, rights, and privileges as a community, the cost has been one of increased fragmentation and isolation. We have created new images to differentiate ourselves based on heteronormative (straight) standards of aesthetic beauty. Those who resist conforming to these notions, or who can’t due to their class position, are ostracized and cast out.

Yet such notions are rooted in ethnocentric, and ultimately moralistic, standards about the way we ought to live our lives. As one participant told me, in a particularly heart-wrenching interview, “our greatest strength, our biggest weapon, has been turned around against us … our uniqueness and diversity in experience in identity.”

As you go about participating in Pride festivals, remember that validation through prideful celebration is meaningless if we do not also take the time to continue to resist the forces of oppression, both external and internal. We have more to lose now than ever.

Christopher T. Conner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at Washburn University.  He is a frequent contributor to LGBT+ media outlets. His current research project is a study of LGBT+ identity, politics, and urban development in contemporary American culture. He is also author of “Electronic Dance Music: From Deviant Subculture to Culture Industry,” which is under review for publication as a manuscript and due out later this year.

Reading list

There Goes the Gayborhood?, Amin Ghaziani)

Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, John D’Emilio

Dual Attraction: Understanding Bisexuality, Martin S. Weinberg, Colin J. Williams, and Douglas W. Pryor