Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thoughts on Pride


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s amazing how little of the Pride events you actually get to see when you’re enough of an activist that you’ve got various groups competing for your body — in a manner of speaking — to fill out their contingents in the parade and staff their booths at the festival. The news in the aftermath of Pride has focused around the mini-controversy over the Dykes on Bikes being aced out of their traditional spot as contingent number one, the two major fatalities over the Pride weekend — “Circuit Daze” harbor cruise performer Steven Paul Hirschfeld, killed by police after he went overboard during their party cruise Saturday night, July 19, and resisted efforts to rescue him; and Atip Ouybron, bicyclist who was broadsided and run down by a truck driver at the corner of Park and University the same day — and the protests over a poor sound system and an overly loud dance stage that prevented festival audiences from hearing the headline performer, comedienne Kathy Griffin.

But the event you’ve read about elsewhere wasn’t the one I experienced. My Pride weekend actually began on Friday night, July 18 with a disappointingly ill-attended rally on the grounds of the festival main stage. The featured speaker was Australian-born, British-resident Queer activist Peter Tatchell, a tall, rangy man considerably younger looking than his years (he was born in 1952 and fled Australia for the U.K. in 1971 to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in the Viet Nam war) who came to speak about his pet cause: the foul treatment of Queer people in most of the world’s countries that goes beyond “homophobia” to physical brutality and outright genocide.

In a state where the Queer community’s biggest political problem is whether we’ll still be able to marry each other after November, it’s important to be reminded that virtually everywhere in the world outside the U.S., Canada and western Europe the biggest problem faced by Queer people is to survive at all. Tatchell’s speech, though delivered in a matter-of-fact tone — there’s no need to feign outrage when the facts are outrageous enough — was a litany of abuses, backed up by a horrific video shown before he spoke of Queers being set on by police and/or private goon squads for attempting to stage Pride marches in Russia, Serbia and Croatia.

From the two Gay leaders in Jamaica who were assassinated for their activism — and the Jamaican Labor Party, the supposedly more liberal of Jamaica’s two major political parties, using as their last campaign theme song a reggae-rap piece openly calling for the murder of Queer people — to the provision in the new, supposedly “democratic” constitution of Iraq giving impunity to people who murder Queer relatives on the ground that they have “dishonored” their families, Tatchell’s litany is a cruel but bracing one. It’s a necessary reminder not only that in most of the world it is still a capital crime to be Queer, but that virtually all of our persecution is wreaked upon us in the name of religion.

Tatchell mentioned that he himself had been attacked by goon squads, and then arrested by police, in Moscow in 2007 for protesting the Moscow mayor’s decision not to allow a pride parade to take place in “his” city. And his video included the still photo of three Gay teenage boys in Iran being hanged for having consensual sex — a case in which all too many people on the Left, fearful that this brutality would be used as part of a U.S. propaganda campaign to justify a war against Iran, not only refused to support Tatchell and his fellow activists but actually bought into the lies the Iranian government cooked up to justify the hangings.

I suspect that the controversial decision to deny the Dykes on Bikes their usual starting slot in the parade and instead have it led off by a “March for Those Who Can’t” was one of Tatchell’s conditions for coming to speak at San Diego Pride. Tatchell is known as a dedicated activist but also something of a prima donna who, like a lot of other activists, feels his particular cause is the most important issue on earth. But his point is well taken, even though the rally would probably have been better attended if Pride’s organizers had made it a rah-rah celebration of same-sex marriage rights (and a determination to keep them by organizing to defeat Proposition 8 on this November’s ballot) instead of a grim reminder of how much farther along we are in our struggle for equal rights than our brothers and sisters almost everywhere else in the world.

Attending the rally was important to me personally because my husband Charles was working both Saturday and Sunday and therefore it was the only event all weekend we would be able to attend together. Had he been free on parade day, we probably would have marched together with all the newlywed couples organized by the Center to dramatize the importance of gaining and keeping the right to marry. Instead I joined my friends in the Bisexual Forum in the parade and also worked their booth at the festival on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday I was in the Leather Realm, the closed-off area of the festival reserved for people 21 and older, working the table of the San Diego League of Gentlemen and hanging out with my friends from the Bears at the next table.

One thing that was striking about this year’s Pride — I’d seen it in previous years but it struck me even harder this time — was the number of male-female couples, mostly young, calmly strolling across the parade assembly site and the festival grounds holding hands with each other. I can’t help wondering who these people are. Are they merely straight people for whom Pride has become a particularly trendy weekend? Or are they the new breed of folks we’ve heard a lot about, people who’ve grown up in what’s been called the “post-Gay era,” who can date a woman one week and a man the next and a woman again the week after that and not think this is at all odd? I remember before last year’s Pride I interviewed Bisexual Forum board member Carlos Legazpi, and we agreed that we’ll know we’ve achieved equal rights when a man can marry a woman, divorce her, marry a man, divorce him and marry a woman again with no one thinking twice about all this, except maybe questioning his ability to maintain a relationship commitment.

Maybe that’s what we’re moving towards — while Queers in the rest of the world are fighting homophobic governments, religions and mobs just to live and love another day, Queers in this part of the world are working towards an era in which whether your sexual or relationship partner is a man or a woman will simply cease to matter, just as by now, 41 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the laws against interracial marriage, whether your partner is Black, Latino, Asian, native American, Caucasian or what have you has largely ceased to matter. (There’s another reason, apart from his politics, to hope Barack Obama wins the presidential election: the inspiration of seeing a man take the oath of office to lead a country that 42 years earlier had laws on the books to prevent people like him from even existing.)

A less healthy aspect to Pride in its current form is the rampant commercialism — a compliment (we’re considered enough of a niche market to be worth being targeted) but a decidedly left-handed one. For Charles and I, it was summed up at the rally where, at what was supposed to be the most profound and moving moment of the event — after Tatchell had finished speaking and the organizers were asking people to light candles in memory of the victims of the homohatred and homogenocide he had so vividly described — the big video screen that had shown his movie crackled to life again and on came … a commercial from Cox Cable for their digital service. “Boo, boo” my husband said sotto voce — so quietly even I wasn’t aware of it until I played back my tape of the event — but no one else seemed to notice or consider it at all odd. In the most hyper-capitalist nation the world has ever seen, we live our lives in a sea of advertising the way fish live their lives in a sea of water — and we don’t notice it until it intrudes into our consciousness in such a blatantly inappropriate moment, and sometimes not even then.

“Pride” has always been a somewhat troublesome concept for a community so wedded to biologically deterministic notions of ourselves (“We’re born this way” runs the Queer community orthodoxy, even though the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people disproves it). “Pride” began as the name of our celebrations because in the heady early days of Gay Liberation, we seized on “pride” as the opposite of “shame” and said we would celebrate an aspect of ourselves we had been told all our lives we should loathe. It’s a bit more problematic now that we’ve grown into such a diverse community and many of our young people are breaking down notions of a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender “identity” and refusing to define themselves that way. “Pride” has evolved into a peculiar ritual, part Mardi Gras, part infomercial, with shards of its original political identity as an act of defiance mixed in with the entertainment and commerce. But it’s the only community-wide celebration we have, and as such it’s worth preserving and helping it evolve to meet our needs as we change and grow as a people.