Monday, July 18, 2011

Marching with S.A.M.E. at the Pride Parade


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

There’s been a lot of talk among Queer and allied progressives dissing the annual Queer (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or that unhappy acronym “LGBT” for short) Pride events. The line is generally that the event has grown too blatantly commercial, both from the direct advertising support by corporations and the hucksterism that surrounds the events, from the “awards” to companies like Qualcomm and Sempra for supposedly having Queer-friendly labor policies to the sponsorships from Albertson’s, Vons, beer, wine and liquor companies (good marketing for them if you believe the stereotype that all Queer people love to drink), and that somewhere in the fog of business opportunities and the ballyhoo that this has become a major revenue producer for the city (all those out-of-town visitors coming in and leaving money in San Diego) the original impetus of Pride — a political statement, an in-your-face proclamation that we’re here, we’re Queer, we’re not going anywhere and we’re beautiful and worthy citizens of the world just as we are — has got lost.

Don’t tell that to the members of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) and the other organizations they invited to march with them in the July 16 Pride Parade in San Diego. S.A.M.E. was formed in the wake of the devastating passage of Proposition 8, which took away the short-lived marriage equality for same-sex couples we had won in the state supreme court in May 2008 and lost at the ballot box less than six months later. (My husband Charles and I are legally married in the state of California; we made sure we got in during the 4 ½-month “window” when Queer couples were actually equal before the law in our state.) Their contingent also included members of the Bradley Manning Support Group, formed to defend the rights of the Queer soldier accused of whistle-blowing the U.S.’s dirty linen by leaking it to WikiLeaks; the International Socialist Organization (I.S.O.); and doubtless several other groups I didn’t recognize.

Led by the indefatigable José Medina at the head of the contingent and the equally tireless Cecile Veillard about two-thirds of the way down, both calling out chants over bullhorns and bidding us to follow (and sometimes frantically having to catch up with each other when they found themselves calling different chants), the S.A.M.E. (and others) contingent felt like an island of political consciousness in a sea of go-go boys (not that I mind looking at go-go boys!), politicians and corporate shills. It made me feel good in a way I hadn’t felt in previous years marching with the San Diego Democratic Club or the American Civil Liberties Union (as strongly as I support both those organizations) or the AIDS group Being Alive. It made me feel like I was really part of a movement, not just a collection of people working on a common goal but something more than that.

I felt connected with the past of Pride in the S.A.M.E. contingent. The night before, at the Pride rally, former San Diego Democratic Club president Larry Baza had reminded us that the first Pride walk in San Diego wasn’t a parade at all, but a political demonstration. It took place in 1974, in the heady early days of the Gay liberation movement (as it was still called before we stopped celebrating ourselves as a unified Gay/Queer community and started salami-slicing ourselves into so many subgroups that now the only way to refer to them all is via an ugly and increasingly ridiculous set of initials — I’ve seen it up to LGBTQQIAA, with the two “Q”’s standing for “Queer” and “Questioning,” the “I” for “intersex” — formerly known as hermaphrodites, people born with reproductive organs of both sexes — and the two “A”’s for “asexual” and “allies,” the last the current term of art for all the wonderful and noble straight people, including José Medina, who join us in our fight for equality), and not only was it actively harassed by the police but so many of the marchers were in fear of being “outed” that they wore paper bags over their heads.

The message today’s Queers need to hear is that our very existence is a political statement. Maybe someday we will be “mainstreamed” and our presence in the community will be no more noticed than those of Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans, and our parades of no more interest than those on St. Patrick’s Day or Columbus Day. But don’t hold your breath: after all, African-Americans got formal equality under the law in the late 1860’s and had to wait 100 years, until the late 1960’s, before that formal equality got translated to facts on the ground. Even though there’s an African-American (or partially so) President of the United States, racism is far from dead in this country — and when Barack Obama leaves office, whether after the 2012 election or after he’s termed out in 2016, there will be a palpable sense of relief among a lot of unconsciously racist Americans who will see a white person take the oath of office as the 45th president with a sense that the natural order of things has been restored — just as a lot of Americans did when Nancy Pelosi lost the speakership of the House of Representatives and a white male, John Boehner, replaced her.

As for women, they didn’t even win the formal right to vote nationwide until 1920 — 50 years after African-Americans did — and it took another 50 years before they organized a mass movement for the still incomplete task of winning equal pay for work of comparable worth, equal child-care arrangements so they can pursue careers and parenthood at the same time, and the right to reproductive choice so they can be free and equal citizens instead of slaves to their wombs. That struggle is still not finished any more than the struggles of African-Americans and other people of color is — so there’s no excuse for complacency on the part of our community, no excuse to ignore the danger posed by the way one of America’s two major political parties has set itself up as the implacable enemy of all minority rights (as well as workers’, consumers’ and immigrants’ rights and the environment) and has won elections by proclaiming itself the voice of the “real Americans” — with the implication that those of color and those who are Queer are somehow either not “real” or not “Americans.”

Yes, we have made great gains in the last 42 years of our history of militant struggle. But we ignore the continued need for militant struggle at our peril. We came heartbreakingly close to defeating Proposition 8, and we lost largely due to our own complacency and a shockingly namby-pamby campaign that was no match for the bald (albeit untrue) certainties with which the Yes on 8 campaign regaled Californians and convinced them to vote against us out of fear. What we can never forget is that now, and probably for the entire lifetimes of even the youngest people likely to be reading this, being openly Queer is a political act and a political struggle. Being openly Queer carries with it the burden of cutting oneself off from the assumption straight people (especially straight white people) take for granted — that one is a full member of society entitled to the same rights as anybody else, from the right to fight and die for this country to the right to marry the person one loves and with whom one wants to share the rest of one’s life.

All too few people attended the Pride rally Friday night — the crowd looked bigger than it was because it was “packed” by the honorees and Pride volunteers — and too much of the event came off as more of a testimonial dinner (albeit without food) than a political event. But there were parts of the program, including the speeches by Larry Baza and Daniel Hernandez (the openly Gay aide who saved the life of Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords last January at the risk of his own), that inspired us in the way the whole program should have. And the next day I got to walk in the parade with a group of people — young and old, male and female, Queer and straight, Transgender and cisgender — who understand that being Queer is a political act, that standing up for Queer rights whether you are Queer or not is a political act, and who brought me out of my tendency towards political despair when I look at the sheer power, reach and scope of the forces arrayed against us, and gave me hope that with clear minds and loving hearts we can not only shout to the world that we are deserving of equality, but actually win it.