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June 16, 2009

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Home > Where’s the Pride in Pride Parades? Where’s the Pride in Pride Parades?

By: Cord Jefferson Posted: June 15, 2009 at 6:38 AM

Gay Pride Month: Where’s the Pride in Pride Parades? In a politically important moment for the gay community, thongs and theatrics don’t cut it. cord.jefferson

The gay community has every right to claim its place in the civil rights struggle. But there was a reason Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin wore suits. In a politically important moment for the gay community, thongs and theatrics don’t cut it.

<p>In a politically important moment for the gay community, thongs and theatrics don’t cut it.</p> 06/15/2009 06:38

There’s a famous photograph [1], taken by Charles Moore, of Martin Luther King Jr. being shuffled off to jail by two Montgomery, Ala., police officers. King had been loitering, meaning he sat down for a meal at a segregated restaurant. The image of the crime’s aftermath is striking for a number of reasons: the cops’ stone-faced indifference; the bucolic bushes behind the three men, which belie the violent tension of the scene; the way King is waving away some anonymous person, as if to say, “Let them do their job. Everything’s going to be fine.”

To anyone who’s ever spent time in the Deep South in the summer months, the picture is notable for another reason. On the day it was taken, Sept. 3, 1958, the high in Montgomery was 91 degrees, and the humidity was at a sultry 81 percent. It was the kind of weather that keeps people up at night, sticking to them like a hot, moist patina.

 

Looking at King, however, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d been picked up in the winter. As natty as a movie star in a gray wool suit and pressed white shirt, his eyes remain calm beneath the shade of a wide-brimmed fedora. It’s a gentleman’s outfit, similar to others he often wore to appear in public, and it must have been a horribly uncomfortable get-up on such a muggy day, not to mention in a dank prison cell.

Fast forward five decades to the civil rights movement currently at the forefront of American politics and minds: that of the LGBT community, which has been on a roller-coaster ride in recent weeks. There have been notable successes (marriage rights affirmed in six states) and surprising failures (the endurance of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy). This month, hundreds of thousands of men and women around the world will take to the streets to march for visibility and solidarity in gay pride parades. Much like Dr. King before them, the LGBT marchers ask simply for the basic rights granted other Americans—the right to work, the right to safety, the right to equality.

 

Unlike Dr. King, few of them will appear in suits.

Probably the most succinct critique of the modern pride parade is a 2001 article from satirical paper The Onion, “Gay-Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance of Gays Back 50 Years [2].” In it, a straight female witness to a gay pride march in Los Angeles says, “I’d always thought gays were regular people, just like you and me, and that the stereotype of homosexuals as hedonistic, sex-crazed deviants was just a destructive myth.” She then adds, “Boy, oh, boy, was I wrong.”

The quote, like the rest of the article, is an exaggeration, of course, but the underlying point stands. With their ribald costuming and hyper-sexualized theatrics, pride parades are certainly things of joy, excitement and bawdy humor.

But at the risk of sounding like a staid homophobe, I’m often left wondering where the pride part comes in.

 

The annual marches ultimately accomplish two things: They entertain those of us—gay and straight—who already wholeheartedly support the cause of equal rights for the LGBT community, and they feed into the rotten stereotypes of bigots, the same people who fear gay Boy Scout leaders and consider same-sex marriage “deviant.” The LGBT community has every right to claim its place in the civil rights struggle. But in such a politically important year for the gay community, perhaps it’s time for its members to start taking some cues from the civil rights movement of old.

Martin Luther King Jr. dressed that way for a reason, one that goes beyond the simple explanation “that was the style of the era.” It’s the very same reason he diligently practiced his oration and responded to violence with peace: because to do otherwise would be what his detractors expected. What King and his colleagues knew is that, despite their narrow thinking, bigots have remarkable memories, the kind perfect for bearing grudges based on a singular negative interaction. If the head of the NAACP were just once to show up drunk to an event, with stains on his shirt, telling dirty jokes, a racist would need only one look to decide that, indeed, blacks were sinful heathens. To that end, African-American civil rights leaders did everything in their power to avoid that response, even if it meant marching from Selma to Montgomery in starched shirts tucked into dress slacks, business skirts [3] and suits and ties [4].

Knowing that there are people—voters who have the power to deny them rights—who will judge them based on the flamboyance of their appearance in one parade, why hasn’t the gay community decided to tone down the pride festivals?

Earl Fowlkes (pronounced “folks”), president and CEO of the International Federation of Black Prides [5], argued in a recent interview for this article that one can’t equate the African-American marches of the ‘50s and ‘60s with modern-day pride parades. “The civil rights marches were done to bring attention to the suffering of black Americans,” he told me from his office in Washington, D.C. “The gay pride parades, on the other hand, are really celebrations.”

 

While Fowlkes agrees that part of the goal of pride parades is to raise awareness, he says that, if they’re comparable to anything in the black community, it’s not civil rights marches, but Juneteenth parties, the annual African-American bashes marking the end of slavery. He also notes that many blacks in the gay community intentionally avoid pride parades specifically because of the infamous reputations they’ve gotten over the years. “Many of us do not feel comfortable with the behavior of our white counterparts in their expressions of their sexuality. White privilege allows you to do a lot of things that I can’t as a black man, gay or straight,” he said.

Fowlkes’ final sentiment reminds me of something my father used to tell me over and over as a child. Sitting me down to my homework or to read a thick book, he’d say sternly, “As a person of color in America, sometimes you’re going to have to do two for a white person’s one. That’s not fair, but that’s life.”

 

I wish I could say that no bigots are going to use pictures of a few men in thongs in San Francisco to write off millions of gay, lesbian and transgender people, but I can’t. There’s a lot at stake right now. The community is on the verge, perhaps, of a tipping point for rights and acceptance. Maybe, just once, the LGBT community should try abandoning the scant costumes and embellished sexuality and “do two.” They could march down the center of America’s great cities in all the clothes they regularly wear, exposing themselves for what they truly are: normal human beings. It wouldn’t be as fun as past parades, and it’s not fair. But for now, that’s life.

Cord Jefferson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Some of his other work has appeared in National Geographic, The Daily Beast and on MTV. You can contact him here [6].

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