Monday, June 30, 2008

On Pride

I wasn't going to touch on the subject this year, as I am still sufficiently repulsed by the actions of the local organizers that I cannot bring myself to attend their event - which if we count bodies (400,000 by police estimate) in attendance was a screaming success (we'll see what it looks like, if we're allowed to, when the numbers come in). I may attend up in Vancouver.

However, having staggered across a post in a blog I read fairly regularly (a now-vanished post) gently deriding Pride as counterproductive and continuing with the "why can't they just keep it in their bedrooms" meme.

Yeargh. Over the years, I've written this post in different words, at different times, and in different places at least five separate times, and I'm really not eager for round VI. However....

Pride didn't happen spontaneously, and it didn't originate in a grandly festive party in a world that celebrated folks of LGBT persuasion. It didn't originate among a bunch of buttoned-down straight-laced LGBT folks campaigning for incremental change - it originated in a decidedly run-down bar in New York, the Stonewall Inn frequented by drag queens, escorts, and sundry down on their luck gay folks, and was anything but a celebration.

Things were different then. It was 1969 and the times were tumultuous - anti-war protests, the civil rights movement and race riots combined with a hot summer to leave far too many neighborhoods a roiling incendiary stew merely waiting for a spark to detonate it.

It was still common for police to raid LGBT bars and events, and beating up patrons and staff before hauling them off on "infamous charges" that ended careers and destroyed lives. It was not especially uncommon for bar owners and event sponsors to pay protection to police in order to assure they and their patrons would be either not harassed, or harassed less often.

Bashing, though it still occurs today, was far more common then and more frequently lethal. Those who by their very nature ("born outside the closet with the door locked behind them") stood little chance of hiding successfully, were particularly vulnerable - and such were the patrons of the Stonewall Inn. The very existence of gay bars in New York had only been legal since 1965, prior to which the gathering of three or more gay folks in a bar was grounds for that bar to lose its' license.

Reparative therapy ("We can De-GAY you or your offspring!") had not yet been shown to be the cruel fraud that we know it as today, and its' regiment of aversion therapy (or torture, if you care to be honest) still stalked the land unchallenged, with uncounted victims - suicides, nervous breakdowns, and a wide varity of otherwise damaged folks were still being abused by that abhorrent cottage industry from Hades.

Debateably relevant was the death of gay icon Judy Garland the day before the raid on the Stonewall Inn, contributing to the emotional ferment in the streets. Certainly, in latter day accounts, this has been considered a factor in events.

In the midst of this flammable emotional concoction, nine officers of the NYPD (one uniformed, 8 not) began a raid of the Stonewall Inn at 3 a.m. on Saturday morning - June 28, 1969.

It did not go well. Debate continues on when and how precisely the fun began, but in almost all accounts, a flashpoint was hit inside the bar, and for the first time, the gays fought back. First, with drag queens heating pennies red hot with lighters before flinging them at officers, and proceeding rapidly to thrown bottles and full-out brawling. Before the evening was out, the officers were barricaded inside the Stonewall Inn as it was being set alight by its patrons. Four days of rioting followed.

The LGBT community had, quite simply, had enough. The Mattachine Society, an early body of polite gay activists, was soon done and the "Gay Liberation Force" was born. The time for asking nicely was over.

Soon, in more and more cities, Pride Celebrations sprang up commemorate Stonewall - first in protests, and then in celebration as things got better over a period of decades - there was less to protest, and more to celebrate...and it was safer to celebrate.

The theme might be said to be shifting, even today, from Twisted Sisters anthem "We're not going to take it" to "Wasn't that a Party" by the Irish Rovers, and more than once the argument for one thing or another between the LGBT community and various governmental sorts has boiled down to "Would you rather the party, or the protest?".

Many of the pioneers of the Stonewall era are still with us, rebels and protesters slightly ameliorated by age, but as a result of the AIDS epidemic blowing the guts out of an entire generation of potential community leaders, only now barely beginning to step away from the leadership roles in the community in favor of younger folks, and still possessed of a grim determination that as a community, we never want to return to the dark days of the pre-Stonewall era.

That's the history. The present reality is increasingly the community "letting it's hair down", not dissimilar to Mardi Gras or Seafair (before the bluenoses got hold of it), in a vast and mighty party of increasingly commercial nature. That it *can* is a good thing, as that means the tense protests of yore are less necessary. That it could revert to its' roots of angry protest is part of our protection as a minority community.

To address those who claim that we choose our sexuality, I'd ask - "Um, when did you choose to be heterosexual?" And continue with inquiries about what person in their right mind would choose to self-select to be harassed, discriminated against, and generally get a bonus ration of crud in far too many places in the world and our nation...

As far as I can tell, some folks are born rigidly hetero; some rigidly LGBT; and most, depending on their environment, circumstances, and dumb luck fall someplace on a Bell Curve between those two extremes, coming at some point to a self-definition that "feels right/truthful" to them (or a mighty deep closet in which to wallow in guilt, self-hatred, and assorted drama).

For me, the first Pride I attended in about '90 or so was a revelation - my god, there were "other people like me", and I was not the "only one", and not everyone was "living the stereotype" - there were lots of just regular folks having a good time in a positive environment. Surely, there are excesses, but no more so than at Mardi Gras. It was as if a gorilla had climbed off my shoulders, and it was "ok to be me".

And finally, Pride isn't a collection of saints, either. It's a whole bunch of folks, almost all of whom have spent some portion of their lives hiding their identity from themselves and others, letting their hair down and celebrating in what, for a day or two, is a space we feel as our own, and safe - not surprisingly, some folks get a little harm (no blood), no foul.

I have my issues with certain pride organizers (or I would not refer to them as pond scum), but not with Pride. It combines celebration, community safety, and the role of the canary in the proverbial coal mine (and makes for one major fundraiser for community organizations, if done right) into a single joyous package.

Perhaps in 2009 we'll see respectable organizers in Seattle. In the meantime, I hope I can hit Vancouver or Palm Springs 2008.

1 comment:

Buzz Stephens said...

Speaking of Judy Garland, this week over at The Judy Garland Experience on Yahoo, they are featuring a recording of the 1998 Carnegie Hall salute to Judy. Lorna Luft sings and co-hosts the event with Robert Stack. other performers include Gogi Grant, Jerry Herman, Vicki Carr, Wesla Whitfield, Nancy Dussault, Jerry Maren, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Morse, and others.
Everyone performs and offers up their memories or feelings about Judy.
Next week the second night of the concert will be posted (with a whole new all star line up).
And of course, the experience features all sorts of other aural rarities and treats.
The Judy Garland Experience is one of the largest and most exciting Judy Garland groups on the web. There is always an interesting discussion and game going on (some of the games even have good prizes). Our photo section features some of the rarest and most candid pictures of Judy anywhere, many of the taken by group members.
Please stop by and check out The Judy Garland Experience.
Here is the link: