What is Pride?
Defenders of the annual celebration would say it’s a chance to embrace and flaunt queerness, to center a cultural and sexual minority that has known far too much violence and discrimination. Pride was born through radicalism, when a group of fed-up New York gays and drag queens, many of them Black and brown, fought back against a brutal and homophobic police force. Pride celebrates that revolutionary spirit, it is said – Pride is about refusing to passively accept abuse. “Pride is protest!”
This, to me, is a bit like saying Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. That’s the origin story, not the present reality. Christmas, like Pride, has become in large part an ode to conformity, wealth, and hollow corporate well-wishing. But even that’s understating the case against Pride. At least the Christmas holiday isn’t an active effort to undermine its own creation. Christmas, as of yet, is not a sly way to indoctrinate atheists. Pride, on the other hand, has become a month-long experiment to see just how far queerness can be removed from radicalism – if we turn the rainbow flag upside down and shake hard enough, can all the ideology fall out? In a world full of neoliberal grifts and performative politics, Pride is just another capitalist scam.
I will not bore you with a list of the nightmarish businesses that have embraced Pride and its symbols. Try this: think of one of the corporations you think is doing the most to make the world a worse place. Now go to their Twitter page and you will likely find that their logo has been rainbowed. We roll our eyes at this – yes, thank you, defense contractor Raytheon – but the fact that the symbols of pride have been so denuded of meaning that they can be used to sell missiles that will one day rain down on Gazans, some of them queer, is nothing less than a failure of the gay rights movement.
Make no mistake. Pride branding is not about inclusion. It’s not even about lowercase-p pride. It is about selling things, and hiring people to sell things. There’s even a term for this: pinkwashing, using performative celebrations of (certain kinds of) queerness to distract from wrongdoing. Citigroup, for example, regularly manipulates markets, defrauds investors, misleads homebuyers, and played a not insignificant role in crashing the US economy in 2007 – but it’s the number 1 “LGBT Inclusive Financial Services Provider” employer in the UK, so how bad can it be, really? In practical terms, queer and trans folks are at least as likely to hear about Citi’s LGBT-friendly rep as they are its crimes and schemes, enticing them to work there and become complicit in the further destruction of the middle and working classes. Pride provides a forum for the world’s worst actors to mimic decency in a highly public fashion for 30 days a year.
The corporate sponsors of this year’s New York City Pride reads like a Most Wanted List would in an actually decent world. TD Bank – stole excess overdraft fees from checking account clients. HSBC – abusive mortgage lending practices. Uber, Lyft – exploitative labor policies. Mastercard – serial antitrust violator. Unilever – hoo boy. The money that pays for the colorful floats was stolen straight from the debtor class.
And the police. The police! From New York City to Chicago, abusive city militias everywhere are cashing in that Pride publicity dividend, throwing young black men violently into the backseats of rainbow-adorned patrol cars. Let’s be clear: police officers should never feel like symbols of Pride represent anything other than resistance to police power. Festooning their vehicle with a Pride flag should be the equivalent of slapping an Anarchist A or a hammer and sickle on the door. Pride was born out of resistance to the state’s corrupt monopoly of violence. If modern celebrations are to have any connection with Pride’s roots, cops wouldn’t just be banned, they’d be afraid to walk within a block of the floats.
New York’s decision to ban uniformed officers from taking a break from brutally beating and arresting trans and Black attendees of the weekly Stonewall marches to march in the Pride parade was long overdue. And even then, parade organizers sent mixed signals. There is nothing complicated about this. Only the police branding has changed since those bricks (or stones) were thrown downtown in 1969. Cops continue to target queers – there is a long history of mistreatment of trans people by the NYPD right up to the present day. Ask the families of Tony McDade and Layleen Polanco if the cops should fly that rainbow flag.
Every year we suffer the same tired debate of whether there should be kink at Pride, which at this point is like debating what to wear to the ribbon-cutting for a new Walmart. Kink is great! It’s also been corporatized, commodified, and sanctioned by our oligarch overlords. Kink has been sucked into the maw of capitalism and, like Pride itself, been stripped of its revolutionary potential and packaged up to be sold to normie America. Whether kink can be said to challenge the concept of the nuclear family, the critical unit of capitalism, is an interesting debate, but we can sidestep it here. What kink exists at Pride is shamed and marginalized, often by the gay community itself, and in fact condemnations of kink are opportunities for the Pete’n’Chasten fan club to show their normie bonafides. All who gaze into the abyss of Pride will eventually become Pride themselves.
Look, I understand that queer kids across America need to know they aren’t alone, that – gulp – “it gets better,” even if it never does. But if Pride – not just the parades but the entire cultural moment – is selling any kind of queer happiness, it is a shallow, conformist sort of happiness, the kind of happiness that masks deep insecurity and celebrates the ceaseless battle for resources under capitalism. Pride should be protest. Instead, it’s passivity.