As May ends and Pride Festivals begin, it is important now more than ever to understand what these festivals symbolize to begin building a better future. While many individuals within our community feel as though the achievement of marriage equality marks the pinnacle of equality (a notion further explored in Amin Ghaziani’s There Goes the Gayborhood). A recent study conducted by the Pew Center for Survey Research, revealed that there are a significant number of LGBT+ persons who disagree that we are completely equal. In examining the history of LGBT+ persons it is my aim to encourage discussion and reflection on our shared political purpose. As such every person has a potential role to play in the restoration of LGBT+ politics, and in the continued push away from injustice and towards justice. In the wake of an executive order which threatens us all, by legalizing discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, such a critique is beyond being merely necessary to preserve lives and safety of LGBT+ persons everywhere.
Each June LGBT+ persons all over the country gather to commemorate a legendary movement in their political liberation, while the origin story varies, most historians point to the summer of 1969 during which riots broke out all over the country as LGBT+ persons began to protest an overtly oppressive political system—most notably the police brutality and murder occurring in the streets. Being gay at that time meant one could be subjected to electro-shock therapy, chemical castration, frontal lobotomy (brain removal), and numerous other indignations. The movement which crystalized in the wake of violence by radical LGBT+ protesters drew upon the strategies of the movements which had come before them: women’s liberation, the Vietnam war protests, black civil rights, and other activists who collectively identified themselves as “the new left” (see John D’Emillo’s book Sexual Politics Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States). These early organizations utilized pride parades, marches, demonstrations, and symbolic acts of resistance as a reaction to larger historical and political forces shaping their era. Moreover because “coming out” often meant cutting oneself off from societal resources, members of the movement were not afraid to use violent protest—after all, in some cases they were already facing death and therefore felt they had nothing left to lose. The LGBT+ persons living in this era were galvanized by a shared affinity for each other born out of their experiences, but also the need to express a suppressed rage for a system of oppression.
As the LGBT+ movement began to march into the 1970s and 1980s, mob owned gay bars gave way to new LGBT+ managed institutions. Using the ideas of liberation and prideful acceptance of one’s identity signified an era of newfound freedom, and increased internal fragmentation. While the strategies of the 1960s were successful in gaining some basic human rights, some internal arguments were left unresolved. These included debates on just ‘whose community,’ or whose notion of community took precedence. To resolve this issue, and preserve some internal sense of identity, new configurations of identity (or subcultures) began to emerge. Among gay men, this emerged through the labeling of oneself as either a “leather man” (an identity which personified and embraced the label of gay as deviant and oversexualized), or a ‘gay clone’ (individuals who adhered to dominant societal conventions of masculinity through normative behaviors and dress, what we might now refer to as a jock). This 1980s exacerbated the internal divides over organizing strategies further fracturing of gay identity by shaming leather men as harbingers of the AIDS crisis (see Weinberg, Martin S.; Williams, Colin J.; and Douglas W. Pryor 1994. Dual Attraction. Oxford: Oxford University Press). Some read the 1970s as a hedonistic or even excessive period, the effect was a divide between “good gays” and “bad gays.” A more contemporary example of this is the “slut shaming” towards individuals taking PrEP (drugs used to prevent becoming infected by HIV). The argument is that somehow these drugs invite hedonistic, and often risky, sexual behaviors—an argument similar to the one used by abstinence only sexual education advocates.
Today’s LGBT+ movement is the result of the historical and political controversies in previous decades. The critique that Pride has lost its original political purpose is indeed a valid one. Festival producers, who I spoke with, now organize and frame it as, “merely a music festival and nothing more.” Many pride festivals around the country now charge admission which for some, including organizers of an earlier generation, represents a shift away from the movements core values. Instead of aligning themselves to helping meet the real needs of LGBT+ persons, these individuals have instead aligned themselves with corporate interests. To be sure that this is not just speculation, consider the struggle between grassroots organizations seeking to organize rallies and political events, all without the consent of officially recognized “Pride” organizations.
As a sociological phenomenon however, Pride still contains within it an important function for making LGBT+ persons—the celebration in one’s identity, giving visibility and voice to the marginalized, and providing a safe space to gather. There is no better example than in towns and cities which to some degree lack a unified and centralized LGBT+ center, and the oppression that comes from living in the Midwest (Kansas City, Topeka, Indianapolis to name a few). In these areas, Pride events attract many who live in rural communities and seek a momentary relief from their daily struggle. Imagine, for example, the effect(s) living in Topeka, KS (home of the Westboro Baptist Church, made infamous through protesting with signs reading “God hates fags!”) might have for an LGBT+ person.
While those from geographically privileged areas like Chicago, San Francisco, or LA may patronize such “fly over states” as backwards, their shallow narcistic personalities blind them to the fact that they have been turned into domesticated servants of the culture industry (a concept first described by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno 1944  in their seminal work Dialectic of the Enlightenment). Instead these fly over states should be exonerated for keeping the promises of Pride alive, for it is here where Pride and ultimately the validation of oneself (the true purpose of pride) through identification for other likeminded people is most needed, appreciated, and found wanting. Though even rural spaces have been tainted by the commodifying tendencies of the culture industry as they seek to emulate the more “successful” pride events.
The modern LGBT+ movement is best understood as being born in the shadow of their past. While we have garnered more freedoms, rights, and privileges as a community—the cost has been one of increased fragmentation and isolation. We have created new images for the purposes of differentiating ourselves based on heteronormative (straight) standards of aesthetic beauty. Those who resist conforming to these notions, or who can’t due to their class position, are ostracized and cast out. Yet, such notions are rooted in ethnocentric, and ultimately moralistic, standards about the way we ought to live our lives. As one participant told me, in a particularly heart wrenching interview, “our greatest strength, our biggest weapon, has been turned around against us… our uniqueness and diversity in experience in identity.” As you go about participating in Pride festivals, remember that validation through prideful celebration is meaningless if we do not also take the time to continue to resist the forces of oppression both external and internal, as we have more to lose now than ever.
Christopher T. Conner is an assistant professor of sociology at Washburn University. He is a frequent contributor to LGBT+ media outlets. His current research project is a study of LGBT+ identity, politics, and urban development in contemporary American culture. He is also author of Electronic Dance Music: From Deviant Subculture to Culture Industry, which is currently under review for publication as a manuscript due out later this year.