Pride and Prejudice

We are nearing the time of year when many communities host their annual Gay Pride events.

I remember the first time I attended such a celebration, nearly twenty years ago, as a PFlag mom. Attendance back then was dominated by the most “out” members of the community—there were “leather” guys, dykes on bikes and drag queens in abundance (not, as Seinfeld might have said, that there was anything wrong with that), but few others. More recently, a casual “drop-in” at Indianapolis’ event, at least, might not have known what the celebration was all about. These days, booths are as likely to offer real estate services or symphony tickets as AIDS information or bar locations, and the crowd is a broad and far more representative cross-section of the entire community: moms with strollers, political candidates and representatives of the Gay Chamber of Commerce now mingle with the leather boys, the PFlag moms and dads and all the others.


Part of the reason the crowds and booths have changed is that society has changed, and mostly for the better. Earlier Pride celebrations flew in the face of social conventions that made gay or lesbian identity a source of shame, not pride. Gay people who were closeted rarely took the chance of attending and being seen, and straight people who attended often had their stereotypes confirmed rather than dispelled. As society has become more open, and many more people have come out, these events have become larger and much more representative of the gay population as a whole. If the early events tended to be defiant—even “in your face”—occasions of the “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” variety, today’s are more likely to be get-togethers of a community of folks who have a lot in common. Some of what they have in common is the prejudice they experience from the wider culture, of course, but the way that bigotry is usually expressed has changed. Overt hostility and physical danger, while still a problem, have been largely replaced by efforts at political disenfranchisement and social marginalization.


Disenfranchisement and marginalization may seem strange causes for celebration, but they actually represent progress.


As a result, the upcoming Pride festivals will be paradoxical occasions for looking at how far the community has come—and how far it still has to go.  Progress has been made, but the backlash against that progress is in full swing. The community is getting “whipsawed;” every time a court decision favorable to gay civil rights is handed down, it enrages and energizes the fundamentalist Right.


A number of states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, and several more will be attempting to do so this year. There is a concerted effort to prevent gays and lesbians from adopting children. (Apparently, God would rather children languish in foster care than be raised in loving same-sex households.) Most states’ civil rights laws still do not include protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Republicans are facing potentially enormous losses in the 2006 elections, and will undoubtedly use anti-gay and anti-immigrant rhetoric to rally their base and get them to the polls.


Time is on the side of equal rights. Poll after poll confirms what I see anecdotally in my classes—young people are far less threatened by genuine equality, far more likely to have (and know they have) gay friends and relatives, and far more likely to support equal application of the laws of the land. The challenge at this point comes down to buying time—keeping the states and the federal government from passing laws that will slow the process of achieving necessary reforms, and make positive change much more difficult.


What the GLBT community needs most right now is divided government.


So—as you all head off to your local Pride fairs and parades, here’s my advice, for what it’s worth: take time to savor the progress that has been made. Have a drink, listen to the music, kibbitz with the friends you see. Buy a music CD, hire a realtor, join a health club—whatever.


 But don’t forget to stop at the booth where you register to vote, the one where you volunteer for a political campaign, and the one where you donate to an organization working for equal rights. You’ll be proud that you did.