Monday, June 25, 2007

Gay Pride

The largest Gay Pride parade in the world ends about a block from my doorstep here in Greenwich Village, and we're just around the corner from Sheridan Square and the site of the famous June 1969 Stonewall Riots, considered a watershed event in the gay rights movement. To observe that there is a "gay presence" in our neighborhood would be an understatement. Gay and lesbian residents in the West Village are as much a part of the heterogeneous fabric of our community as anyone else . . . African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or fat WASPs like me. Nearly 40 years after Stonewall, "gay pride" is a daily cause célèbre in our neighborhood, woven into the very fabric of our lives. Life in the West Village - albeit not without its tensions and hot button political issues - reveals just how far our society has come since Stonewall.

Still, for most of America, this is an exception rather than the rule. The popularity of "Will and Grace" or other gay media figures notwithstanding, gay pride in many communities remains a clandestine affair because of the fear of persecution borne of bigotry and intolerance. Religious conservatives in particular still love to rail against the homosexual community, scapegoating it for society's promiscuity, AIDS, alcoholism, violent crime, and just about any other "ill" one can identify in the U.S. When Jerry Falwell suggested that 9/11 was God's punishment for a "sinful" America, he included homosexuals in an enumeration of our sins. Although the front lines in the gay rights movement currently focus on the issues of gay marriage and domestic partnerships with their attendant legal ramifications, for many gay and lesbian Americans, life hasn't progressed much beyond 1969 . . . which brings me back to the issue of the annual Pride Parade in New York City.

Officially the parade is a celebration of Stonewall and the significant gains made since that example of civil disobedience. Unfortunately, the parade itself has degenerated into a Mardis Gras-like orgy of irresponsible behavior. The vast majority of groups marching to Christopher Street take the Pride Parade as an opportunity to participate in the public life of the community, celebrate the significance of Stonewall, and/or support friends and family affected by the gay rights movement and its issues. Unfortunately, there are also numerous participants who assume the occasion gives them a license to be rude or engage in behaviors just not acceptable on city streets, whether the day is about gay, straight, or whatever. Although parade organizers doubtless want to allow participants to express themselves and their "pride" as openly as possible, I don't think my 7 and 8-year old boys need to see a phalanx of scantily clad men dressed to look like penises and hairy scrotums . . . or the drag queen dressed like Marie Antoinette sporting a towering 18th-century French-like wig constructed from tampons.

It's this kind of behavior that has prompted many of our gay and lesbian neighbors - people who have been "out" and "proud" for decades and understand the historic significance of Stonewall - to pack up and leave for the weekend. One friend derisively refers to the parade as "amateur night" because it attracts revelers who are "gay for a day" but have no understanding of the context of the gay rights movement in a post-Stonewall society.

As an outside observer familiar with the movement's issues - and the charges leveled against it by conservatives - I have to conclude that the Pride Parade is detrimental to the success of the larger movement. Film crews from some of the hate-mongering groups in this country attend the parade just so they can "confirm" what they've been preaching from their pulpits for decades. They select the most controversial elements of the spectacle, pull them from the context of the larger event, and use these vignettes in their propaganda campaign to incite homophobia in those media markets that have not experienced the effects of Stonewall and the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian society.

Since the 1960s spokespersons for the gay rights movement have justifiably drawn parallels between their cause and that of African Americans in the civil rights movement. Yet what if some of those marching with Dr. King in Alabama had donned minstrel costumes or pantomimed the Hollywood stereotypes of the day in an effort to draw attention to their actions? Would so many Americans have recognized the justness of their cause or accepted the moral leadership of Dr. King? One suspects that civil rights leaders would have very quickly recognized the disconnect in such tactics and moved to preserve the dignity of their marches. Organizers of the Pride Parade in New York City need to do the same, recognizing the seriousness of their cause while still celebrating the progress made since 1969. And, by toning down some of the more sexually overt behavior of the occasion, they'll likely succeed in restoring the support of those older members of the gay and lesbian community who can actually remember Stonewall (or even participated in the event) but feel alienated by the current "Carnivale" character of the parade.

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