Whoever thought that a protest march held at the end of June to commemorate a riot by drag queens and others in New York’s Greenwich Village would become like the Chinese New Year parade or Mardi Gras? In some places, such as San Francisco, it’s even broadcast live on TV.
Gay Pride has become an established institution in most major places, generating lots of income in tourist dollars to city coffers. Families bring the kids, despite the occasional glimpse of flesh and gyrating bottoms. These days, there’s not much that shocks the masses at gay pride parades.
It was different 40 years ago.
The first gay pride march I attended was one that I helped organize. It was in Philly in 1972. We assembled in Rittenhouse Square in the center of what was then the gay ghetto, and strode proudly for blocks to Independence Mall across the street from where the Liberty Bell still sits. There were 10,000 of us, according to newspaper reports the following day.
We were fiery, fierce and defiant. We had no corporate sponsorship, no politicians marching alongside us, no churches telling us we were children of god. We weren’t asking for the right to marry or to join the military. We were asserting our right to be who we were, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. That was radical enough for those days when police still raided gay bars and carted men off to jail for the “crime” of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their names would be published in the morning papers along with their addresses and employers. Most would end up fired from their jobs and ostracized from their families. That was considered just in those days.
We weren’t simply marching against the current, we were re-directing it. Our act of coming out of the closet was revolutionary. Even many in the queer community thought it was a crazy thing to do.
Forty year later, it’s difficult to see any defiance in what we now call pride “parades.” Any semblance of radical politics is buried between the fire fighters contingent and the popular’s bar float with the g-stringed dancing boys and the irritating thumping music.
There are the occasional shakeups. Two years ago, some folks here in San Francisco staged a die-in front of the car carrying then-Mayor Gavin Newsom to protest budget cuts that they said would lead to the deaths of homeless and poor folks. They held up the parade for about 15 minutes. But it went on, as it always does, and people quickly forgot that it had even been disrupted.
Corporations fork up big bucks to co-sponsor pride, politicians line up to be driven along the parade route and wave at the onlookers, and legislatures issue pat proclamations to honor the event. Seeing CEOs of banks that have caused the foreclosure crisis and police officers that regularly harass the homeless and politicians who vote against tenants rights marching in the same parade with queer activists is disconcerting.
Just because bankers like queers now doesn’t mean I like them anymore than I do politicians who are good on marriage issues but bad on immigration and affordable housing. Queers are immigrants, too, and we need an inexpensive place to live.
These days, gay pride makes strange bedfellows.