Forget the Kink at Pride Debate. Can Pride Be Saved?

From NYT, image of Mermaid of Warsaw statue during protest.

No family is safe
When I sashay

-Perfume Genius

I have been to Queer Pride in Seoul, Tokyo, London, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal (maybe), Amsterdam, Utrecht, and probably a few other places. I have watched it become a global phenomenon; and save for Seoul, and the more grassroots one in smallish Utrecht, they all feel the same: commercial. In Seoul, it’s still a riot. Here, in Northern Europe, even within the Netherlands, pride moves around. It happens from June to September depending on the location and city, so that each can get a slice of those tourist dollars. In Toronto, where I am from, it is a month-long — mirroring the bloated three-hour main parade which is fronted by endless corporate-sponsored floats. Even in Tokyo, which I assumed would be more like Seoul because of the anti-LGBTQ+ climate, capitalism seemed like the main event.

Last time I was in Toronto for pride, in 2017, the parade was fronted by local Haudenosaunee and the Wendat band members with Canadian genocide banners — which provided a foil to the Canada 150 celebration regalia replete throughout the rest of the procession. In other words, it was a good start. What followed was less so. The First Nations were followed by Trudeau and a posy of secret servicemen, then hours of Trojan, Bell Canada, and other corporate floats. Cops, as a kind of compromise, had to wear city of Toronto employee shirts. Many white gay men complained openly about this at bars and the various venues erected across the city. At the very end, after the BLM marchers (also hotly debated around town), there was a cluster of kink groups — nudists, daddies and their subs, and other members of various sexual subgroups clad mostly in black plastic or leather. The drag queens were now on the various floats, thanks to RuPaul, along with the homonormative gays at the front, with a small number of LGBTQ+ refugees from Russia on display, like spoils in one of Caesar’s triumphs. The trannies got their parade somewhere else, on another day, I suspect it was less attended. I didn’t go; it was too hot.

Pride always felt off to me, but maybe that’s because I don’t like crowds. But more recently, I have grown wary of it. It seems to me to be a symbolic manifestation of the stagnation of LGBTQ+ rights more broadly. The debate in the US around kink at pride this spring only seems to further empathize this. I am not sure where this debate resurfaced from this year, but it seems some people want to make pride kid-friendly. Kids equal more tourist dollars in the same way PG-rated films usually do better business than R-rated films. I follow this nerd on YouTube called Jessie Gender, she is trans* and likes Star Trek, which for me, pretty much hits the nail on the head. She recently did a long-form video essay on the kink issue, and someone in the comments suggested that not only should pride be a family affair, but that Jessie’s video was an example of slippery slope fallacy. Jessie Gender made the claim that removing kink from pride was the first step to removing transgender folks from pride. There were more than a few thumbs up for this comment. Now, fallacious reasoning does not make an argument wrong, but more to the point, this commenter, and anyone saying similar things, needs to get their head out of their ass. There is not much slipping here.

First, if you are worried that young people at pride might be exposed to non-normative sexuality, then you have got pride all wrong. While I am sure there is a place at pride for the kiddos, it should be in addition to all the freaky shit going on at the main affair. Calling to diminish the freaky is a form of sanitization. And as far as this moral panic relates to kicking out the trans* folks, that’s what’s going on. London 2019 Pride was fronted by TERFS. They tried to make this seem like a mistake but looking back at the UK’s record on this during the last three years, I now doubt that claim. The perennial cop issue is similarly related. Many queers, mostly affluent white gay men, want them there. Even though some of these men were present during the Toronto bathhouse raids in the 1980s. But now those boots are off their necks, they’ve been admitted into the club. But they don’t want the trans* and BIPOC queers. So why not let the cops march? It sends a signal to these marginalized groups who are still systematically targeted by the police. The message is “pride is not for you, get out!” Pride is a celebration of LG normalization. It is a depoliticization of queerness, it is putting all that baggage in the closet and celebrating white middle-class queer consumption and participation in capitalism. Kink isn’t normative like white gay men drinking beer and dancing on the street for a weekend in June (July or August). Kink goes to the back of the line, dangling on for dear life. I’d prefer to see those sweaty leather-clad daddies in the hot late June sun than a drag queen blasting people with a water cannon on the side of a Diesel Jeans float.

This form of rainbow capitalism symbolically signals that Western societies are beacons of liberal rights and progress (homonationalism). But they’re a trap. Those rights are very narrow and designed to reinforce a heteronormative core set of values based around the rugged individual as a consumer — freedom to buy stuff. Socially liberal rights are easily co-opted into this neoliberal framework through the emphasis on freedom and the individual. But “freedom” and “individual” mean something more anemic in this context, the freedom to participate as fungible units of capital. Individualism is reduced to Thatcherism: communities don’t exist. Look at your human rights, they are framed around the idea that crimes committed to LGBTQ+ individuals are only something that happens between individuals — an unenlightened bad instigator commits a hate crime, they do little to address systemic issues. Instead, you are responsible for that care, as a consumer. Trans* persons, and BIPOC queers more generally, are doubly targeted. Systemic conditions prevent all but the most privileged and well-positioned to be included in this vision of pride and LGBTQ+ neoliberalism. They are excluded from the party, pushed aside because their very presence is political.

The other side of this double-bind is their symbolic adoption by neoliberalism, what we might call the optics of inclusivity. LGBTQ+ rights are lauded as a cornerstone of modern liberal democracy, regardless of its failure to enfranchise abject bodies and subject positions. Meanwhile, as wealth continues to concentrate in an upwards and increasingly transnational migration, everyone else suffers and turns to reactionary populism. Who do these people aim at? Why the symbol of neoliberal inclusivity, of course: queers, trans* folks, immigrants, refugees, all the rabble who don’t actually benefit from shallow diversity politics. Right now, in Europe, the mother of our Western cultural landscape, and colonial grandma, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is being pushed through legislatures (just like in the US). The Council of Europe cluck clucks, but nothing is done. “Gender ideology” is the target de jour for fascists and reactionaries everywhere. Thus, trans* people and queers are doubly targeted. As both targets of performative capitalist inclusion and angry right-wing mobs. Neither does anything to buoy the material life chances for queers, it just sinks them. Of course, the sinister machinations of the anti-LGBTQ+ lobby also hurts more than just the queers.

A few years ago, while studying the CEDAW committee at the UN in Geneva, the lead researcher I was working with pointed to one of the countries before the council, I think it was Bosnia-Herzegovinian, they were discussing access to abortion at the time. She told me to watch out for this, as trans* rights and reproductive rights always go hand in hand. It’s true. As popular agitators of hate like Joan Rowling sling arrows at trans women and trans men, ostensibly believing that they are saving women and feminism, the forces that use their rhetoric are outlawing access to abortion and bodily autonomy laws for women on the continent and around the world — wherever conservative reactionaries lurk.

So, where does this leave pride? I think we need to remember that queerness has been appropriated into an aesthetic recently, but it used to be a commentary on normalization. While celebrating your gayness is awesome, and you should do it in public, I would question participating in any event that excludes someone else from the alphabet soup. Historically, us L, G, B, T, Q, I, A’s don’t do too well on our own. And while some normative gay subject positions are allowed to sit at the table, even their seats are not guaranteed. In Poland and Hungary, they’re not just out for the T’s; they’re making “LGBT free zones.” Being gay is never just a matter of who you fuck in private. Nor is something you can disaggregate from gender. Be inclusive, in a good way, the way that forges community. Embrace the kinksters’ right to dress as leather-clad horses and dogs to be led around by a leash in the baking sun. If you want to go to pride, hold space, forge links, and refuse the Disneyfication of the event. Enter a float with a grassroots organization that supports your local BIPOC queers. Celebrate being a foil to heteronormativity — if you want. Bring your kids if you want. Maybe they will secretly attend anyway and learn something. This year though, I’d probably skip it all and Zoom your friends. Maybe next year we can reclaim pride. At the very least, don’t click on moralizing panics about pride. Kink belongs there with all the other freaks.