For years I’ve had a serious problem with Pride month. As a gay man who came of age and embraced my activism during the AIDS epidemic, I didn’t feel proud to be gay–just that I was gay and that was an accident of birth. I’m proud of my achievements, of overcoming early neuro-cognitive deficits and bettering myself in the face of hostile adversity, and of my continuing quest to better myself. I’m not proud to be gay, but nor am I ashamed of it. It’s a thing, like my horrible hairline and my grey-blue eyes.
This year, Pride has been marred by the murder of George Floyd. Corporate entities have started using the modified Philadelphia Pride flag (with black and brown stripes) and lecturing the gay community about the origins of Pride (they assume that Pride began at Stonewall, when the month of June was chosen for Pride to coincide with the Stonewall riots). The rainbow flag was modified two years ago to appease black protestors whipped into a frenzy by militant separatist groups such as the Black Hebrew Israelites and now it has become the norm–we’re to all embrace diversity and inclusivity as virtues, despite our not being accepted unless we assimilate into straight society.
I don’t say this because I think the gay community is above racism; it’s not. I don’t say this because I think black lives don’t matter; they do. I say this because the Pride flag has become a thing to be manipulated, distorted, incorporated into company logos, and altered to fit any issue at any moment. It is now the symbol of assimilation, of the faux narrative of normalized queer lives and queer voices, and reflects an elitist, bourgeois subset of queer people who can afford to both be out and restructure their semiotics without a care to deeper issues in the larger gay community.
The black stripe on the Philadelphia flag is said to stand for diversity; the brown stripe is to stand for inclusivity. Yet every subgroup within queer culture flies its own flag; lesbians have a flag, bisexuals have a flag, and transgender people have a flag. The diverse subgroups of queers are not inclusive and are proud to stand apart from one another with their own symbols. Diversity and inclusivity are thus contrary perspectives; what is unique does not admit that which is not like it; gay men are not lesbians and trans men are not bisexual women.
There’s also the continuing issue of rural queerness and how assimilation narratives impact lives that may not be able to come out let alone assimilate into their communities. Consider a poor black trans man from lower Mississippi and compare his life to that of Anderson Cooper–a trust-fund baby who happens to be gay, white, and well connected. The tent may be wide, but the loudest voices have the best educations, the most money, and geographic privilege that spawns countless opportunities. Thus, diversity and inclusivity mean a platform on the stage for some and a seat in the balcony for others.
Then there is the issue of gay migrants and refugees from war-torn regions of the world. Is inclusivity a realistic goal when gay people from opposing sides of a bloody, generations-long conflict flee their homes and find themselves living in the same U.S. city? Can a gay Hutu and a gay Tutsi lay aside their differences and forget the Rwanda genocide just because two stripes have been tacked onto the Pride flag? If the virtues of diversity and inclusivity are essential to all persons (as the other traits symbolized by the traditional Pride flag are essential to all), then where does that leave gay people who have legitimate grievances with one another that arise from cultural conflicts?
The history of the gay rights movement predates Stonewall; that event was commemorated not because it was a flash-point, but because wealthy queers in New York City elected to make their local history the history of the world. The gay rights movement is, in truth, larger than the United States; where do the histories of gay rights in Germany, the UK, Japan, South Korea, China, and South Africa fit into the Stonewall narrative? The Stonewall narrative is a wealth-privileged and distinctly American usurpation of a fight that is ongoing around the world.
The current state of Pride and the Pride flag reflect the values of American assimilationist queers (AQs) and nobody else. For AQs, the struggle for gay rights ended when they won the right to marry; they didn’t care about the consequences judicially decided gay marriage created for gay and lesbian couples who had concocted alternative legal remedies (LLCs and adoptions to provide for inheritance and end-of-life decision making rights for their partners) and how these solutions could be undone, salvaged, or rectified to provide these people their right to marry. Some people were content to create inventive work-arounds or simply be partnered prior to marriage equality; their lives are now in turmoil as they attempt to re-navigate the legal waters of judicially-sanctioned and un-legislated gay marriage.
But if Pride is about recognizing the struggle for gay rights, then why do we celebrate? The most basic right–the right to live–is still not secured for gay people in the United States and even less so for gays in other parts of the world. In Russia and Chechnya, gay people–especially men–face death for simply drawing breath while queer. In parts of Africa, legislation is being drafted to “kill the gays” in order to appease wealthy American evangelicals. In Iran, young gay men are routinely executed for the crime of daring to love. In the United States, anti-gay hate speech thunders from pulpits occupied by ministers of all races and all faiths. The struggle is far from over.
Pride: a foolish endeavor full of sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s just another way for the wealthy elite to drown out the cries of the anguished poor, the moans of the dying, and the international furor over gay rights. It’s a uniquely American institution and, as such, represents our finest tradition of providing the people a spectacle akin to a circus.
Diversity and inclusivity are important, yes. But tacking two colors to the already commercialized Pride flag will do as much for the gay community as renaming a street “Black Lives Matter Boulevard” will do to end police brutality.
It’s time to let Pride (and its attendant semiotics) die.