Has Pride become too commercial? Queer activism and social protest are essential to the Pride atmosphere, but love and compassion should be the driving forces.
The act of making a festival out of sexuality dates to Ancient Greece with the Dionysian Mysteries. The Dionysian festival included rituals linked with orgies, phallic shaped objects, and intoxicants which liberated the individual from social constraints returning them to an uninhibited, raw, natural state. In our modern societies, ‘festivalising’ sexuality is best represented through the LGBTQ community’s staging of Pride parades in hundreds of cities across the globe. Pride parades not only liberate individuals from social constraints, but they also act as the platform for challenging social inequalities and injustices regarding performances of gender and sexuality. These festivals function as liminal spaces wherein participants challenge and transgress hegemonic social practices and heterosexual normativity. ‘Pride’ symbolises empowerment and the desire to spark social change. Through a resistance to cultural authority, such parades and festivals instigate social protest and represent a fight for public life and public visibility for LGBTQ communities, making such marches, festivals, and parades the quintessential queer performance strategies.
Carnival & Claiming Public Space
Mikhail Bakhtin described ‘carnival’ as having free and familiar interaction between individuals and eccentric behaviour. These key notions are essential to the Pride parade atmosphere. First, the celebration of Gay Pride, and the carnivalesque images they portray, bring sociopolitical issues to the forefront, inviting individuals to recognise marginalised attitudes and regimes. Second, the carnivalesque enables LGBTQ communities to perform their private sexualities in a public setting. The public space, the host city, street, or square, becomes the platform for visibilisation, celebration, equality and resistance to homophobia. Queer activists have seized the importance of public space. Through social mobilisation, Pride parades not only paint streets as queer but also actively establish queer streets. From Christopher Street in NYC to West Hollywood in Los Angeles, and Canal Street in Manchester to Soho in London, societies have claimed spaces as exclusively ‘queer.’
Whilst Pride parades claim public spaces and attempt to publicise the ‘private,’ it is important to address the commercialised and mainstream nature of Pride parades today. Some critics argue that Pride parades are controversially subjected to tourism. Gay bodies are objectified and stereotyped in Pride parades and the public who attend such parades almost expect them to enact various sexualised performances. Some radical queer activists claim that Pride festivals further alienate the LGBTQ community. They argue that Pride has become commodified and merely project a snapshot of ‘homonormativity;’ homonormativity, however, viewed from the eyes of heterosexuals. The audience’s gaze expects to see over-the-top drag queens, dykes on bikes, individuals sporting sex toys and eccentric BDSM activities.
On June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. At the time, such police raids were quite common considering that homosexuality was illegal in the United States. However, on this evening, an act of resistance was prompted and the bar patrons retaliated and defended their rights to freely express themselves and their sexuality. The riot was followed by demonstrations and marches over the next few days. This day became the driving force for the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, and today Pride weeks around the world centre their festivities around what is known as Christopher Street Day.
Upon attending my first ever Pride in Athens, Greece, I was exposed to queer activism set against the backdrop of carnivalesque ritual and fantastic spectacle. I was invited to an event organised by the queer feminist initiative, Queer Ntekapaz, which called for “an anticistemic political intervention in Athens Pride 2017.” The intervention aimed to peacefully demonstrate against the inclusion of a gay police blockade in the parade. Carrying a banner writing, “The nation, cops, and armies can go to hell: lewd counterattack with glitter and anger,” Queer Ntekapaz and friends/supporters attempted to stop the cop bloc from continuing marching in the parade. They asked the police officers if they could abandon the bloc and simply march as civilians, and not as cops. After the gay police officers were subjected to loud chants exclaiming that ‘the police, the military and other neo-nazi regimes are not welcome in the Parade,’ they abandoned the march.
Queer activists support that the police and corporate institutions are not LGBTQ allies, and as the police force has been an institution which fosters hegemonic violence directed towards marginalised individuals and minority groups across the world, this intervention (alongside many others) aimed to resist patterns of violence and oppression.
Greece’s Conservatism & Violent Institutions
Greece is a country where 88%-98% of its population claims to be Greek Orthodox. This religious institution not only takes a stand in political affairs (as there is no separation between church and state), it also perpetuates homophobic and sexist discourses. Despite opposition from several political parties and the Greek Orthodox church, Greece finally passed the bill allowing civil partnerships for same-sex couples in December 2015. While this is a major feat for the LGBTQ community, one can tell that Greece is always a little late to the party when it comes to pushing for progressive reform.
Greece has established a toxic patriarchal system which generates a misogyny that even excuses rape in certain circumstances (32% of the population would excuse rape if they believe the woman/girl is at ‘fault’). Furthermore, with the influx of refugees and the little black cloud of the economic crisis hanging over Greece’s head, several Greeks have reverted to racist and xenophobic behaviours; believing that all the immigrants and refugees are criminals and that foreign aid is a threat to their national pride. Due to Greece’s widely conservative mindset, institutions of power have adopted attitudes that continue to preserve homophobia, sexism, and racism. The hidden face of the crisis has revealed an increase in police brutality and while Greek citizens have opposed the harsh austerity measures with strikes, demonstrations, and occupations of public squares, the response to such outrage and outspokenness has seen the use of excessive police force, tear gas and the forceful detention of protesters. From the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974 to the severe economic crisis of today, violence and conservatism continue to silence Greek citizens.
It is undeniable that the country’s neoliberal institutions represent how power divides and marginalises, and how privilege creates blind spots. The police force is the same institution that has thrown innocent refugees into jail. This is the same institution that has beat trans individuals in the streets. This is the same institution that harasses and kills people of colour. And there are examples of police brutality in Pride parades in countries that share similar conservative values to Greece. In 2016, the police intervened and broke up the 5th annual Pride Parade in Uganda. In 2015, the police attacked the Istanbul Pride Parade with tear gas, pressurised water, and plastic bullets. On May 30th, 2017, the police arrested more than a dozen activists in an unauthorised Pride march in Moscow.
Many activists lust for social change and claim that all ‘freaks, queers, faggots, trannies, etc.,’ must not sit back, relax, and allow for events like Pride to become de-politicised and monopolised by big corporations and governments seeking good PR and positive media coverage. Queer Ntekapaz is not the first activist group to speak out against cop blockades in Pride parades. Black Lives Matter protests during the 2016 Toronto Pride Parade led the Toronto Police to not include police floats or police officers in uniform at Pride Toronto 2017. No Justice No Pride protested in this year’s DC Pride in the US, hosting a family friendly march that called for a Pride free from police intervention, unethical corporations and military contractors who oppress communities locally, nationally and globally.
Loud, Proud and Visible
Although I disagree greatly with unethical corporations using Pride to advertise their alleged support for social causes, I must argue that to take 1 step forward, you must take 2 steps backwards. There is always a cost and a benefit, and for the first time in 15 years, Athens Pride finally took centre stage and was organised in the largest public square in the city centre. Visibility is key and if Pride can achieve one thing it is to make LGBTQ known and a norm. Athens Pride was more exposed and publicised than any other year, and this is a feat on its own, regardless of the support or sponsorship it received.
When thinking about the efficacy of such an event, I regarded the short-fused and contained nature of Pride. Although it is an annual and global movement inspiring equality and a resilience against oppression, it is celebrated only once a year, and now that it has become highly televised and largely touristic, perhaps it has lost its 70s deviant touch. Has Pride simply been reduced to a carnival festival that sometimes deals with current pressing issues? Is that enough for LGBTQ pride itself? My contention is that on one hand, Pride parades allow for sexual freedom in a limited space and time and the carnivalesque sometimes blurs the activism. On the other hand, the celebration and visibilisation, even once a year, is a step towards equality and acceptance. Pride may not be as rebellious as it first started out to be, but it is increasingly becoming more inclusive, more aware, and more known, and ultimately, queer activism will continue to represent the underdogs, giving a voice to the silenced and spreading love, compassion and acceptance.
What is the Progressive Solution?
While I completely sympathise with these efforts to ignite sociopolitical reform, to resist violent discourses and to create narratives that are essential to LGBTQ struggles, I cannot help but question whether such interventions are entirely conducive to progressive change. Shouldn’t Pride be inclusive? Shouldn’t it provide a space to gay cops who were invited to march alongside every other LGBTQ individual at the parade? Does the end justify the means? I am certain that these gay police officers have also been discriminated against at one point in their lives. I am certain that by living in a highly traditional, exceptionally sexist and heteronormative Athenian society, and entering the armed forces, individuals have been placed at risk. I cannot ignore the fact that they too are queer individuals; that they too may have struggled accepting themselves; that they may also want to tackle and exterminate homophobia. Yes, the system breeds violence. Yes, the police foster that violence. Yes, I am pained and angered by the stories about police brutality. Yes, yes, yes.
However, I believe in acceptance. I believe in listening with an open heart and an open mind. I believe in turning my pain into my power. And I urge all individuals to do the same. I would prefer to take a diplomatic approach than to resist, react, and fight fire with fire. I am a firm believer in fighting hatred with love; in reacting through militant compassion. Educate, don’t violate. Question and react. Passively resist. And love because love is critical. Ultimately, isn’t that what we are fighting for?