Pride and publicity: Emma Teitel on the politics of letting it all hang out

Two things about Pride: 1. It's bawdy. 2. Not everyone who has a problem with said bawdiness is a homophobe

The politics of letting it all hang out

Mark Blinch / Reuters

Summer is almost here, and so too is something queer—Pride parades in cities across Canada and beyond. Around this time last year, it so happens, I wrote a column about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and why he shouldn’t have to attend his city’s Pride parade. Yes, I argued, it’s possible (and highly likely) that he abstained because he is a homophobe, and yes, Pride is a major tourist event that rakes in millions of dollars for the local economy and you’d think he’d be obligated to attend something like that. But until the parade changed its style, I suggested, and became a celebration of same-sex rights rather than sex itself, bigots would cry modesty and be justified in skipping town. Needless to say, a lot of other gay people didn’t like what I wrote, and I was cyber-skewered via Twitter and Facebook, for my allegedly radical point of view. According to my detractors, any criticism of the parade’s bawdiness was criticism of homosexuality itself.

Shortly after I wrote the column, I went to a party in an apartment building where I watched the Pride parade go by from a balcony on the 31st floor. From where I was standing, it looked ordinarily festive, with none of the raunchiness I described in my article. Sure, I could make out a few men in sarongs with various corporate logos branded to their chests (TD man in green sarong, BMO man in blue biker shorts) but nothing you would lose your lunch over. Maybe I was wrong, I thought. Maybe I was a traitor to my own kind after all. Then I went downstairs and stepped outside, and the first thing I saw was a man, in his mid- to late 50s, buck naked, squatting on the curb, his genitals grazing the cement. I would go on to see between 15 to 20 penises that day. And the odd vagina.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But a little self-aware honesty would be welcome here. I am tired of being called an Uncle Tom for pointing out the obvious: a) Pride is bawdy, and b) not everyone who finds said bawdiness offensive or distasteful or ill-advised is a homophobe. It is possible to be critical of the part (or parts) without damning the whole. You can criticize the wearing of chadors without being Islamophobic, and you can criticize the wearing of assless chaps without being anti-gay. Because neither group is homogenous. Not all Muslims wear chadors. And not all gay people wear nothing at all.

Yet every year we get the same knee-jerk reactions from either side of this issue when it comes to Pride. Social conservatives find the bawdiness gross and unacceptable (if the state doesn’t belong in the bedrooms of the nation, they argue, the bedrooms don’t belong in the street). And the gay activists argue the opposite: any criticism of or discomfort at such bawdiness is outright bigotry, and more, a denial of gay history. To them, raunchiness at Pride is a heritage moment.

And it is. I can appreciate the historical significance of the in-your-face sensationalism of Pride history. Those who forget their history may very well be doomed to repeat it. But remembering and reliving are two different things. Time has passed by the need for public displays of sexuality. Granted, there was a time in Canada, not so long ago, when gay people had no choice but to be reactively sexual. If we weren’t allowed to act freely in the bedroom, we would do so in the street. Matt Katz, lamenting the death of the urban “gayborhood” in Obit Magazine, describes exactly this paradigm. “It’s where gay people lived and hung out, somehow fulfilling stereotypes while simultaneously stimulating social justice.”

But the paradigm no longer holds. Now we are allowed to act freely in the bedroom and get married at city hall. So the reactionary, in-your-face bawdiness at Pride may make for a good party, but it’s bad publicity. And if there’s anything gay people need in the world at large (where homosexuality is mostly illegal), it’s good publicity. What was once a political statement is now a liability. It also detracts from the truly political statements that events like Pride could make and that are so often overlooked by small-minded people on both sides of the spectrum. While it may not be as much fun to ditch the nipple clamps and naked foam parties, perhaps we have a responsibility to the brutally oppressed gay diaspora to conduct ourselves with sobriety and dignity at Pride—and light some candles for people who can’t afford to celebrate. (That at least would be a cause worth politicizing the parade for, unlike the never-ending Queers Against Israeli Apartheid debate.)

Until we do, Pride will remain what it is, at best a version of the greatest party ever thrown, at worst an in-your-face anachronism. In the end, the naked middle-aged man on the curb is something like the aging hippie; he deserves our admiration and even respect, but the times they are a changin’. In the new era, maybe he should put on some pants. At least some briefs.

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