Gay Pride after Orlando
Many LGBT people will have mixed feelings at the sight of police patrolling outside the Stonewall Inn in New York. The community has a fraught relationship with law enforcement; for years, the police were the strong arm of a homophobic and transphobic society, harassing, beating and imprisoning us at the behest of a ‘moral majority’. For some of us – especially sex workers, trans people, queer Muslims and queers of colour, that relationship continues.
In June 1969, trans and gay regulars fought back during a routine police raid on the Stonewall, leading to days of anti-cop riots. The police are currently posted outside the now-gentrified bar following Saturday night’s homophobic terrorist attack on a gay club in Orlando, Florida, in which 50 people died.
The Stonewall riots precipitated a huge upsurge in LGBT consciousness. Both radical and reformist LGBT groups existed before the riots, but after them there was a boom in such militant groups as the Gay Liberation Front and STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). Stonewall also provided the impetus for the first Gay Day and Christopher Street Liberation Day protests, the direct precursors of Gay Pride (now renamed Pride in London). Pride marches are still traditionally held in June to commemorate the raid.
But Pride’s radical anti-establishment roots are barely visible today. Early Prides saw placards railing against fascism and police harassment, and calling for the liberation of gay people; at today’s Pride you’re just as likely to see police officers and soldiers marching in uniform, representatives of the arms industry in corporate T-shirts and, for the first time this year, a flyover of military jets.
Radicals see this as a violent and exclusionary takeover of a liberation struggle by capital’s most reactionary institutions; liberals see it as a mark of society’s progress, with LGBT people now enjoying many of the rights and protections once denied us. For one group, Pride is a celebration of an anti-cop riot, representing the fundamental disconnect between LGBT people and heterosexual society. For another, Pride is the world’s biggest party, representing a spirit of judgment-free inclusiveness, if only for a day. Both are right.
Pride is a negotiated and contested event, not a ritual of fixed meaning and politics. It emerged not as a plea for acceptance, but as a radical assertion of our existence and a demand for recognition on our own terms: ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.’ That remains its strength; lacking the fixed meaning of, say, an Orange Order parade, the event is shaped by the queer culture of its age. Demanding that Pride be a political event is futile; it can only ever be as political as the culture it emerges from. If we want a more radical Pride, we must work to highlight everyday racism, misogyny and transphobia in our own scenes, raise awareness of the economic and material challenges LGBT people face, and organise against homophobia and transphobia from straight people.
After a year of dehumanising anti-trans rhetoric from US lawmakers, however, followed by an act of obscene violence this weekend, it’s clear that some sort of political message beyond grief will emerge during this year’s Pride marches. And that political message may well be the reassertion that violence and abuse are a part of the daily life of LGBT people, not just the reserve of spree killings.
Politicians condemn the hatred in Orlando as uniquely other, imported, foreign, anti-Western; but last year Ted Cruz gratefully accepted the endorsement, with a warm handshake, of a pastor who had just called for the execution of gay men. LGBT people see this. Just as we see the hand-wringing equivocation from cisgendered people who are ‘uncomfortable’ about sharing public bathrooms with trans people. We understand who the political buzzword ‘family’ includes, and who it excludes. We understand violence and hatred as the ever-present look over the shoulder when we hold our lovers’ hands.
There’s a faultline between the way much of the media and many straight people are interpreting the Orlando attack, in the context of Islamist terrorism and the attacks in Paris and Brussels, and the way many LGBT people understand it, on a spectrum of daily violence and prejudice. It makes sense within a general tendency intent on denying our humanity, from the ongoing attempts to prevent trans people from using public bathroom facilities to the bombing of Target, attacks on Gay Pride parades, transphobic murders, the Admiral Duncan nailbomb and the constant, low-level threat of aggression you face by simply being a queer person in public. And if we say that this attack is part of living in a homophobic and transphobic society, we will further be insulted as shills for terrorists, liberals in denial, cowards and more. Queer Muslims, meanwhile, face the combined bigotry of homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and racism.
The one shared value of all transphobic and homophobic violence is a belief in the supremacy of cisgendered people or heterosexuals; the political expression of this understanding, laced in grief, is the one reaction we will all be denied. It has already been suggested that the killer was a self-hating homosexual himself, further distancing him from the complicity of heterosexuals. As with the instrumentalisation of the executions of gay men by Islamic Sate, LGBT deaths are worth mourning only when they support the ostracism of Muslims or as an avatar of unspecified ‘Western values’. As victims of straight people and heterosexual society, they are invisible. If Pride is to rediscover its politics, a starting point would be the assertion that life for LGBT people in a heterosexual society remains a maelstrom of violence, with the most marginalised at the sharp end.
Read more in the London Review of Books