My previous post promised a third post about Kink at Pride, so here it is. I’m sure you’re tired of reading about this issue (I’m certainly tired of thinking about it), so this is probably going to be my last post on the issue, even though there is probably more I could say about the issue.
One of the things that frustrates many older LGBT people about this debate is that many of the Anti-Kink arguments are coming from younger LGBT people. I’ve had debates about this issue with people in their early 20s and I’ve certainly seen a lot of posts against Kink at Pride from this segment of our community. They sometimes use very contemporary language about ‘consent’, ‘accessibility’, and ‘trauma’ that demonstrates they are drawing off of current ideas about sex, identity, and similar issues. It’s wonderful iGens and younger Millennials have grown up with a vocabulary that older generations didn’t have, in part because it demonstrates that they are being taught to think about these issues in a more full way than Boomer or Gen X LGBT people had. It’s important to not simply shoot down their concerns because they are young.
But one of the disadvantages of youth is a certain lack of perspective. Simply put, LGBTs in their teens and 20s often lack a knowledge of their community’s history. That’s a particular problem for LGBTs as a minority because of the unique nature of LGBT people. In contrast to ethnic and religious minorities such as Blacks, Latinos, Jews, and Muslims, LGBT people typically are not raised by their own group. Whereas Black people, for example, are mostly raised by a Black family and grow up knowing they are Black and therefore grow up being immersed in the specific culture of Black people in America (or wherever), most LGBT are raised by straight, cis-gendered people who are likely to assume their children are straight, cis-gendered people as well. Our families may know little about LGBT history or culture or may in fact have strongly negative stereotypes about us. Many LGBT only discover their LGBT identity when they begin to grapple with their emerging sexuality during puberty (although there certainly are those of us who understood something about their identity much younger).
My point here is that we usually grow up outside our community and then discover we belong to it. As a result, most LGBT people only learn about our community’s history after we choose to join it, and therefore we often know very little about our community’s history unless we choose to educate ourselves about it. So younger LGBTs opposing Kink at Pride because “Pride has become too sexual” sounds sort of like a Black Lives Matter activist arguing that the police only began killing Black people in the 1990s or arguing that Martin Luther King Jr isn’t relevant for Black America today. To many older LGBTs, the ‘No Kink at Pride’ position sounds profoundly ignorant of our history, our struggles and sacrifices, and our identities.
In particular, the Anti-Kink argument sounds an awful lot like the Assimiliationism debate that has been running in the LGBT community since the 60s. One of the first organizations to push for LGBT rights was the Mattachine Society. Although the Mattachines won a few small but important victories for the LGBT community, by the 1960s they had embraced a philosophy that said that success would come by emphasizing that gays and lesbians were just the same as straight, cisgendered people except for whom they loved. When they organized a protest (typically a simple picket line), participants were required to dress in suits (for men) or dresses (for women) and not to physically touch each other. This represents the earliest expression of the Assimiliationist position, that the LGBT community will succeed by persuading mainstream society that we are just like them apart from our attraction to our own gender.
However, the Mattachine Society’s approach by its very nature excluded anyone in the LGBT community whose gender presentation didn’t closely match mid-20th century notions of gender. Gay men were expected to be ‘butch’ (or as is often said today, ‘straight-acting’) and lesbians were expected to be femme, ‘lipstick lesbians’. Such an approach abandoned the many LGBTs who were unable or unwilling to conform to traditional notions of gender. Gay men who were naturally more effeminate (in the terminology of the time, the ‘Nellies’ or the ‘queens’–the latter term did NOT refer to drag queens or trans people in the 1960s) and those who were more comfortable wearing women’s clothing (a group termed ‘drags’ and which included both modern drag queens and modern trans women) and butch lesbians were all essentially excluded from the Mattachine Society’s approach and looked down on by the more gender-conforming gays and lesbians.
The Stonewall Riots in June of 1969 erupted at one of the few bars in NYC that would tolerate effeminate gay men. It was a shady, Mafia-run bar that lacked a liquor license but which offered a space where effeminate men could congregate and dance with each other. (Contrary to popular imagination, it was NOT a space where ‘drags’ congregated–cross-dressing was a crime and the bar rarely admitted more than 2-3 men dressed in women’s clothing for fear of drawing police attention. On the first night of the riot police found only 3 people in the bar they deemed men wearing women’s clothing). The Riots lasted for five nights and represented an explosion of anger by a segment of the LGBT community completely excluded and abandoned by the Mattachine Society’s Assimilationist approach. These were men (and trans women) for whom Gay Pride (as the movement came to be known in the 70s) was a matter of life and death. These were the people who couldn’t hide behind a ‘straight-acting’ surface and who were therefore the ones generally getting harassed by the police, beaten up by cops and trouble-makers, and fired by employers who thought there was something ‘queer’ about them.
During the Riots, the butch gay men in NYC very conspicuously stayed home, because they had something to lose–their ability to hide in their closets. The Mattachine Society actually posted a notice on the Stonewall Bar appealing for peace and calm, because they were afraid that the Riots would trigger a crackdown on them, ignoring the fact that the police were already cracking-down on everyone who couldn’t easily hide their orientation. They ignored appeals to participate in the Riots or use their influence as respectable middle-class people to help influence the outcome of the Riots. Indeed, part of what made the Riots so shocking was that a group of people perceived as ‘failed men’ were, for two nights, able to completely humiliate and stymie the NYPD, including repeatedly threatening to literally fuck the police and performing a Rockettes-style kick-line as a taunt. On one of the later nights, a group of Black Panthers showed up wanted to learn how the queens had accomplished something they had been unable to do.
Two weeks after the Riots, a meeting of the NYC Mattachine Society had more than 200 attendees and its organizer struggled to control a large group of people who rejected the Society’s emphasis on respectable protest. At the end of the month, a protest march for Gay Power had around 500 participants. The Riots unleashed a wave of community organizing, including one group that sought to provide a place for LGBTs to dance and several groups focused on political action. Less than a year later, the LGBT community was beginning to have an impact on New York politics, getting a law passed that banned job discrimination against gays and lesbians. Bars that specifically catered to gays and lesbians began to open up. A year late, Craig Rodwell had the smart idea to organize a parade to commemorate the Riots. The Christopher Street Liberation Day march (named for the street the Stonewall Bar is on) was the first Pride Parade (and in fact Germany’s official Pride Parade is still called the Christopher Street Parade). June has become Pride month for many LGBTs because it still commemorates the Riots that started the Gay Liberation movement.
So the entire Pride movement began as a rejection of the Assimilationist strategy to win our rights by being respectable. The Riots were led largely by effeminate gay men, homeless street hustlers, and a few people who today would probably identity as trans women, groups that were looked down on by the Mattachines precisely because they weren’t respectable and couldn’t easily pass as straight. Pride began as a riot against the police. It was violent. Although no one died, a lot of people were injured. As one newly-active gay man commented a couple weeks later, “All I know is I’ve only been in this movement three days, and I’ve been beaten up three times!”
In the 1970s, there were still debates around ‘respectability’ within the community. There were debates about the relative merits of gaining political power within the system (a more ‘respectable’ approach) and being more in-your face. In particular there was a deep rift that emerged quickly between some lesbians on one hand and trans women and drag queens on the other, whom the lesbians accused of being disrespectful toward women; some lesbians argued that trans women and drag queens were parodying female identity and refused to accept the validity of trans identity. Sylvia Rivera, one of the early leaders of the trans community, was literally pushed off the speaker’s podium during the 1973 Pride rally when she objected to the way the gay male community was disrespecting the ‘transvestites’ (as early trans people often called themselves). Many lesbian events starting in the 1970s specifically sought to exclude trans women; modern TERFs have their origins in the radical lesbian movement of the 1970s. So arguments about who should be allowed to participate in LGBT events are not a new debate; they’re just another round of struggle over whether our community needs to be ‘respectable’ and assimilationist to succeed.
In the 80s and 90s, the issue of respectability and assimilation emerged again in a different way. As the AIDS Crisis grew, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis sought to persuade politicians (including the probably closeted gay mayor of NYC Ed Koch) to allocate more resources for AIDS research and medical assistance for AIDS patients; most leaders of GMHC felt that it was necessary to not make waves and to emphasize an assimilationist approach to avoid alienating the politicians whose support they needed. It also began to conduct fund-raisers to raise money for research and treatment.
But others, including radical playwright Larry Kramer (who had co-founded GMHC) grew frustrated with this approach because it didn’t seem to be yielding much in the way of results. Kramer resigned from GMHC and helped found ACT UP. ACT UP took a more confrontational approach to drawing attention to the AIDS Crisis. They infiltrated the NY Stock Exchange and chained themselves to the visitors’ balcony; they picked the headquarters of Cosmopolitan magazine to protest an article that suggested that penis-in-vagina sex was safe from AIDS; they protested in front of the FDA headquarters to pressure the FDA to speed up the approval process for experimental AIDS medication; they disrupted mass at New York’s Catholic Cathedral on St. Patrick’s Day to protest the Catholic Church’s opposition to condoms; they disrupted the broadcast of CBS Evening News; and they swathed anti-gay senator Jesse Helm’s DC home in a giant condom. These and other protests helped raise awareness of AIDS issues and may have helped speed up the development of various drugs for treating HIV.
GMHC and ACT UP in many ways operated as a good cop/bad cop system, although not in coordination. ACT UP’s in-your-face approach was offensive to many, but it very successfully drew attention to AIDS at a time when the Federal government was seeking to ignore the issue and when mainstream American society generally considered AIDS God’s punishment on pleasure-seeking deviants. The more respectable approach of GMHC has helped advance AIDS research and treatment enormously but may have benefitted from seeming less threatening than ACT UP.
Another example of the respectability/assimiliationist approach is represented by groups such as the Human Rights Coalition, which have sought to advance LGBT rights through political and legislative action. HRC (and similar groups) have pushed for things like the legalization of gay sex, recognition of gay marriage, gay adoption, and the right of LGBTs to serve in the US military, and this approach has obviously been quite successful, since all of these things have become legal in the past two decades (–if you didn’t know, gay sex was still a crime in many states into the early 2000s). Their approach has been to emphasize the ways in which LGBT people are similar to straight, cis-gendered people by focusing on rights that are easy for straight people to understand, such as the right to get married.
But this approach has been criticized by many within the LGBT community. First, it implies that LGBT people want to have relationships that look just like traditional straight marriages. For much of the second half of the 20th century, LGBT people responded to the fact that they could not get married legally by building alternative relationships based on principles such as open relationships and polyamory (long before those ideas were common among straight people). Kinky LGBTs built ‘leather families’ based around consensual power exchange and polyamory. Starting in the 60s, prominent leatherman Tom of Finland’s drawings offered some of the very first images of gay men as masculine, healthy, and happily sexually-active in ways that defied 20th century sexual morality and laws. HRC’s strategy has been criticized because it creates an expectation that LGBT people should love the way straight people love and because it threatens to push non-monogamous and non-egalitarian relationships to the unacceptable margins.
The assimilationist legal strategy has also been criticized as primarily reflecting the concerns of middle class white gays and lesbians. It encourages traditional middle class aspirations of having a house, spouse, two kids and a dog out in the suburbs. It has been less-focused on issues that concern LGBTs of color and lower-class LGBTs. It has not, for example, done a great job of addressing the fact that gay men of color tend to have higher rates of HIV (despite higher condom use than white gay men) because they have poorer access to health care. It hasn’t addressed the high rate of poverty that many trans people encounter because of job discrimination. By encouraging Pride parades to embrace police officers, assimilationists have reflected a white assumption that the police are an inherently positive force and failed to recognize that police violence toward people of color means that many Black and Latino LGBTs find the presence of police units in parades to be alienating rather than affirming. The fact that Pride events are now generally sponsored by large corporations who are inconsistent allies at best demonstrates that assimilation carries with it the risk of corporate control of Pride.
Thus the debate over Kink at Pride, rather than being something novel, is really just another manifestation of a tension that has existed within the LGBT community since at least the 1960s. Are we best served by assimilating to mainstream society and embracing heteronormative values, or is the price of that sort of success too high? If we assimilate, we are effectively excluding all the LGBTs who are either unwilling or unable to assimilate. Assimilation means playing by heteronormative rules, the same rules that excluded us entirely prior to the Stonewall Riots, and that means that straight, vanilla society will have the power to decide which LGBT people get to be equal and which don’t. The danger there is that if we allow straight, vanilla society to set the rules, we will be vulnerable when they decide to change the rules. If we exclude the kinksters from Pride, pretty soon straight society will decide that trans people aren’t acceptable and need to be excluded. And then it will decide that the drag queens need to go or the poly people or the furries or the bisexuals and eventually it will decide that it’s the turn of the gays and lesbians to go.
The spirit of Pride is a spirit of defiance and rebellion, a demand to be recognized and allowed to exist on our terms, not on the terms of straight society. It celebrates a literal riot by men, women, and trans people who were demanding the right to express their sexuality and their identities as they saw fit regardless of what straight society thought about that. Pride is a moment to celebrate everyone who doesn’t fit into straight, vanilla society. The moment you start deciding that some people don’t get to participate, that some people don’t get to express their sexual identities because you are uncomfortable with that, you start sharpening the razor that will eventually be used to cut your own throat.
There is a lot more I could say about this subject but I’ve already spilled too many pixels on it. So just go out to Pride and be your kinky or vanilla selves as you see fit. Pride belongs to all of us!