If the recent quarrels on Twitter are any indication, it’s the start of the ‘No Kink at Pride’ debate season! It’s like Christmas–every year it starts earlier and earlier. I wrote an extended essay on this issue last year, and you can read it here, here, and here. But this most recent round of debate has brought up another point, so I’m going to add to the essay. I’m still badly overworked, which is why I haven’t posted much on this blog recently, but I’m finally at a point where I can write a little bit because my workload is getting a bit lighter.
Virtually everyone I’ve ever had the ‘no kink at Pride’ debate with has been in their late teens or early to mid-20s, so far as I can tell. They typically seem really unaware of the history of Pride (which is why I wrote part 3 of my essay), and it occurred to me that many of them don’t realize that having outrageous LGBT folx at Pride is not only something they should tolerate, it’s actually something they benefit enormously from.
Let me explain. Back in the Dark Ages of mid-20th century America, there were very powerful forces pressing for sexuality conformity. There was a very strong gender binary in place; as the saying went “men were men and women were women”. Both had rigidly defined codes of conduct; women had to have long hair, men had to have short hair. Men wore suits and ties in public, unless they were laborers in which case they wore jeans to and from work; women were expected to wear dresses or blouses and skirts when they went out in public, and things like capri pants were reserved for the home or other very casual settings (indeed, women were often expected to put on make up and pearls to go grocery shopping). The only acceptable sex was penis-in-vagina missionary position sex within marriage; oral sex was considered kinky and unreasonable for a man to ask of his wife. Pre-marital sex was deeply shameful (particularly for women), contraception was illegal unless you could get a doctor’s prescription for it, sex toys and pornography were generally illegal, and abortion was illegal and extremely risky for anyone except those rich enough to travel to Europe for it. Extra-marital sex was a crime in many states. Fun fact: President Kennedy’s father, Joe Kennedy, had his daughter Rose lobotomized because she wouldn’t stop having pre-marital sex; that was basically legal because her promiscuity was taken as evidence that she was mentally deficient.
This gender paradigm had no room for anything we would today consider LGBT+. Being gay, lesbian, or bisexual was functionally a crime because having sex with a person of the same sex was basically illegal in most states. People could not speak of being homosexual without risking social ostracism, losing their job, being expelled from their church, and so on. Homosexuality was classified as a form of mental illness. Being trans was also functionally illegal, since it was a crime to wear clothing meant for the opposite sex; the police raided the Stonewall bar in 1969 on the pretext of searching for cross-dressers. (Incidentally, they only found 3, because the Stonewall was not, contrary to what you might have heard, a major hangout for trans people. The bouncers would only allow 1-2 in at a time because they didn’t want the police pressure.) Even interracial marriage was illegal in many states until 1967.
There was only the barest glimmering of what we would today think of “LGBT identity”. Although the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ existed, only very small percentage of the community used them as a self-identification, because it was simply socially unacceptable and therefore almost psychologically impossible to conceive of one’s self in those terms. On the very rare occasions that gay or lesbian characters appeared in film, they were never explicitly referred to as such and had to identified through various codes that were understood to refer to gayness. The plot of the 1961 film The Children’s Hour turns on gossip that two unmarried young women are lesbians, but the accusation was considered so shocking that in the film, the accuser can only whisper the word into another character’s ear, and the audience is left to guess what has been said by the horrified expression on her face.
LGBT people literally had no legal rights related to their sexual identities. They could not get married, they had no rights of guardianship over their partners if something happened to one of them; they had no rights to visit their sick partners in a hospital. (Some gays and lesbians, including Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, actually resorted to legally adopting their partners to at least ensure some inheritance rights.) They could be fired without cause, evicted from rental properties, and so on. And because homosexuality was socially unacceptable, if their partner died, they often couldn’t even formally grieve for the person.
The Gay Rights movement that erupted after Stonewall very gradually changed all that. While there were a few small legal victories in the 70s and 80s (in 1982 my state, Wisconsin, became the first state in the country to ban discrimination against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in matters such as a housing, employment, and public accommodations. But the law didn’t cover trans people). But for the most part, progress on being socially acceptable didn’t come widely until the late 90s or early 2000s. Gay sex was only declared fully legal in 2003.
The past 20 years has seen a remarkable shift in the willingness of American society to tolerate queer folx of a wide variety. iGens have been fortunate to grow up in a society where (at least on a national level), people have not only the legal right to define their sexual identity but to expect a considerable degree of social acceptance of their right. A much larger percentage of queer youth feel able to come out as gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans, non-binary, gender fluid, and beyond than felt able to do so when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s; I couldn’t even begin to contemplate coming out in high school and I literally can’t picture how the course of my life might have gone had I been able to do so.
But as many people are aware, a lot of the country still rejects homosexuality and transgender identity as invalid. Christian fundamentalists and many other social conservatives regard LGBT people as disgusting, defective, badly misguided, and so on. Despite making up only 7% of youth, queer youth have a homeless rate about 40%, and queer youth are 4x as likely to attempt suicide as straight, cisgender youth are. Trans people, especially Black and Latino transwomen, continue to be murdered in alarming numbers, far beyond their actual numbers in the overall population. Thus it’s clear to anyone who looks at the situation that although LGBT people have more legal rights and social acceptance than we did 50 years ago, we still face substantial disadvantages both legally and socially and we are nowhere near equal to our straight brothers and sisters.
And of course, anyone who watches the news knows that the GOP has decided to revert back to its profound hostility to queer people. There is a tidal wave of anti-trans legislation taking place in their country. Florida just passed the absurd ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, and we’ll probably see other Red States trying to do the same. The GOP has decided to return to an argument they lost in the 1970s and argue that discussing anything related to homosexuality and trans identity with children amounts to ‘grooming’ those kids for child molestation, and that accusation has gained a lot of traction with Trump supporters. The Supreme Court has a 6 seat conservative majority that has signaled its willingness to overturn Roe v Wade, and the recently leaked draft opinion by Justice Alito is setting the stage to overturn Lawrence v Texas (which legalized gay sex), Bowers v Hardwick (which legalized anal sex), Griswold v Connecticut (which legalized birth control) and perhaps even Loving v. Virginia (which legalized interracial marriage). In the past few weeks, GOP senators have actually called for overturning all of those except Bowers, so it’s definitely on their agenda.
You’re probably wondering what the hell this has to do with kink at Pride. It’s simple. Kinksters have been some of the loudest, most dedicated activists within the LGBT community since the 1970s. Brenda Howard, often called ‘the Mother of Pride’ for her role in helping organize the early Gay Pride events, was a bisexual leatherwoman, and Troy Perry, the founder of the Metropolitan Church of Christ (The First Christian denomination that said that God loves queer people too) is a leatherman. Chuck Renslow, who helped create the whole leather subculture, was long active in a range of LGBT issues, and well-known kinkster Jack Rinella ran for elected office as an openly kinky man. The famous leatherman Tom of Finland was perhaps the first artist to depict gay man as happy, healthy, and masculine, thus helping gay men envision a new masculinity for themselves. Throughout the 80s and 90s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, leathermen and women organized huge numbers of fund-raisers to help the sick and to support research into the disease. Kinksters have been some of the loudest voices for the rights of all people to express their sexual identities. They were often in the forefront of the polyamory movement as well.
Leathermen, furries, and other kinksters as like drag queens. Our outrageousness serves to push the boundaries of what straight vanilla people will accept. We draw attention and fire simply by being out in public, both at Pride and elsewhere, and calling attention to ourselves with our visible insistence on not being in the mainstream.
And that benefits all the queer kids out there who are still figuring out their lives, identities, and sexualities, because we carve space for them. A gay or gender non-conforming or trans youth looks positively wholesome when they follow a unit of leathermen leading their boys on leashes in a parade. We kinksters threaten heteronormativity as we march, so that the more vanilla kids who follow behind us don’t seem so dangerous. In other words, we’re the Bad Cops to the vanilla kids’ Good Cops. When we’re out there demanding space for ourselves, the rest of the LGBT community looks tame in comparison. We take the heat so the vanilla kids don’t get it so much. In other words, we’re the shields for the youth who may not have the confidence and strength to fight for themselves. If the world has a place for the wild non-conformists like us, it definitely has space for more conventional LGBT people.
And most of us know that. We know we’re drawing fire. It’s part of why we do it. I would love to be able to walk down the street in my leathers and have people just accept me as part of the vibrant tapestry of humanity, instead of having them stare or smirk or make jokes about the Village People. But we’re not there yet, and I accept that it’s part of my work as member of the LGBT community to do whatever I can to make it easier for the younger members of the community, because I benefitted enormously from the struggles of the older members of the community who came before me.
I’m not just out there because I want to (even though I do); I’m out there because my presence helps make space for everyone else, even the kids who don’t understand how they benefit from what I’m doing.