Pride: Sustaining Queer Rebellion

The Stonewall Rebellion in New York on 28 June 1969 is seen as the symbolic start of LGBTIQ liberation. It wasn't really the start. There were other starting points before it, including the actions of the German Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (championed by the socialist movement) from 1897 on, the Stonewall-like rebellion at Cooper's Donuts in Los Angeles in 1959, and the militant gay presence in May 1968 in France.

Still, the battles with the police by trans people of colour and others at Stonewall inspired gay liberation fronts on several continents. Today hundreds of Pride marches around the world refer back to Stonewall. Some of them are huge, like the São Paulo Pride that claimed 4 million participants in 2011.

In many countries, holding a Pride march still requires the same desperate courage - or more - that the first Stonewall commemorations did in the early 1970s: the same determination to confront hostile states and insist on our right, not only to exist, but to live freely and openly.

And even where Pride is big, legal and officially patronised, an individual LGBTIQ person's first Pride still often demands courage. Unlike other identities shared by oppressed groups, LGBTIQ identities in today's societies, where heterosexuality is the norm, are rarely learned in childhood from one's parents. These identities can only be claimed and crafted by acts of will. These acts are a cause for celebration and an occasion for solidarity.

Where Pride is big, legal and officially patronised, it can seem apolitical. But seemingly apolitical Pride events can be abruptly politicised again by new challenges. This happened a decade ago in France, when a proposal for marriage equality provoked bitter, bigoted resistance from the right. Even radicals with reservations about the institution of marriage saw that hundreds of thousands of participants in Pride had become protagonists in a political clash.

And the festive character of many Prides doesn't necessarily make them less militant. On the contrary, Pride can show how to bring joy back into politics - by contrast with solemn, ritualised sequences of speeches full, in the words of the poet Adrienne Rich, of 'the same burnt-out rhetoric ... all imagination spent'.

The breadth and diversity of Prides can even renew and stretch the boundaries of queerness. One early South African Pride march, in Johannesburg in 1992, was led by Zulu male injongas who traditionally had sex with women they married as well as trans skesanas - leading one bystander to explain that the injongas weren't gay, their boyfriends were!




Important as Pride is, its history has always been a history of divisions. As early as 1973, San Francisco Pride split, with the larger event banning drag.

Over the years, one main fracture in Prides has been around commercialisation. The rise of openly gay/lesbian businesspeople, and the desire of big companies to court consumers and their own lesbian/gay employees, transformed many freewheeling, open Pride events into orchestrated jamborees where groups have to pay to march or have stalls. The acme of this mutation may be Amsterdam's Canal Pride, where thousands of euros are charged for the right to have a boat in the parade (on top of the thousands of euros needed to rent and equip one). This has meant that almost the only groups that can afford to take part are major commercial establishments, multinational corporations, government ministries, armed forces and police.

Especially since the rise of Black Lives Matter, police presence has been another key dividing line. In many Pride marches police are not only present on the sidelines to guarantee 'order' but actually marching in uniform in a phalanx themselves. This makes many vulnerable LGBTIQ people, especially participants of colour and trans people, feel not protected but threatened.

An additional divisive threat comes from the far right, which in countries like France and Belgium has been trying to bring its Islamophobic politics to Pride. Sometimes the far right even succeeds in joining the march - as in my own city of Rotterdam.

All this poses a challenge to queer radicals who want to sustain Stonewall's original spirit of rebellion. Three main options are open to us. Sometimes we can fight in the official Pride organisation over its character and politics - depending on how open and democratic  the structure is. We can organise our own contingents or protests at the event. Or we can organise events of our own, often at other places or times.

Alternative events can make it easier to send a radical message. But they can mean missing an opportunity to reach thousands of people, often attending their first Pride, whose politics are still not fixed in stone.

This isn't always an either/or choice. When World Pride was held in Jerusalem in 2006 over Palestinian objections, a global boycott was the logical and only possible response. But even a pinkwashing event like Pride in Tel Aviv in 2001 allowed a queer group to march with a black banner declaring 'There Is No Pride in the Occupation' - though separate queer events supporting the Palestinian struggle are often organised as well.

Recently in New York separate Queer Liberation Marches have highlighted many issues that the official Pride sidelines. For instance, many queers have poured energy this year into the Palestine solidarity contingent at the Queer Liberation March. Yet the big official Pride this year has been torn by conflict, as a board made up largely made up of people of colour decided to exclude police in uniform. So New York queer leftists can play more than one role.

In Amsterdam, a Canal Pride organisation controlled by the Gay Business Association has only left room for militant canalside protest by the radical group Reclaim Our Pride. Yet the week of Pride activities in Amsterdam has also offered room for a left presence on other days, for instance in the annual Pride Walk.

In short, there is no formula for keeping queer rebellion alive at Pride. But the opportunities are there. It's up to radical queers to act intelligently, creatively - and joyfully! - to seize them.

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