Wednesday, June 25, 2014

queers, their bea*rds, and the politics of Pride

A package came in the mail for my parents on Monday.  I was home alone with the dog at the time, who of course the doorbell sent into a barking insanity at the arrival of the parcel.  I opened the door, picked up the sealed grey plastic bag and felt some kind of fabric inside.  It was addressed to my mom.

"Oh, no," I said to Mia, knowing perfectly well what it was.

Mia wagged her tail and panted.

I tore open the bag and pulled out the pale pink of what I had correctly dreaded would be inside: the T-shirts my parents would wear on the upcoming Chicago Pride Parade that declared, I love my trans daughter.

Something would have to be done.

* * *

I attended my first Pride Parade as a sophomore in high school, still in the process of coming out as gay, which at the time was the identity I thought best described me.  I wore a purple V-neck and short shorts because that was what I was supposed to do.  I watched all the floats and got lost in the crowd and looked at the hot and more-than-half nude men and talked to no one.  I went the following year as well, with a friend, and the following one too, alone again, because my friends had bailed on me last minute.  I wandered up and down Halsted Ave. after it was over hoping someone would hit on or notice me.  By my third parade it had become a sort of routine, and I would always return home sunburned and dejected.  This strange, untouchable community that I only yet belonged to in terminology but not yet in presence, in experience, in participation in the culture that is, had routinely rejected me each summer Sunday in June, as the slimmer, tanner, bolder boys slinked and bounced by, stealing my dreams of ever finding more than just Pride at the Parade.

The last two years I've gone, I've marched.  As a college student I had dated and hooked up and undergone the terror of HIV tests and survived bouts of unrequited desire and had my heart broken more often than not and I had written about all of these things and performed the things that I had written; I had staked my claim in the queer community for better or for worse.  When I marched down Halsted the people cheered me on, even if only because they were drunk, or the guy marching next to me was the hot one, or because when the people march by you cheer regardless of what they look like or what they stand for.  Regardless of possessing a body that didn't ever match the muscular, hypermasculine ideals of the gay community, I was unbudgingly part of the club, and happy enough to be there.

* * *

"No, I totally get what you mean," one of my queer friends said to me later that night after I told him what had come in the post, as we drove south down Lake Shore Drive toward West Town.  "It's like when your parents become too supportive."

"Yeah, but what is that?" I responded. "I think it's 'cause, like, they don't really belong to or like, have that much communication with the queer community so it's weird for them to suddenly proclaim that they sort of belong in it, you know?"

"Yeah, I guess so," he said.

But something still didn't feel right.

* * *

The last two years that I have marched in the parade my parents have marched too.  But whereas I marched with Broadway in Chicago and then with Equality Illinois, my parents marched with PFLAG, expressing their solidarity as the familial counterparts to a queer individual.  I always made a point to avoid them at the Parade (not that it was difficult: over one million people attend the annual celebration in Chicago), for fear of them seeing me dressed as I was, for fear of them not getting it, for fear of them finding this whole spectacle a little too spectacular for their conservative tastes (being Christian, being older, being straight).

One year when my mom couldn't come due to some prior engagement or other, she fervently expressed her regrets: "It isn't that I don't support you, you know that, right?"

"Yes, mom, it's fine!  I don't care!  I know how you guys feel, you tell me all the time."

"I just want you to know that we love and support you no matter what."

"I do."

But she still continued apologizing over the following year.

* * *

I figured I'd be better off explaining the T-shirt situation to my dad first.

"I just feel uncomfortable with you guys wearing them.  Partially because the shirt sort of reduces me to just that one vector of my identity when I'm actually a lot more than just my gender, and partially because I feel like you guys aren't really involved enough in the queer community to wear something that says you're a part of it."

"Maybe we won't wear them, then," he said.

That was easy, I thought.

* * *

After the Stonewall riots in June of 1969 (the reason that Pride Parades in the US all happen this month), it was largely trans people—the same ones who had fought on the front lines outside the famous bar in their high heels with broken bottles and patronizing songs demeaning the police—who took the new wave of gay rights activism following the success of the riots to the streets.  It was these people, too, that gay rights leaders later left behind, their gender transcendence too transgressive for the political aims of the gay community.  The matching genitalia of sexual and romantic partners constituted enough of an obstacle to overcome in legislation and in the hearts of America; they couldn't take on cross-dressers and transsexuals too.

For these reasons as well, the gay community pushed itself toward a muscular, hypermasculine ideal.  To combat the assumption that all gay men were pansies, sissies, and fairies, gay men took to the gym and grew mustaches until the bodies of their sexual partners could no longer put their precious gender in question.  To this day, anti-fem discrimination runs rampant throughout the gay community, something that I have encountered with relative frequency.  "Effeminacy is contagious," says patriarch Clive in Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9.  Better caught fucking a bear in a public bathroom than walking down the street arm and arm with a bedazzled queer.

What's more, their efforts to become more socially palatable worked to some extent.  Because gay men had straight friends, and lesbian women had straight friends too, and these straight friends soon formed the basis for their own identity categories: fag hags, the female friends of predominantly gay men; beards, the oppositely sexed friends of homosexuals who could disguise their orientation by posing as their romantic partners; etc.

But if the second A in LGBTQQIAAP stands for Ally (after Asexual), what is their position in something like a Pride Parade?  Why are the straight-but-loving friends and families members allowed to take up public street space of a televised march, when in only the fourth anniversary of the Christopher Street Liberation Day in 1973, human rights activist (who fought without sleep at Stonewall) and transwoman Sylvia Rivera was forcibly prohibited from addressing the crowd, and even to this day, transgender people are wildly underrepresented in a supposedly LGBT-themed event?

* * *

This morning my mother and I went out for brunch.

"Did dad talk to you about a conversation we had yesterday?" I began, cautiously.

"No.  Why, what's up?"

I relayed the same information I had to my father.  Unsurprisingly, she didn't take to it as well.

"I think it's important to show acceptance and love at these kinds of events," she protested.

"But like, why does the queer community need to be accepted?" I rebutted. "I know this isn't how you guys see it, but the message on the shirt gives me this vibe of like, we are up here and privileged and reaching down and accepting these people down here, look at what good and loving people we are."

"No, what you're describing is tolerance," she said.  "You're giving acceptance a bad connotation."

"But there's an implicit difference in power," I maintained. "If you accept someone it means that you have the power and the privilege to be able to either accept or reject them and you're choosing acceptance.  It's not dealing with people on the same level."

"I suppose I can see that," she said. "But what do you think, then, straight people shouldn't be allowed to come to the Parade?"

And that's when I figured it out.

"No," I said, "I don't think we should segregate everybody; communities need to build bridges between each other.  I just think we shouldn't have a Pride Parade in the first place.  There's this whole weird undertone of needing to assert ourselves and reach up and be accepted, but the queer community should have to accept the straight community as much as the straight community has to accept the queer community.  When you talk about accepting people, it implies that there's something about those people that could merit rejection.  Acceptance happens in opposition to rejection.  But there's nothing about the queer community that demands rejection.  So when you say that you accept someone, it's admitting that there's something potentially repulsive about them.  It's a linguistic issue."

"So what would you say instead?"

"I don't know, I'm just identifying problems, I haven't found the solutions yet."

* * *

What if instead of calling it the Pride Parade we framed it as a multicultural event, as a celebration of queer culture that anyone of any sexual and gender identity can partake in and enjoy?

What if we made it less about gay men and more about lesbian women, and bisexual people, and transgender people (meaning transsexual people and bigender people and two-spirit people and gender non-conforming people and so on and on), and queer and questioning people, and intersex people, and asexual people, and pansexual people, and people of color,and people without sculpted abs, and people with disabilities, and older people, and so on and on?  What if we actually celebrated actual diversity, in terms of identity and of body types?

What if we taught queer histories in schools?

What if we stopped worrying so much about how people feel about us?  What if we stopped giving them the power to accept or reject us?  What if we embody Pride in everything that we do and are every moment of our lives, and not simply for one afternoon one Sunday in June?  What if we never need to say the word Pride again because it will just be that apparent, and no matter what dissenting conservatives will stupidly say, we will continue to shine spectacularly?

What if we related to people on the same level, acknowledging our differing levels of privilege and power but not allowing them to affect the dynamics of our relationships?

What if we related to people as people, and not as political causes?

What if our fighting back looked remarkably like living?

What if we continued to be?

* * *

This Sunday, I will attend the Parade in all of my queer, transfeminine fabulosity with my friends, and my parents will march once more with PFLAG—not as people who accept or tolerate the glittery display of beautiful queer people, but as people who recognize their own differences from the more-than-half nude hot men and all the rest, and love across that distance.

I hope I run into them.

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