But at the risk of sounding like a staid homophobe, I’m often left wondering where the pride part comes in.
The annual marches ultimately accomplish two things: They entertain those of us—gay and straight—who already wholeheartedly support the cause of equal rights for the LGBT community, and they feed into the rotten stereotypes of bigots, the same people who fear gay Boy Scout leaders and consider same-sex marriage “deviant.” The LGBT community has every right to claim its place in the civil rights struggle. But in such a politically important year for the gay community, perhaps it’s time for its members to start taking some cues from the civil rights movement of old. There is a lot at stake.
Despite calling the Defense of Marriage Act “abhorrent” in 2004 and saying in his campaign that, if elected, he would ask Congress to repeal it, President Obama’s Justice Department has filed a motion in federal court defending the law. In the eyes of gay Americans, who overwhelmingly supported Obama’s candidacy in 2008, it was yet another case of their supposed ally turning on them.
Prior to the DOMA motion, feathers were ruffled when Obama continued to allow gay soldiers to be kicked out of the military under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which he also said he would repeal.
Now more than ever, the LGBT community needs to be politically minded to maintain their movement’s momentum despite the governmental obstacles seeking to block it. To do so, perhaps they should look to history for help.
Martin Luther King Jr. dressed that way for a reason, one that goes beyond the simple explanation “that was the style of the era.” It’s the very same reason he diligently practiced his oration and responded to violence with peace: because to do otherwise would be what his detractors expected. What King and his colleagues knew is that, despite their narrow thinking, bigots have remarkable memories, the kind perfect for bearing grudges based on a singular negative interaction. If the head of the NAACP were just once to show up drunk to an event, with stains on his shirt, telling dirty jokes, a racist would need only one look to decide that, indeed, blacks were sinful heathens. To that end, African–American civil rights leaders did everything in their power to avoid that response, even if it meant marching from Selma to Montgomery in starched shirts tucked into dress slacks, business skirts and suits and ties.
Knowing that there are people—voters who have the power to deny them rights—who will judge them based on the flamboyance of their appearance in one parade, why hasn’t the gay community decided to tone down the pride festivals?
Earl Fowlkes (pronounced “folks”), president and CEO of the International Federation of Black Prides, argued in a recent interview for this article that one can’t equate the African–American marches of the ‘50s and ‘60s with modern-day pride parades. “The civil rights marches were done to bring attention to the suffering of black Americans,” he told me from his office in Washington, D.C. “The gay pride parades, on the other hand, are really celebrations.”
While Fowlkes agrees that part of the goal of pride parades is to raise awareness, he says that, if they’re comparable to anything in the black community, it’s not civil rights marches, but Juneteenth parties, the annual African–American bashes marking the end of slavery. He also notes that many blacks in the gay community intentionally avoid pride parades specifically because of the infamous reputations they’ve gotten over the years. “Many of us do not feel comfortable with the behavior of our white counterparts in their expressions of their sexuality. White privilege allows you to do a lot of things that I can’t as a black man, gay or straight,“ he said.