“I see now basically people who’ve fought for the right to stand on top of a float wearing an orange speedo and take molly.”—Rose McGowan
“Waiting our turn isn’t working. Asking nicely isn’t working. What will work is what worked that fateful night at Stonewall.”—Jaclyn Friedman
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 1969 that many view as the beginnings of the more visible side of the gay liberation movement. Queer liberation began much earlier, but those protests and movements have been overshadowed by Stonewall for a variety of reasons.
Pride marches now are largely used by corporations and politicians attempting to prove their acceptance of queers. Or even worse, they are used by cis, straight people as an excuse to party. The collection of entities that have attached themselves to Pride over the years can be comical. One wonders why JP Morgan Chase has a float in a pride parade. Even the NYPD, the organisation whose violence against queers the Stonewall riots were protesting, participates in the parade. It seems ‘pride’ has become an empty signifier, and we are led to ask what exactly we are celebrating every June.
Pride, and everything it means for a population that lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis and second-class citizenship status for decades, has been co-opted by a sort of neoliberal performance of acceptance. So, what is the legacy of Stonewall? The actual bar has become a centre of identification for many queers. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, New Yorkers flocked to Stonewall to lay flowers and light candles. A bitter irony was that the bar was surrounded by NYPD officers holding the same type of assault weapon used in the shooting. Even though the bar is seen as quite the dull tourist destination by New York queers, it certainly has its role as signifying liberation. But there is another way in which it functions as well. In many ways, Stonewall and pride parades have become a means for queers to become acceptable to normative society.
NYU Professor Lisa Duggan makes this argument when she says that queer visibility politics, in the hands of “some proponents of a narrow version of gay rights,” has become a way to build “homonormativity that mirrors dominant norms—white, middle-class and family-oriented.” These three descriptors could not be more accurate in describing contemporary pride celebrations. However, there is push back to this, and this weekend New York found out that there is an audience for such an argument.
Several organisations have been protesting the decades-long neoliberal trends in pride celebrations. Reclaim Pride is one of them. Its organisers, many of whom were involved in ACT UP, the powerful AIDS activist organisation, state their purpose: “Our organisation is working towards our vision of a NYC PRIDE that reflects our community’s heritage of activism as opposed to the Pride March’s current state of commercial saturation and excessive police presence.” The organisation sees the current state of queer politics as against the very thing it emerged to promote: liberation.
Liberation is a complicated concept, though. Is it great that corporations and the NYPD are supportive of LGBTQ rights? Of course! It is better than refusing us service and cracking our heads. The problem enters when queers are seen as only a market to be targeted or as a population used by organisations for virtue signalling, which is just another way to bring in a larger customer base.
In the 80s and early 90s, queer politics took its neoliberal turn when it dawned on people that gay rights were profitable and that queers represented an untapped market (Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out being the apotheosis of this). Much of the criticism of acceptability politics focused on the ways that this kind of politics simply shoved queers into moulds that made them more acceptable to normative society. ‘We are just like you and want the same things you want,’ was the political strategy used by this kind of politics. The movements that are pushing back against homonormativity throughout public queer life, emphasise that all queers do not want what straight people want.
Our needs—both medical and social—look quite different than normative, heterosexual people’s. Queer liberation lost its radical potential when identity was thrown into the market to be traded like any other commodity, a move only neoliberals could have dreamed up. Lahore-based trans activist, Mehlab Jameel wonders, “What happened that a potentially radical movement ended up in assimilationist notions of Pride Parades and marriage equality?”. Jameel sees the passage of marriage equality in the U.S. as the death knell for queer activism’s radical potential and calls for decolonisation of “the movement for queer liberation and transnational solidarity, and that begins when queer people collectively stand against all forms of structural violence in the society.”
Reclaim Pride is attempting to sort of stand against this structural inequality that has been absorbed by the main pride parade in NYC. The parade followed the same route it followed in 1970 and it proved the same point that was raised before, that queer liberation is not about acceptance only. It is about freedom from discrimination and violence, and freedom to live and love outside of any normative definition of what those words mean.