Episode 5: Pride, Assimilation vs. Liberation

Hi y’all, I’m the Endy Enby, and today we’re gonna be talking about Pride. Originally this episode was gonna be about labels, and they’ll be briefly discussed, but with Pride around the corner and some important legal action occurring, I felt this was more timely.


Every May and June, I start to see the same arguments hashed out over and over again about what is “appropriate” at Pride, who belongs at Pride, and if we even still need Pride, or is its existence instead holding us back. We’ve come a long way from the days of Stonewall, the 1969 riots against police that are largely considered to be the start of the modern Pride movement. However, it is important to also note that the Compton’s Cafeteria riot of 1966 pre-dates Stonewall. Compton’s was a popular place for transgender women and drag queens to congregate, and when the police were called on them in August 1966, patrons fought back, having been subjected to arrest for “female impersonation” for long enough. I highly recommend Susan Stryker’s documentary Screaming Queens to learn more about Compton’s; it’s an important piece of LGBTQ+ history that is too often forgotten.

Three years later, similar energy erupted in New York City; police were doing a routine raid of a gay bar, and the patrons had had enough. Accounts of the actual event are infamously fuzzy and subject to mythos-like retellings, but the significance of the event, and the composition of the Stonewall patrons, are clear. The Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries were formed as a direct result of the riots; the quiet movements to try to get heterosexuals to realize that we were “just like them” weren’t going to cut it anymore. The gay rights movement was no longer about hiding as much of one’s self as possible in the hopes of acceptance, it was about pride.

The patrons of Stonewall were, by and large, not “respectable people.” They weren’t assimilationists, they were people who were arrested for what they were wearing, who they loved, what their profession was. I always push back when I hear people describe Stonewall as a protest because for many, that portrays the image of signs and marches and civil disobedience, and to pretend that that’s what the catalyst of the gay rights movement looked like is dishonest. Stonewall was violent. Stonewall was a riot. And that’s not a bad thing.

It’s important to remember the violence that our community has historically experienced at the hands of both individuals and systems, and what it took to finally make change; it wasn’t asking nicely. Our history hasn’t been told in textbooks, and since our families are patchwork quilts of people who meet throughout their lives rather than bloodlines, we don’t always have the opportunity to pass down the honest oral history of the community. This issue is only exacerbated by the distinct lack of LGBTQ+ elders lost to HIV, homicide, and suicide. On the internet, younger LGBTQ+ people are largely finding toned-down versions of history that fail to accurately capture the struggles that the community has faced. The Pride they are growing up with is one sold at Walmart, with Wells-Fargo floats and an acceptance that they have to watch “parades” from behind barricades. Don’t get me wrong, I think that increased acceptance is fantastic. But I think the shift in Pride to be about assimilation rather than liberation is a dangerous one.

Can you legislate acceptance?

One of my biggest turning-point moments in my radicalization from a liberal to a leftist, from someone who thought change was best effected by “working with the establishment” to someone who recognized that systemic flaws of the establishment and the groups that claim to advocate for those harmed by the establishment, was when I read Normal Life by Dean Spade. Gay marriage had been the law of the land for a couple years at that point, and for some of the loudest (i.e., most privileged) voices that had been pioneering the modern movement, their work was done. That was the last big hurdle. It was all smooth sailing from there, right? Well, not really.

Something that stuck with me from Spade’s book was how we don’t truly have marriage equality. We spent all these years and all this money and effort on marriage equality, on our own, without involving other groups that still often can’t get married, namely undocumented immigrants and disabled people. Why hadn’t we worked to help them too? And why were we focusing on expanding access to a state-sanctioned institution rather than helping to ensure that anyone could get the benefits that married Americans get, even if they can’t, or even don’t want to, participate in the institution of marriage? Why didn’t we focus on changing tax statuses to make it easier for non-married couples to file jointly, or making it easier to have people you aren’t married to handle power of attorney, or visit in the hospital? Why did we focus on telling LGBTQ+ people that you can be just like everyone else now (unless you’re also disabled and/or undocumented), as opposed to reexamining a system that restricts what is considered a “real” couple, a “real” family?

Acceptance doesn’t necessarily translate to material change, no one has ever gained rights by asking nicely, but that’s not the story that’s told in the mainstream. Martin Luther King Jr. is revered in schools, as he should be, but even he is toned down, his more socialist and communist ideas left out of textbooks, and he is often positioned as the “good” alternative to Malcolm X. That’s what I’m seeing happening with Pride history. We talk about how scary HIV is, but not the social impact it had on the community, nor the government’s mishandling of the crisis. We tone down Stonewall and who was there, and the events that occurred after. We tell people that LGBTQ+ people won our rights by convincing cishet people that we’re “just like them,” when that isn’t the truth.

The “just like them” narrative is assimilationist; liberation, what I personally want, is “we’re different, and that’s ok. That should be celebrated. We shouldn’t have to tone down or change who we are in order to have rights or be respected,” because when we only have rights because people think we’re “just like them,” those rights are at risk the moment they think we’re different. And while we’ve made progress in terms of sexuality rights, any gains made in the field of gender rights are rapidly being challenged.

“Drop the T”

Some LGBTQ+ groups are advocating for “dropping the T,” under the guise that sexuality and gender movements have different needs and goals, and therefore they’re most effective with their own dedicated movements. Not only does this ignore the historical contributions of gender variant people to the gay rights movement, the idea that splitting the advocacy base will make our causes stronger is ludicrous. Even if transgender people don’t always have the same needs as cisgender gay people, a victory for one is a victory for both, and there is power in numbers. The trans community needs the support of the rest of the community. Leaving us to fend for ourselves is just going to mean leaving us to the wolves.

We’ve watched from across the pond as transphobia has swept across the UK, spreading since Theresa May announced plans to allow people to self-identify their gender in 2016. What should have been legal progress brought waves of backlash, fear, and hate that has eroded both social and legal progress in just a few years. Not only is this a fantastic and terrifying example of how legislative victories are not enough to count as community victories, but it may well be foreshadowing what the future for transgender Americans looks like.

At the same time that more companies and websites are allowing third-gender options, and discussions about pronouns are more commonplace, Tennessee is requiring businesses to “warn” if they allow transgender people to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender, Florida is planning to enforce a ban on transgender children in sports using genital inspections, and several states are planning to ban, or have already banned, hormone replacement therapy and puberty blockers for transgender minors, some going as far as to codify the act of a parent seeking transition care for their child to be child abuse (view all anti-trans bills proposed this year here).

This is not a fight we can win alone, and yet, I barely see any cisgender people, queer or otherwise, talking about it. I’m seeing more and more unchecked transphobia on social media, far more than before the days that we had bills and laws protecting us. Again, not saying those laws are inherently bad, but we have to stop pretending like legislation is enough, and recognize that with legislation comes a spotlight, and with a spotlight comes hate.

People who see gay people as “just like them” don’t always see transgender people that way, and there’s way less trans people than there are non-heterosexual people. Focusing on acceptability leaves behind the people who aren’t acceptable; sure there’s trans people who can and want to pass and assimilate into society, but what about all of those who can’t, or don’t want to? I will never be able to pass as a cisgender person, because there’s no cisgender non-binary option, not that I would want to. I’m proud of being non-binary, even if it’s “different.” But it’s something that many people see as immoral, degenerate, harmful to children. And it feels like the community is moving on without transgender people, without people like me, without people who aren’t satisfied with Pride sponsored by Bank of America.

Even if trans rights weren’t at risk, the current risks to reproductive healthcare, the ongoing issues relating to poverty and homelessness, deportations, universal healthcare, Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, these are all queer issues. These are all issues that we should care about and be entrenched in, because A. power in numbers, and B. they are all issues that affect LGBTQ+ people, even if they don’t affect all, or even the majority, of LGBTQ+ people. An issue shouldn’t need to affect everyone for us to care about it. 

“What about the children?!”

The main argument for all these anti-trans bills and laws, and the general outpouring of hatred for transgender people in general, is one that’s familiar to non-straight people: “what about the children?” There’s this idea that trans people are an inherent threat to children by the nature of their existence, that allowing trans people to exist openly and freely will lead to the traumatization and degeneration of children, that we’re trying to recruit them rather than the truth, which is that trans adults were once trans kids, and we want those kids to have the opportunities for self-expression and exploration that we never had. That “recruitment” idea has popped up again and again, and likely isn’t going away any time soon. We don’t really see it as much with gay people anymore (not that it’s non-existent, but it isn’t as mainstream as what we’re seeing with transgender people).

There’s this idea that kids are easily corruptible, that issues of gender and orientation are inherently sexual, that sex corrupts, and therefore that kids need to be protected. Mind you that “kids” in this context doesn’t just mean “children.” It often means 13-17-year-olds, legal minors who are often treated the same as 8-year-olds in the context of law and morality discussions, despite the difference in development, the (ever-decreasing) age of onset of puberty, and the fact that we know that many “kids” are already having sex, asking questions, and exploring their identities. America’s War on Sex does a fantastic job of outlining how children have become both a weapon and a target in the aforementioned war, and how the efforts to protect them are actually doing more harm than good; much, much more.* Instead of being able to ask questions about the urges and feelings they’re starting to have, kids, preteens, and teens are taught to fear sex, to fear themselves, that “giving in” to these urges makes them wrong, dirty, sinful. So they don’t ask, and they’re punished if they do. And this doesn’t stop them from having sex, from exploring. It just means that they don’t know how to be safe.
*Note that I’m specifically referring to the first 4 chapters of the book; there’s some other stuff later in the book that falls a bit more flat.

Taking away condoms won’t make kids not have sex; it just means they won’t have protected sex. Not teaching them about anal sex won’t make them not explore anal sex; it just means they won’t know how to be safe. Kids will learn, but we’re not creating spaces for them to do so safely, so instead they turn to the internet, to PornHub, to predators. And restricting access to the internet isn’t the answer either; in this day and age, access is everywhere, and is generally a requirement for schools. And they will find a way.

I remember being 13 years old in online chatrooms on my DS, even after my iPod touch was taken away and my computer access was being monitored. When that was taken away, I still found ways. I was a child, a child with undiagnosed ADHD, I didn’t have the development needed to make good decisions around sex. I was impulsive. And I couldn’t ask for help or support, because I knew what I was doing was wrong, not because I was being taken advantage of, but because I had learned to be ashamed of my urges and desires. But I still had to deal with them, so I looked for my own “mentors.” I felt like I was on my own. 

I’ve never seen anything more reprehensible at Pride than things that are at Carnivale or Mardi Gras, on larger-than-life Victoria’s Secret ads in the mall, at beaches, and so on. But every year, like clockwork, the argument of if kink belongs at Pride comes up. By kink, I don’t mean people having sex on the streets; Pride isn’t Folsom. To be clear, I don’t think people should be having sex on the streets at Pride. But by kink, I mean people in leather harnesses and puppy hoods who are just…existing. Even if they aren’t doing anything sexual, the “what about the children” crew is up in arms about these people expressing an aspect of themselves, one in which they often find community, and one that is more than just about sex for many people. But because people have learned to see harnesses and hoods as sexual, they immediately associate their presence with sex, and assume children will too.

There’s a couple important points here. One, people entrenched in kink communities will talk about the importance of their community and how it’s about more than sex, but to outsiders, they often fail to see how kink could be about anything other than sex and therefore that they should “keep it in the bedroom.” Now, that rhetoric sounds very familiar to me, personally; “well, I don’t see how homosexuality is about anything other than who you have sex with, so you should keep it in the bedroom.” Pride is about being yourself, whatever that looks like and without shame, for one day a year, as long as you’re not harming anyone.

I don’t think I can overemphasize, shame around sex and nudity, and the perception of leather and harnesses as sexual, are learned. Seeing a naked person on the street or at nude beaches in Europe is not inherently traumatizing. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone fully naked at Pride. But if seeing a gay man in a harness is traumatizing, but seeing a scantily-clad Victoria’s Secret model isn’t, the latter of which is specifically curated to be sexually appealing to a wide audience, then maybe take a step back and try to figure out what the difference for you is. Because I don’t see people calling for malls to take down their ads to make them kid-safe, and yet people still take kids to the mall every day. A kid who doesn’t have that association between leather and sex yet isn’t going to see a puppy mask and think that someone is trying to be sexually explicit to them, they’re going to think “that man is dressed as a puppy!” But on top of that, I don’t necessarily think Pride needs to be, or should be, kid-friendly. 

I knew I was bisexual when I was 13, but I knew I was too young for Pride. That’s just how it was, and that was ok. I went when I was 15 to a smaller Pride, then 17 or 18 to New York Pride. I had access to resources and communities that were specific to me, a luxury that many don’t have but that is becoming more common. Youth Pride, youth spaces at Pride, youth groups both in-person and online, etc. If you bring kink into those, now that’s a different issue. But I knew when I was a kid that Pride wasn’t for me, even if I was a member of the community. I would get to go one day, but I accepted that I’d have to connect with the community in other ways. I was still allowed to be proud of myself. But what I’m seeing more and more is the demand for Pride to fundamentally change to make it a safe space for kids, and that kink-friendly spaces should be pushed to the back, that they should need to make their own spaces.

Not only does this ignore how important kink communities are to many queer people, especially queer elders, it uses the same “what about the kids” rhetoric to sanitize and shame people that has been historically used against the community. And what’s most disturbing is that I’m seeing this from the left and the right, from community members and those who aren’t in the community. The place that the queer community has carved out to be themselves without shame is being policed, with pioneers being pushed out for the comfort of not just children, but of assimilationists. Pride should be a protest, Pride should be a place for people to be whoever they are, and to fight for rights that we have not yet won, and rights that are threatened. We should be shouting and marching to protect trans kids, to protect sex workers, to fight homelessness, to protect reproductive healthcare. Using Pride to fight for the rights of trans kids, for example, will do more for protecting children than trying to make Pride palatable to corporate sponsors ever will.

“Normalization” can only do so much, because there will always be people who aren’t “normal,” whether they’re trans people, kinky people, or gay people. We need to stop just passing the buck and trying to pretend that respectability is what got us to where we are today. We need to stop pretending that allowing people to wear harnesses at Pride is a bigger threat to children than policing self-expression. We need to recognize the history of Pride, and how we can continue to use successful advocacy tactics to protect LGBTQ+ kids. Hatred and discriminatory legislation are more of a threat than people in harnesses. A lack of comprehensive sex education is more of a threat to teens than kink. The sanitization of queer history and the exclusion of the ones who got us to where we are today is deplorable and harmful to youth and elders alike. 

The fact that I’m seeing so much time and energy being dedicated to “protecting kids” from seeing a man in a harness, god forbid, scares me, when there are threats that are actually harming kids and adults. And yet Pride is not poised to address them, instead poised to celebrate and party. And don’t get me wrong, we should celebrate who we are and how far we’ve come. But if this is about kids, then we should focus our energy on issues that are actively harming kids.

If you don’t want to see kink, then don’t look, don’t go to Pride, but don’t demand Pride fundamentally changes for you. America’s War on Sex talks about how “erotophobes,” people who fear sex, don’t just want to not participate in “unauthorized, immoral sex,” they don’t want anyone to participate in it. They want the pleasure of sex to be taken away, for no reason other than they view it as degenerate. They push lies about the harm that pre-marital sex, gay sex, anal sex, masturbation, and abortion do to a person to make people fear them. And I’m seeing the exact same rhetoric being used against members of our community for simply existing at Pride as they have for years. Children and teens are not helped by us being puritanical; I certainly wasn’t. The corporatization of Pride has put us in the spotlight without making significant material change for many LGBTQ+ people, and with it comes the expectation of respectability, and hatred of the “other.”

I am scared of the amount of transphobia that I am seeing. I am scared at the attacks on reproductive rights that are occurring. I am scared that we are backsliding and instead of fighting the establishment that is putting us at risk, we are fighting each other. I am scared that we are losing our history. I am not scared of harnesses at Pride.

Like this content? Share it!