Saturday, July 02, 2011

Gay pride versus gay shame

June, the month just completed, is Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.

This observance has prompted me to ask a heretical question: why gay pride? As a rule, we speak of pride in terms of some accomplishment, such as finishing law school or restoring an old house. But we generally do not use the expression to refer to something that simply is. For example, I am not proud of being a man or being a septuagenarian: these are just my attributes. To be sure, some say that they are “proud to be an American,” but such a proclamation seems defensive, as if to acknowledge that there are things (such as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) that do not make us proud.

Perhaps “gay pride” is a way station on a journey to the point where it would no longer needed. Some say that the goal is to become something like left-handed. If one is left-handed one defends one's status and challenges discrimination, but one does not generally proclaim “I am proud to be left-handed.” One is, or should be, proud of one's whole being, and not just of some aspect thereof.

A seeming exception was this year’s Heritage of Pride march in New York City, which did in fact celebrate an accomplishment: the passage of the law authorizing same-sex marriage in our state. However, that is not what is usually meant by gay pride, which is supposed to be an all-enveloping state of bliss based on one’s sexual orientation.

When the term gay pride first became popular after Stonewall (1969) many of us welcomed the slogan as a departure from the self-laceration that been so characteristic of homosexual self-consciousness in the middle of the century. Even homosexual-rights organizations were subject to this insidious form of depreciation. In the early sixties, I remember attending meetings of the Mattachine Society of New York in which shrinks spoke, lecturing us that we must abandon our “immaturity.” In Los Angeles, one gay-rights leader, Don Slater, even defended the right of a restaurant, Barney's Beanery, to display a hateful sign that said FAGOTS (sic) STAY OUT.

At the end of the decade, all that began to change. As Allan Ginsberg remarked to a reporter at the time of Stonewall in 1969, we had lost “that wounded look.”

Despite the dubious epistemological status of the expression gay pride, I think that it is positive on balance.. However, I am not at all enthusiastic about the antonym, "gay shame." Gay Shame is a movement arising from within the GLBTQ constellation that claims to offer a radical alternative to gay mainstreaming. The trend challenges the now-traditional gay- pride events and activities, which are stigmatized as having become increasingly commercialized. The gay-shame movement has found some acceptance among radicals, counter-culture types, and avant-garde artists and performers.

Adherents are wont to attack "queer assimilation," that is to say, acquiescence in what they perceive as oppressive societal structures—-preeminently same-sex marriage. Reputedly, Gay Shame began in 1998 as an annual event in Brooklyn, New York. Held for a number of years at DUMBA, an artists' run collective center, bands such as Three Dollar Bill and Kiki and Herb and speakers such as Eileen Myles, Mattilda aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore and Penny Arcade appeared at the first event, and the evening was documented by Scott Berry and released as the film Gay Shame 98. Swallow Your Pride was a 'zine published by the people involved in planning Gay Shame in New York. The movement later spread to San Francisco, Toronto, London, and Sweden.

In March 2003 an academic conference on the theme was held at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The event disclosed friction between the activists and the academics, reflecting different strategies. The activists claimed that the academics didn't do enough to acknowledge their own power and class privilege, and to be generous in sharing these with the activists.

There have also been annual themed events titled "Gay Shame and Lesbian Weakness" in London, associated with the club night Duckie run by Amy Lame. Comprising performance art and queer-bash make-overs, the 2004 event was also referred to as “The Annual Festival of Homosexual Misery.”

In pondering this strange phenomenon, it is hard not to detect disturbing elements of willful abjection and internalized homophobia. As such, it seems an atavistic regression to the era of “that wounded look.” There is some evidence that the gay-shame trend is subsiding. That outcome is certainly to be hoped for,

As background, here are some notes about the origins of the concept of gay pride itself. The immediate predecessor was the black pride movement that sprang up in the sixties. In his book "Gay Power" (2006) David Eisenbach asserts that the term "gay pride" was introduced by Robert A. Martin and his friends at Columbia's Student Homophile League in 1968, one year before Stonewall. Martin (later known as Stephen Donaldson) was also riffing off the expression "pride of Lions," referring to campus pride in athletic prowess (the Columbia teams were known as "the Lions," hence the annexation of the collective term "pride). L. Craig Schoonaker, founder of a gay student organization at NY City College in early 1969 (a group that evolved into a small NYC coterie known as Homosexuals Intransigent!), claims to have originated the slogan "gay pride" at the time of Stonewall.

However that may be, the next stage seems to have been as follows. Lesbian activist Brenda Howard was one of the organizers of the first Christopher Street Day March in Manhattan (June 28, 1970). For a time, the expression "Christopher Street" was purloined, even in cities like Los Angeles (they used the expression "Christopher Street West March," quite a long street, it seems). At any rate, Howard recognized that the expression Christopher Street was too limiting, even though it correctly pinpointed the origin of all the events at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. She invented the idea of Pride Day, which quickly morphed into Gay Pride Week.

As far as we can now determine, Robert A. Martin, L. Craig Schoonmaker, and Brenda Howard, all New York City residents, are responsible for this terminology. Other cities, in the US and abroad, fell into step later.

In terms of the gay and lesbian movement, the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion marked the beginning of a major quantitative and qualitative change. This phase was known at the time as Gay Liberation. It is in this setting that the expression “gay pride” began to be used. As noted, it is modeled on "black pride." (Compare also the contemporary slogan “gay power,” which is an adaptation of “black power.”)

Nowadays major universities and many colleges have a club or society for students who identify as LGBT. These groups often change their names, due to the rapid evolution of political correctness, and a wish to appear inclusive. One backronym that is currently in common usage spells out PRIDE as "People Rejoicing In Diversity Everywhere." Apt perhaps, but this is a false etymology.

Sometimes the American expression is taken over as such into other languages, but it is usually translated, as in the Spanish “orgullo gay.”

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