Are gay Pride festivals still necessary?

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My phone has been blowing up. “Are you going to Atlanta Pride?” I almost want to surprise them all by announcing, “No, I will not be going to Atlanta Pride. I’m going on a mountain hike in Appalachia as part of my new vow of celibacy.” Of course I’m going. But this year, I really had to ask myself: why go to Pride? What purpose does it serve?

A four-year resident of Savannah, this was my first year involved with Savannah Pride, and although it’s a much smaller affair than Atlanta’s, I got to see how an LGBT event is created – fundraised, worked for, volunteered for – from the other side. For the first time, I wasn’t a participant. I was there at 5 a.m. unloading a U-Haul. When all my friends were drinking beers and dressed in Speedos, I was in my “director” t-shirt, sweaty and gross, running errands.

And it was the best Pride I’ve experienced. I got to work on a team of people that simply wanted to make a place where, for one day, people were able to fully be themselves. But even in the beginning of my involvement, I was very unsure if Pride festivals were still necessary in a world of so much progress.

I came to college in Savannah the same year Grindr hit the market, the same year Prop 8 was overturned and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. For four years, I’ve watched in awe as country after country and then state after state have legalized same-sex marriage. Since coming here, a steadily progressive climate is all I’ve known. But my awe can be nothing compared to that felt by people who saw a different country forty years ago, generations of gay men and women before me who would have laughed at the impossible idea of two men marrying legally.

The idea was impossible to me just five years ago, before I came to Savannah. Ninety miles east of Atlanta, my family’s farmhouse sits on an early branch of the Ogeechee. The river is small enough up there to jump from one bank to the other on a rope swing, and we did that a lot. Cut off from any outside influence, I was still “funny” and my parents knew it. “Funny” was later switched to “artistic.” “He’s our little artist,” my father told the relatives, patting me hard on the back.

My father worked diligently to keep the outside world away from my eyes, perhaps believing that the gay impulse would fail to develop if left unaided. He selected which channels we purchased – less was always safer – and installed a parental blocker on our dial-up internet that, as I later learned, blocked sites according to keywords which he selected. No site with the word “gay” on it came through.

When I graduated from high school in 2010, I believed that anything related to homosexuality was by necessity invisible and kept far from public view. I didn’t know about Stonewall or the entire cultural movement that was – and is – Gay Rights, a movement that by and large had already happened years before I drove away from home with my Dodge truck packed for college.

'That's why Pride happens'

 

I never lived through Stonewall. I never lived through the initial outbreak of HIV and AIDS. There are horrors witnessed by gay people before me that I will never experience. My certainty that there was no place for a gay guy in the world was quickly debunked when I came to Savannah, but for many men and women before me, it was their lifelong reality.

That, I realized, is why Pride happens. It began as a movement in New York that has spread all over the globe. But during my first two years of college, many of my peers, guys in their twenties who grew up surrounded by messages of tolerance and queer freedom, rolled their eyes when the festival came around, saying, “Why do the gays have to remind everyone that they’re here and queer, when the world already knows? Believe me, we know you’re here. All that glitter has well announced your presence.”

As I adjusted to my new life, I started to agree with them. “We don’t need Pride festivals anymore,” they said. “They just reinforce the fact that we’re different and need a festival to show off how different we are.” Or, “Pride festivals just push us further and further from true equality. If we want to be treated the same way as straight people, why don’t we just start acting like them and stop showing off?” We touted the phrase “normalization and assimilation is progress.” A lot of us twenty-somethings seem to feel this way.

But we weren’t alive when throwing on glitter and a wig and hitting the streets was an act of defiance so extreme that it was considered anti-American. We weren’t around when raising your fists meant fighting the police. We look to progressive countries like Sweden and the Netherlands and say, “Hey, they don’t make a big deal out of it over there! Gay culture and straight culture aren’t seen as two separate things over there, so why do we make a big deal of it here?

Because this is where Stonewall happened. This is where the rainbow flag was first raised in San Francisco, not as a campy beacon in a parade but as a cry for battle. To remind us twenty-year-olds of a country without Gay Rights, look to the opposite end of the spectrum at places like Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, where homosexuality is still punishable by death, torture, and imprisonment. In those places and others like them, the only reality for gay people is truly the mistaken view I held in high school: I am the only one, there are no others. And if there are, they surely won’t come forward.

'Gay culture was happening all around me'

 

Regardless of the fact that gay culture was happening around me, when I was growing up, that isolated view felt very, painfully real. It was only later that I fully grasped the cruelty of that censorship, especially from adults who knew my own kind was out there, somewhere in that great secular expanse that is America. I picture my parents growing up in their respective hometowns, huddled in front of a small television screen in the family room, shuddering as clean-looking news broadcasters talked about the “gay disease” sweeping the nation and thinking, “Thank you Lord for not making me one of them.

We’ve thankfully had enough victories to allow a younger generation to ask whether or not this is the best way to go about things, and maybe they’re right. Maybe progress from this point needn’t be so “out, loud, and proud.” But that kind of pride is absolutely what was needed to first get us out of the underground gay bars and into the streets, and we younglings owe a debt of gratitude to that first Pride parade and every one since.

To criticize them now is a naïve and privileged perspective that comes from the unbelievable fact that – after a lot of marching, rallying, campaigning, protesting, fundraising, organizing, and volunteering – we’re winning. Against all expectations and against overwhelming opposition, the world is changing. Pride parades are symbols of that change, and now that I’ve helped make one happen, I can say that helping make an event happen where everyone can be themselves is one of my greatest honors.

Friends, Pride festivals are very important. I see them as an eternal flame memorial: as long as they’re happening, it means we’re still pushing for a world in which no one has to live in a reality in which they are the only one – an anomaly, a sin. That kind of prison, either constructed by families or enforced by law, is the very thing Pride festivals exist to combat. Wherever there is a silencing, Pride reminds everyone, “Yes, we are here.”

Alex Cheves (second photo) is a senior writing major at SCAD and President of SCAD Queers and Allies. He's also a Savannah Pride volunteer. This column was originally published on his blog, The Beastly Ex-Boyfriend.

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