Op-ed: Where Did the 'Gay' in 'Gay Pride' Go?

Some say we're in a 'post-gay' world, but I'm not ready to let go. Are you?

BY Amin Ghaziani

July 17 2014 3:17 AM ET

When did "Gay Pride" reduce to just "Pride"? Where did the "Gay" go?

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the famous police raid in 1969 at a gay bar in New York that birthed the modern LGBT movement. We celebrate this event in cities across the country. In New York, the Heritage of Pride hosts the city's "pride events." L.A. Pride, Chicago Pride, Seattle Pride, the San Francisco Pride Celebration Committee, and the Atlanta Pride Committee all do the same.

Pride has even gone global. WorldPride, an event organized by InterPride, promotes the celebration internationally by hosting events every five years in cities like Rome, Jerusalem, London, and, this year, in Toronto.

Notice what word is absent in all of them. We have said goodbye to "gay."

LGBT people decided that they "wanted to show American they were 'regular' people," to echo a story in the The New York Times —"the kind that live next door."

What the Times is trying to say, I think, is that we're becoming "post-gay." The British journalist Paul Burston coined the term in 1994, and it found an American audience four years later when Out magazine editor James Collar used it to say, "We should no longer define ourselves solely in terms of our sexuality — even if our opponents do. Post-gay isn't 'un-gay.' It's about taking a critical look at gay life and no longer thinking solely in terms of struggle."

The rapid rate at which LGBT people have incorporated into the societal mainstream represents the most striking civil rights triumph of our generation. Support for same-sex marriage, for example, reached a record high in 2014. According to Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport, 55 percent of Americans now support it. Last year the Supreme Court struck down a section of the Defense of Marriage Act and, in the 11 months since, we have seen a breathtaking 24 consecutive pro-equality court decisions.

These are clues about the advent of a new post-gay world. The term is multifaceted, and it expresses a mode of self-identification — or summarizes the zeitgeist of an entire moment in time.

Individuals who see themselves as "post-gay" define themselves by more than their sexual orientation ("Who cares if you're gay or straight?" they might say. "I feel accepted the way I am"), they disentangle sexuality from a sense of militancy and struggle ("I'm not oppressed," they add), and they feel free from persecution, even though they recognize that the world we live in is far from perfect.

The word "gay" was once quite negative and divisive. Major newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal prohibited printing the word unless it was in the official name of an organization or part of a direct quote. It wasn't until June 15, 1987 that the Times reversed its policy and declared that the word was suddenly "fit to print."

It's no surprise that, in this context, activists insisted on using the word. In fact, that simple three-letter word smashed open the closet doors for an entire generation. Today, the word "gay" — not to mention the identity that it denotes — is now fairly unremarkable. The language we use today may be emblematic of progress, but I think it's still deceptive.

There is a fine line between acceptance and the closet, just as there is between integration into the mainstream and the cultural loss of what makes gay people unique.

Think about how often and without second thought we use the word "Pride" as a placeholder for "Gay Pride." Or how many of us see the rainbow flag, an icon of the LGBT community that gay artist Gilbert Baker created in 1978, as symbolizing "diversity" in general rather than "sexual diversity." When I spoke with straight people who live in Chicago's Boystown district as part of my research on the alleged demise of gay urban districts, many of them told me that they see the area as a "diverse neighborhood," not a "gay neighborhood."

"Diverse" is a more palatable term than "gay"; it helps straight people "to overcome their discomfort with being 'of of place' in gay space," in the words of British geographer Gavin Brown. And it helps gay people to manage our ongoing anxieties about being perceived as normal and respectable. "There is a portion of our community that wants to be separatist, to have a queer culture, but most of us want to be treated like everyone is," noted Dick Dady, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda back in the 1990s. "We want to be the neighbors next door, not the lesbian or gay couple next door."

The difference is subtle but far from trivial. Calling a neighborhood "diverse," saying that we're "the neighbors next door," and uttering the phrase "Pride Parade" — all of these are rhetorical moves that detach the neighborhood, neighbor, and parade from any particular community. We are no longer primed to think about sexual orientation at all.

I think this way of thinking and speaking is dangerous.

We must remain vigilant against false promises of inclusion in public life through incremental rights-based forms of tolerance that require us in exchange to silence our sexuality. To express your gay rights these days, you should not have to straighten up.

Scrubbing the gay out of our lexicon is not the world that Harvey Milk dreamed of. Gay neighbohoods and gay pride parades — and all other aspects of gay cultures, gay communities, and gay politics — stand on guard against a subtle and insidious temptation to make the gay go silent.

Franklin Kameny coined the cultural powerful phrase "Gay Is Good" back in 1968 as a way to strip away the stigma that stained the word and our lives. I, like him, refuse to say goodbye to "gay."

 

AMIN GHAZIANI, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, is the author of the forthcoming book There Goes the Gayborhood? from Princeton University Press. Contact him via AminGhaziani.net and follow him on Tiwtter @Amin_Ghaziani.

Tags: Commentary, Pride

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