Stephen Michell explains why festivals like World Pride are important to himself and others in the gay community.
The World Pride Festival took off in Toronto earlier this summer with flying rainbow colors. Last year, I had a wonderful experience at Toronto Pride, as some friends invited me to join the parade, dancing, shouting, singing, getting shot with water guns! But after the parade had ended, as I walked along Church St., taking in the sights, I began to feel estranged and uncomfortable. I left shortly after and went home and a friend of mine came over.
I told my friend about my time at the Pride Festival, and how I had left, and right off we started talking about the whole issue. A few things had left me wondering, dubious, critical, and it seemed my friend, who was straight, shared similar thoughts.
There is an undeniable level of spectacle at Toronto Pride, and I suspect it’s only enhanced at World Pride. An exaggeration of sexuality, fetishes, kinks. There are women walking topless or their bodies painted. There are old men completely naked. There are young men and women making out in the streets. There are dance parties and bar parties and street parties where some gay men and women remove all boundaries and, from an outsider’s perspective, it can appear lewd or gratuitous.
My friend thought Gay Pride was over the top, and maybe it is. He wondered why the gay rights movement would attach itself to such a spectacular celebration, associating their cause with other, perhaps even more socially marginalized minorities within sexual expression and orientation, like fetish, BDSM, trans-gender, transvestite? If the gay community is striving for acceptance and legitimacy within the prevalent, hetero-normative society, doesn’t aligning themselves with further irregulars hurt their cause? I was trapped in my misunderstanding of this festival, which I was sure possessed deeper intentions and meaning.
But not long after, I had another conversation with a different friend, who is gay. As always, an internal perspective strikes at the heart. My friend suggested that it’s not about the gay-community requesting acceptance into the dominant hetero-normative society; it’s about reshaping the dominant society to include and embrace differing and new emerging forms and expressions of human sexuality. And in that case, the gay-rights movement must necessarily stand together with other socially separated groups, because their message and their cause are the same.
But what about the spectacle, I asked. What about the seemingly rampant, ravenous sexuality of it all?
My friend looked at me and said, you are straight. If you wanted, you could go to a bar and talk with a woman, flirt with her, buy her a drink, ask her to dance, move close to her, touch her, let her touch you, even kiss her — all in public, all in front of others — and no one would think twice.
The Pride Parade, the festival, is a key moment in which those people who are not straight are allowed fully to stand out and together and walk freely, with no hindrances, no restrictions. The Gay Pride Festival, its spectacle, its exaggerated sexuality, is just any ordinary day in the life of a straight, hetero-normative person in western society.
As a straight man, I can walk down the street every day and in the billboards and advertisements and posters, in store windows and shop fronts, in the music I hear, and movies I watch, in the very language I use to talk to this person or that, I can feel, unconsciously perhaps, my secure, hetero-normative sexuality reflected and promoted without challenge or question.
Imagine walking through a shopping mall and feeling estranged from the resonant expression of sexuality, an aspect of our identities so private, so personal, so primitively integral to our perspective of the world, that you actually experience a trace of fear. In some cases, even terror.
Now imagine a day, a festival, a parade, in which all of those people who have lived with this fear walk out in the street together and are celebrated. If there was only one day, or a weekend, that I could walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand without receiving some cursory glance, some slanderous under the breath remark, some jeer from a passing car, or just the oppressive impression that I’m wrong for being me — hell, I’d be racing to that parade!
And at the parties and the dances, yeah, I would hold my girlfriend pretty damn close, and I would kiss her, and I would smell her. And yes, from an outsider’s perspective, it might appear lewd or gratuitous, but that is forever the plight of the outsider, who refuses to see through to the heart.
Happy World Pride, Everyone.
Photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography/flickr