This month Prides, and their cancelation in 2020, invite us to reflect on their contemporary purpose, and return to the ethos of their past. Do prides still yield the transformative potential to change society? Based on our research, our answer is ‘yes’.
“Maybe it’s not so bad that Pride is canceled … After all, the silence allows us to stop, reflect, and ask ‘What exactly is Pride?’” — Historian Eric Cervini
Part 1 — Loss and Renewal
Prides month is upon us and some cities are announcing the delay or continued pause of street processions that typically accompany it. Beginning in 2020 — the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march in New York — Prides have been upended by the onslaught of COVID-19 across the globe. The isolation that has defined pandemic life made for an unfitting anniversary of a celebration predicated on visibility and entry into public life.
Indeed, the first Pride ushered in a new generation of L.G.B.T.Q. activism, called Gay Liberation, defined by its visibility and the notion that “coming out” and “coming into the streets” would transform the lived experience of queer people, as well as the lives of those around them. The losses of 2020 and 2021 provide an opportunity to renew and reevaluate the meaning of Pride in the face of ongoing societal struggles for change.
Led largely by drag queens, trans and gender non-conforming folks and homeless youth, the Pride innovation spread to multiple countries with thousands of new queer organizations emerging in the decade that followed. Within a few short years, pioneering activist groups emerged: the Gay Liberation Front in the United Kingdom, the Front Homosexual d’action Révolutionnaire in France, FUORI! in Italy, just to name a few. Today, similar events take place around the world to generate visibility and demand rights for the groups they represent. Despite their different manifestations, Prides have become an enduring fixture of L.G.B.T.Q. visibility, identity, and community.
[Pride’s Enduring Legacies: Recognition, Rights and Acceptance]
A half-century on, the world looks markedly different for L.G.B.T.Q. people. Almost unthinkable a short while ago, openly-gay Pete Buttigieg emerged this year as a serious contender in a presidential primary, and actors like Elliot Page can come out as transgender and aspire to roles that reflect their identity. Yet the struggle for recognition is ongoing. Governments that fail to protect (or actively discriminate against) L.G.B.T.Q. people represent most of the world’s population.
[Pride’s Other Legacy — A reminder that the struggle continues]
Early Prides in more closed societies offer a sobering reminder of the struggle that was required to achieve mainstream recognition that makes possible the celebratory Prides of today. Perhaps, in the wake of COVID-19’s ravaging toll on people of all walks of life, and disproportionately the L.G.B.T.Q community, the interruption of Pride celebrations, and the mainstreaming most commonly associated with them, offers a chance to reset and reconsider the meaning of Pride activism at its roots.
Part 2 [Current Debate]: Is Pride a Victim of its Own Success?
There is an ongoing debate on the meaning and significance of Pride among activists and within the L.G.B.T.Q. community alike. Between being a necessary and defining element of social justice activism, or an anachronistic relic of times past: what is the place for Pride moving forward?
For many scholars and activists, Prides are still the most visible mobilizations that allow people live out their sexual and gender identities more than before. They respond to opponent groups, capture hearts and minds, and mobilize sustained participation.
Yet, sceptics are concerned that Prides might also lead to resentment or backlash towards L.G.B.T.Q. people. In socially conservative contexts, they remain deeply political performances that come with serious risks to participants. The prevalence of homo- and transphobia offers conservative political movements opportunities to build support by rallying against L.G.B.T.Q. activists.
Part 3 [New Frontiers: The Ongoing Transformative Power of a “First Pride”]
Going back to Pride’s activist roots, our research examines the impact of the first Pride in Bosnia and Herzegovina, held in the capital Sarajevo in 2019. Bosnia has among the highest levels of homophobic attitudes globally. Thus Pride, much like the first one in 1970, was a conscious demonstration, not a float-filled or sponsored celebration.
To the Sarajevo Pride’s credit, we found a marked decline in homophobic attitudes in surveys undertaken before and after Pride, but only in the city of Sarajevo. Throughout the rest of the country, opinions remained unmoved.
The Sarajevo Pride offers important lessons about the transformative power of activism. Opportunity to build at least localized support and awareness returns to the roots of this protest innovation, offering a powerful reminder of Prides’ potential to drive societal change fifty-one years on.
[The Work Ahead]
In an era where Pride is canceled or held on virtual platforms absent the interactions that have shaped the experience of Pride in the past, it is important to reflect on its future. Is it a relic of the past? Our research suggests far from it. The work of activism like Pride is, as it has always been, a necessary struggle.
At the same time, the cancelations forced by the pandemic might encourage us to embrace the mantra of “Build Back Better” by addressing the hard questions that remain in fulfilling this vision of a more inclusive and just society. For example, what does the presence of uniformed police signal to the many communities of color that helped lead the original march but whose issues are often relegated to the sidelines of Pride?
Here a bit of nostalgia may be informative for the future. The stand in solidarity that many Pride organizers took with movements for racial justice are fully in line with the ethos of the first Pride, which commemorated a riot against police brutality.
Indeed, Pride’s most powerful effects are embodied in its earliest roots: the more local, more inclusive, less commercial march that facilitated important change globally. These fundamentals of Pride still deliver gains. In commemorating Pride’s past amid the tragic pain and losses of the COVID pandemic, let us find clarity and inspiration from those still fighting for L.G.B.T.Q. people, to return to the radical potential of Pride’s roots and build on its promise for the years to come.
Note: Adapted from a longer commentary on the Mobilizing Ideas blog.
To read more stories in this mini-symposium:
Who are LGBT Republicans?
Dr. Andrew Proctor, Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Minnesota — Twin Cities