Questions for Straight Cisgender People Who Go to Pride

An invitation to deepen straight cis allyship

Note: contains discussion of anti-queer and anti-trans violence, including suicide.

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Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

I’ll never forget my first Pride. I had been one of precious few out kids in my small high school at the turn of the millennium. My experience of queerness, like many before me, was one of isolation. There is a deep uncertainty and pervasive fear that comes of not knowing other people like you, or of seeing those few others targeted by violence. That fear wraps itself around you like a cobra, its grip ever-tightening, and it had taken its hold on me.

As a fat, queer teen, school had been difficult. One of my few queer classmates had come out to his parents, who beat him. He died by suicide within a matter of weeks. The lone out trans student had used the bathroom that aligned with his gender, only to be met with physical assault from other high school boys, and complaints from male teachers, certain that their comfort took precedence over what they saw as the adolescent whim of gender identity.

I was white, cis, and my gender presentation often led others to read me as straight. That relative privilege — and simultaneous erasure — shielded me from some of the worst of the homophobia and transphobia my school had to offer. I was never the direct target of physical violence, but it was all around me, often presented in gruesome detail. And, because straight people didn’t reliably read me as queer, some would invite me into their homophobia and transphobia, openly sharing their most bigoted judgments and jokes.

In that way, being queer — and often being misread as straight — was like watching a shark attack from a glass-bottom boat. It wasn’t my blood in the water, but it could be.

I was 22 when I finally attended my first Pride. I went alone, suspecting that my emotional response would be strong and deeply personal. The prospect of Pride was both exhilarating and frightening in equal measure, and I didn’t want it distorted by seeing it through the eyes of my straight friends. This experience would be mine alone.

The entrance to the festival was like any of the countless summer fairs: volunteers in matching t-shirts, a suggested donation, flimsy stickers and rigid wristbands. Card tables under collapsible canopies, the smell of fryer oil, thudding bass from a distant stage.

But as I moved onto the grounds, something exquisite happened: I was swallowed up by queer and trans people. For the first time in my life, after years without real, deep-rooted community, I was in a sea of other people both like and gloriously unlike me. There were queer and trans people at every stage of their out lives. Teens from small towns travelled four hours on a Greyhound bus to get here, eyes bright and teary, like mine, at being around so much queerness for the first time. Elders carried signs describing the lives they’d built together for forty, fifty, sixty years with no legal recognition, sometimes even forced to adopt one another in order to establish any legal relationship at all. Transmasculine people went shirtless for the first time, holding their partners’ hands. Many stepped out in their true genders, some doubtless leaving the house as themselves for one of the first times that day.

But it wasn’t just the presence of queer and trans people that overwhelmed me — it was the understanding of what made that space so meaningful. Many of us knew what it had taken for us to get there. To make it to Pride, many of us first had to survive coming out, anti-LGBTQ+ violence, widespread discrimination, and a near-complete lack of legal recognition of our families and our most basic rights. Many of us survived addictions, homelessness, intimate partner violence, suicide attempts, and more. What made Pride crackle with energy and possibility wasn’t just that we were all there — it was that, in defiance of the odds, we had all made it that far.

As I wandered through the fairgrounds, though, I noticed something. A family had wandered in, two straight-presenting parents with their young children. At first, it struck me as sweet, a kind and thoughtful show of solidarity. A few minutes later, I saw another similar family. And another. I didn’t know if they were, like me, LGBTQ+ people who were often misread as straight. But my trepidation didn’t care. Suddenly, after a brief moment of community, that serpentine fear had tightened its grip on me again.

Another Pride attendee, apparently, was also unsettled. They approached one of those families, small children in tow, and asked them pointedly why they attended.

“We just want to expose our kids to diversity,” said one parent proudly, before saying, “pumpkin, look!” and pointing at a passing gender nonconforming person.

There was something in the pointing. Few positive LGBTQ+ stories start with a straight person pointing at us in public. But more than that, there was an expression on the parent’s face, somewhere between wonderment and gawking. The parent’s eyes had lit up the way a child’s do the first time they see an exotic animal in a zoo. In that moment, regardless of their intent, they didn’t feel like an ally. They felt like a spectator there to be entertained, to take in the sight of queer people at our queerest. I have no doubt those parents meant the best for their children. But I’m not sure they’d given much thought to what was best for the LGBTQ+ people around them — the ones who had created this space.

Regardless of their best intentions, I was adrift. The freedom I’d felt moments earlier was suddenly gone. In the moment of liberation and community that I’d so long yearned for, I instead watched queer people become a spectacle. We weren’t being supported — we were being consumed.

The role of straight folks at Pride has long been a disputed one amongst queer and trans people — but many straight folks don’t seem to know that.

Since its inception, Pride has been a contested space within queer communities. It is at once a space for coming out, for healing, for organizing, for getting laid, for building community, for getting disillusioned with that community, and for envisioning a more liberated future. Different LGBTQ+ people approach Pride with different wants and needs. For many of us, straight cis people have been the faces of hurt, harm, rejection and discrimination. For some, seeing their support at Pride feels healing. For others, it feels like a violation of a safe space.

Talking about the role of straight cis people at Pride has always been thorny in LGBTQ+ spaces. It kicks up conversations about “passing,” and about who, like me, “looks” straight or cisgender. It can lead to kneejerk moments of gatekeeping and exclusion within the community, especially when it comes to inclusion of bi people and trans people. Confronting biphobia and transphobia remain essential within the community. And so, too, does providing meaningful guidance and feedback for straight cis people seeking to show up as allies. And the thorniness of this conversation within the community doesn’t absolve straight cis people of thinking carefully about their role at Pride.

This conversation also plays out in media. Some queer people voice full-throated support for straight cis people at Pride, as this writer did for Rolling Stone. Other queer people offer cautious guidelines for straight cis people to attend. And some LGBTQ+ people are skipping Pride altogether, feeling that the space they created is no longer theirs to claim . As one Guardian headline put it, for many queer and trans people, even San Francisco Pride had become “too straight, white and corporate.”

But even the question of whether or not straight cisgender people should attend pride can be an oversimplified one. Underneath that binary question is a series of tectonic plates, the motives, behaviors and practices that inform its answer.

Like anyone, straight people show up to Pride with their own sets of goals. Sometimes those goals are in alignment with the queer and trans people around them, or are set at the direction of LGBTQ+ folks in their lives; sometimes they aren’t. Some, like those parents I met, want to “experience diversity” or “expose their children to it,” seeking a kind of education which too readily renders queer people props for the benefit of straight education, rather than whole people with complex lives.

Others are excited to attend Pride as a big party, often without a deep sense of why that party is happening, who its guests of honor are, and what they most need. They are eager to consume the joy they see in LGBTQ+ communities, without realizing that that joy is a direct result of being free of straightness — the very straightness their presence reintroduces. In that way, in-community conversations about straight people at Pride often mirror queer folks’ conversations about straight bachelorette parties at gay bars, seeking respite from straight men, and a space to feel desirable and free. But in the process of escaping straight men’s misogyny, those bachelorette parties can end up transforming queer spaces, reintroducing the straightness and homophobia that led queer people to create the space in the first place. (As one friend put it after a long conversation with an overeager aspiring ally at the bar, “I don’t need to know if you’re ‘straight but not narrow’ or whatever. I’m just trying to get laid.”) In both cases, the LGBTQ+ folks I know bristle most sharply when straight cis people enter those spaces without considering the effect of their presence upon them.

When I asked one straight friend why she went to Pride, she seemed insulted at being asked. “Because I’m not an asshole,” she scoffed. But going to Pride isn’t a barometer of a straight person’s goodness, nor of their supportiveness. It’s a community space by and for queer people, to celebrate our resilience. And my friend’s response wasn’t an affirmation of queerness or queer people. It was an assertion about her own morality and personhood.

But many of these reasons for straight cis people to attend Pride are missing a key ingredient: being invited by a LGBTQ+ person. Instead, some seem to assume that LGBTQ+ spaces exist for their consumption as much as for queer and trans folks. Others attend out of a spontaneous sense of showing solidarity that may or may not have ever been requested of them. And some also seem to forget that they are guests in a space that wasn’t only not created for straight cis people, it was created in spite of straight cis people. Still others attend anyway, despite not being invited at all.

What do we do with the houseguests who invited themselves?

These days, I feel less dependent on Pride. My hair trigger is gone, because the threat of harm for me has largely faded. In my late thirties, I still come out nearly every day, but class privilege, cis privilege, white privilege and the privilege of adulthood all shield me from the brunt of homophobia and transphobia.

But there are still plenty of people who aren’t in that position —queer and trans people for whom straight people are still a clear & present danger. According to the National Center for Trans Equality, 1 in 4 trans people has faced a bias-driven assault — and those numbers are even higher for Black trans women, Indigenous trans women, and trans women of color, as witnessed by the recent deaths of Tete Gulley, Brayla Stone, and Nina Pop. According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth are estimated to make up as much as 40% of homeless youth in the US, and as many as 60% are likely to attempt suicide.

In a world that continues to so violently reject so many LGBTQ+ people, Pride should be one place that centers the needs of the most vulnerable and harmed among us. And that means that straight cis people and LGBTQ+ people alike need to be prepared to accept feedback on not just whether we show up at Pride, but how we show up at Pride. For LGBTQ+ folks whose safety is under threat regularly, seeing straight folks at Pride may not feel supportive. For some, it may feel like a threat, or an intrusion into an impossibly rare opportunity to be immersed in spaces with other queer people.

So, for cis straight people considering attending Pride, I’d ask you to take some time to reflect on your participation in it. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. You are not being expelled from Pride, nor are you being rejected from LGBTQ+ spaces. To the contrary — this is an opportunity to deepen the practice of your allyship. It is an invitation to reflect on both why and how you show up at Pride, and to bring your practices into alignment with your intentions.

What is your role in Pride? Has an LGBTQ+ person asked you to play that role?

What do you take from Pride, and what do you give to it? Do you attend to educate or otherwise benefit yourself or other straight people, or do you show up in active allyship with LGBTQ+ people? What do you do to embody that allyship? Do you take direction and feedback from LGBTQ+ people in that aspiring allyship?

Do you feel uncomfortable at Pride? Should you? Are you attending to explore your own identity, or to support a friend’s? Or are you attending because it feels like a big party, a place to let down your hair? Do you reflect on the ways in which your privilege influences your sense of comfort in spaces created by and for LGBTQ+ people?

How are you actively showing respect for a space created by & for LGBTQ+ people? Do you think about your own impact on an LGBTQ+ space before you enter it? Have you asked an LGBTQ+ person about the effect of straight people in queer and trans spaces?

How do you show up for LGBTQ+ people beyond Pride weekend? Is your allyship symbolic, or do you do the work to change the policies and practices that keep us on the margins? Do you volunteer with LGBTQ+ organizations? Do you donate to queer and trans people, organizations and projects? Do you make gender-neutral bathrooms available at events you host? Do you know if your workplace health insurance plan discriminates against trans people, and have you worked with trans colleagues to change it? Do you confront the anti-Blackness and racism that subjects so many LGBTQ+ people to discrimination, assault, and even murder?

How do you show up for the LGBTQ+ people in your life? Have you asked them how they’d like to be supported, or how you can be a better friend and ally?

Have you thought about what Pride means to LGBTQ+ people today, not just historically? Have you considered what our priorities might be at Pride, and the rare community building and organizing opportunities it presents? Have you thought carefully about when your presence fortifies those opportunities, and when it dilutes them?

What are your goals in attending Pride? Do your actions at Pride achieve those goals? Are there additional ways to achieve those goals outside of Pride weekend? Can they be achieved without inserting yourself into the largest event LGBTQ+ people hold for ourselves?

How do you respond to feedback from LGBTQ+ people when your allyship misses the mark? If you bristle at that feedback — or at the very question that maybe this space isn’t for you — what can your discomfort teach you? What growing do you still need to do?

Ultimately, I don’t and can’t know everyone’s reasons for being at Pride. I don’t expect or want to interrogating who’s here “for the right reasons,” like some Pride edition of The Bachelor. But I do know that, when straight cis people attend Pride without actively considering their own role, it smarts. And sometimes, even with the best of intentions, their presence can feel like a quiet threat, and interruption of the healing that some of us need to do without the presence of straightness.

Straight cis people may not know the feeling of that boa constrictor fear tightening around their lungs, their bodies, their relationships. They may not know the feeling of shallowed breath, constrained movement. They may not know when they are the snake itself. And they may not know when their actions are an antidote, and when they are the venom itself.

It may sting for straight cis people to interrogate their own intentions, to recognize that their actions may be imperfect, or that what they intended as support may instead be appropriative or hurtful. But if your allyship can’t take feedback from the communities you seek to support, it may not be allyship at all.

Like this essay? There are more like it, including Straightloss: The Impossible Heterosexuality of Losing Weight. You can also find Your Fat Friend on Twitter and Instagram.

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Your Fat Friend writes about the social realities of living as a very fat person. www.yourfatfriend.com

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