Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Parading ourselves


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Pride Parades: How a Parade Changed the World by Katherine McFarland Bruce; NYU Press, $28

"Everybody loves a parade" is one of those unattributable quotes, yet it expresses a sentiment shared by most people. On June 28, 1970 in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago (but not SF), 2,000 gay and lesbian activists tested this opinion by initiating a new kind of social protest by parading down the streets of their cities, celebrating who they were unashamedly and with lots of fun, buoyed by the revolutionary spirit of the Stonewall Riots the previous year. This became the blueprint for Pride parades for the next 46 years, where now more than six million people participate in 115 cities across the country.

Katherine McFarland Bruce, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC, has written an ethnographic history of Pride from its beginnings in 1970 to 2010, weaving together interviews, archival reports, quantitative data, and her own observations at six diverse, contemporary parades in New York City, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Burlington, Fargo, and Atlanta. San Francisco, like Boston or LA, was not included, in spite of the fact that when Bruce told people she was researching Pride parades, their first question was, have you been to the one in SF? Bruce's focus was not solely on large, well-known parades, but extended to the Pride phenomenon across the country, to study whether modest parades have anything in common with the grand spectacle of NYC Pride.

Protests come in two forms: one is political by changing state laws and policies, but the other is changing culture, which is the province of Pride parades. Despite LGBT people now having unprecedented political rights and cultural visibility, "encountering a tolerance today that the first Pride marchers could scarcely imagine, parades seek to change the heteronormative cultural meanings that render LGBT people symbolically inferior to heterosexuals." Pride is not a frivolous public party, but a cultural protest communicating the message that queer identity is to be celebrated rather than condemned, through words (signs and slogans) and actions (cheering, dancing, staging, and provocative displays).

How political parades should be has been argued from the very beginning. Contrary to pre-Stonewall activism, which sought to convey that gay and lesbian Americans were the same as anyone else, Pride parades had little regard for palatable images. "For the first time, gay people marched for themselves, as themselves, without downplaying the sexuality or gender nonconformity that mainstream culture condemned. They embodied the new gay liberation ethos of pride by literally parading in celebration of their identities, invoking a feeling of euphoria as they found the openness both liberating and fun." Some critics argued that provocative images (which the media always focused on) risked hardening individual cultural attitudes (mostly anti) about LGBT people. But Bruce points out that the chief goal was to challenge these negative cultural meanings, with the intent not to persuade individuals, but "to change the cultural understanding of what is acceptable behavior." Pride really belongs to the marchers and spectators that participate, and there is a blurring between roles of marcher and spectator.

In light of the advances the LGBT civil rights movement has made, capped by marriage equality, the question about Pride parades is whether they are still necessary. Bruce argues that parades will remain regardless of the progress of cultural or political equality. She believes Pride "will evolve into a benign community celebration with broad appeal, serving a special role in uniting LGBT people around a common history and identity," similar to St. Patrick's Day for the Irish.

Bruce has produced an important study, but this book cannot be considered definitive due to several jarring exclusions. Bruce does address the big elephant in the room, namely the effect of commercialism in both its positive (as financial sponsors for expensive parades) and negative aspects (as a market to sell goods to the LGBT community), but her analysis is superficial. Commercialism will continue to be the prime bugaboo of Pride and merits its own chapter.

Bruce also doesn't mention the vitriolic debate in the 1980s/early 90s about the inclusion of the pedophile group NAMBLA as a parade contingent. Eventually NAMBLA was expelled, but since this goes to the heart of her argument that participants rather than leaders decide agenda, Bruce should have provided some discussion on this thorny topic. Finally, it seems incomprehensible that there is no discussion of AIDS, which has became an important element in Pride. This is an inexcusable omission that mars what is otherwise a thoughtful accomplishment. When the history of the modern LGBT movement is written, Pride parades will have to be seen as an essential component.

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