Julianna Dudley Maher
This week a friend invited me, by email, to 2020 Virtual Pride.
I am an exhaustingly social person. I’m the rarest of human personality types: an extrovert who loves parties and hates dancing and loud noises.
I’ve clung to any and all faint imitations of human interaction since the pandemic started. I do the endless Zoom happy hours. The Duplex, a piano bar and cabaret where I figuratively live and literally spend more than 10 percent of my pre-tax income, hosts remote bar trivia; I do that, too. In the last few weeks I’ve been making calls to politicians and district attorneys to press for police reform and defunding. When I actually reach a human, they are usually either offended or annoyed – and even that slightly mitigates what for me is a constant deficit of human interaction.
I’ve responded “attending” to virtual Facebook invites where the event creator RSVP’d “Interested”.
“Virtual Global Pride” is set to take place Saturday, 27 June. I have great respect for, and zero envy of, its organizers. I’m grateful to them for all the queer people for whom a virtual Pride will be a light in a dark, isolating time.
I wish that’s how I felt. I hope other people do.
I am not attending Virtual Pride. Pride is cancelled.
It is certainly no unique observation of mine, that the real-life, three-dimensional people, places, and experiences we have collectively scrambled to disassemble, contort and flatten into virtual, two-dimensional recreations are not a long term-substitute. The best they can offer is to alleviate some of the most immediate need for contact and communication.
I should be able to see Pride that way, but I don’t. A “remote” form doesn’t just feel less than – which nearly all are – it feels like an inversion.
The beating heart of the enigmatic, glittering, flawed phenomenon that is Pride is physical presence. Gathering.
Gathering is a confrontation of those outside the queer community of our presence. Gathering is also a confrontation within the community, where we continue to fail many of our own with silence and ignorance as hurtful and often lethal as the cis heteronormative mainstream. This is true especially for people of color, as well as trans, intersex, gender non-conforming, Ace, women, and homeless members, among others.
We need that confrontation. I need it. Like many queer people, I’ve felt unseen at times in our community andI have made others feel unseen. I have made BIPOC and trans people feel unseen, and I have not seen them. I didn’t see, and therefore didn’t speak out against or raise awareness of, the fatal shooting of Tony McDade, a Black trans man, until days into making calls and writing emails in outrage over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and unfortunately, I was far from alone in that shortcoming.
In early June, Christopher Street West, which organizes LA Pride, announced a solidarity march with Black Lives Matter. They then requested permits for it from the LAPD. (In response to outcry over this tone-deaf choice, they then announced they would no longer be co-organizing. All Black Lives Matter did host a solidarity march, 14 June, which announcements clarified was not a Pride or celebratory event.)
Physical presence is a key to confronting those failures. The literal gathering of bodies at Pride is an undeniable message – to outsiders but also to ourselves – that the most visible male, muscular, cis, white icons are not a representation of all of us.
By sheer practical necessity, Virtual Pride shifts representation further from group presence to icons. A Zoom link cannot be a composite image of the millions who would attend Prides around the country and world. Millions of tiny squares on a Zoom link, even if it were attempted, make the people you’re interacting less individually recognizable – where crowds push you closer to them.
Instead, queer people already visible enough to give speeches, perform at concerts, and make laws are the ones who will be seen. The visual representation – what those who do watch the Virtual Pride will see – is likely to be a narrower, more cis-masculine, whiter image. The collection of speakers will all know, and some will likely invoke, Harvey Milk’s name. As well they should. But probably not Bayard Rustin’s.
This is not to say they would if Pride were in person. American Pride events fundamentally struggle to be inclusive to the minorities within our minority community, especially people of color. People like Rustin are still relegated to the sidelines – in-person Pride is in no way free from that failure. What it has, though, is people doing what Rustin did during his lifetime: being present, being on stage, even if the official organizers and corporate sponsors do not shine a spotlight on them.
Terminology for New York’s Pride has been shifted to reclaim the word “march.” ‘March’ carries connotations of respect, associated with centuries of people who have had to fight exist in America before they could celebrate as Americans. But ‘march’ is also an accurate physical descriptor: a parade can be neatly divided from its audience. At Pride, the two are inseparable. Despite the imposing corporate sponsorship and commercialization, a flicker of how New York’s Pride began still remains: that we dare to show up is a still-burning ember of that original protest. Being part of a parade is defined by entertaining an audience. Being part of a protest is defined by showing up in defiance of an audience.
Pride is not an invitation link that can be declined or an email that can be closed. It exists in a tangible, human community of human bodies. Pride is that community is on display, celebrating and yes drinking and partying and shit stirring but also being there, being literally out, vulnerable and exposed. The fact that Pride is a party isa protest. We dare to take joy in what has been ruled valueless or hedonistic by those who want to make us feel small.
Pride is about taking up spacein a way that nearly every person who participates has been told they are not allowed to. That is literally how the Stonewall Riots began in 1969: police officers conducted yet another raid on a bar that was not technically a bar – because it could not exist, according to the city and the police, because it did not have a liquor license. It was refused a license, of course, because the people who went there, according to the police and the city, did not exist.
To convince them that they did not exist, they beat them for taking up that physical space. The riots, and every Pride in the fifty-one years since, were and are a refusal to disappear. Pride is a statement: we’re not just going to do it in private, at home. We will be as in your face as we want.
That has long been a signature and a source of contention. Outsiders, especially straight cis men, have long characterized common expressions of queerness as shallow and materialistic, self-obsessed and narcissistic. Here’s a quick rundown on why that’s some fucking bullshit:
Loving physical beauty is not shallow. Loving color or its lack, loving art, being able to see art outside a canvas, theatre off a stage – windows positioned to let light into a hospital room, smells that change our perception of pain – is a gift, one that keeps humans alive. Not all queer people fit the broad generalizations of what queer people like and do, but whatever truth does exist in those stereotypes does not reflect a connection between sexuality and egotism or materialism. It reflects the truth that queer children encounter the power of materials very young, because of their tendency to desire ones not pre-selected for them.
I have spent hours of my life listening to straight cis men reiterate: “I don’t care about clothes. I’m straight.” He emphasizes, he just doesn’t get why gay men are so obsessed with clothes. Then I ask if he’d ever considered wearing fishnet stockings and emotional hell breaks loose. You will never see a more melodramatic clutching-of-the-pearls response to fashion than when you tell a straight guy to try on capris.
He wasn’t lying. He didn’t know how strongly he cared about clothes, because he had never been ordered to wear clothes that contradict how he sees himself as a person.
Queer people of almost all identities are more likely to have experienced that power. We are more likely to understand that something as loud as a wig and high heels or as quiet as a corner of a pocketsquare in a breast pocket aren’t indulgences or frivolities. They are acts of defiance that force the people who would rather you disappear than be noticed, to notice. To reckon with the disparity between what they assume is inside you and what you feel.
Being openly queer means that you have accepted that your physical body does not conform in some way to the narrative you have been taught since infancy of what your body should be and what it should be used for.
On the internet, where bodies don’t exist, or bodies exist only in pixelated, two-dimensional form, others are easily able to ignore this. They know we exist, that we’re out there. But just as the fervor of shaming and shutting down access to gay pornography ebbed with the transition from in-person interaction to online delivery, so too does a loss of real-life Pride curtail the threat it represents. The ‘audience’ it defies, that makes it a protest, is now allowed to maintain a fantasy reality: They may be out there in the intangible, imaginary cyberspace world, but “Not in my church, Not in my country, Not in my neighborhood.”
Pride refuses to exist in any world but the physical one, in yours. It is a pointed reminder that we occupy the same world, that we are present in your neighborhood. There are no blocks or filters on “mature content” walking down 5thAve. You can keep your kid away, but only as long as it takes them to walk there themself.
Pride is there to say we’re here – and to say that to the kid you’re trying to keep away, they’re welcome, whenever they’re ready. Not just to Pride, but to this world. There is a world beyond where you are now, and there are people who are happy you exist in it, just as you are.
On Pride 2020, mark that day and remember that many people have no option to even join a Virtual Pride if they want to. In lockdown, queer people, especially kids and teenagers, who aren’t fully out are living without privacy and few escapes they have where they can be themselves. Venturing into the queer community online may remove physical impediments to access – but it also requires they do so in physical proximity of people they are hiding from. Mark that day and remember the people who will “attend” virtual Pride and make the painful, paradoxical compromise of then deleting their browser history, and participation, from the record.
Of course, people live trapped by abuse in all times, not just now – but we know that millions more are being affected during the shutdowns and lockdowns globally. In normal times, even where people do feel welcome and included, attending is not everyone’s reality.
Counterintuitive though it may seem, I believe that others physically gathering to celebrate Pride is equally as important, if not more important, to those who want to go but can’t. To me that’s why Pride – in forms of protest and parties – chooses to be so consciously ostentatious. Many kinds of pride can be quiet, internal. Pride is big and loud because it’s not just about participants accepting themselves, or even others present. It’s about being so big and so loud that the furthest corners of the world can hear you accept them, too. The noise and the color aren’t just for celebratory or entertainment purposes. They’re utilitarian. They are a flare sent up by a search party for anyone who needs to be found.
The virus has hit industries with strong representation from the queer community disproportionately hard. Those industries overwhelmingly involve close interpersonal interaction – exactly where contagion thrives. Performance, dance, theatre, film and television. Mental and physical therapy. Music, fashion and retail, design. Bars and restaurants. Sex work. Writing, art and photography. There’s a commonality: these are places we run away from reality to, or havens where we can safely express our forbidden emotions about that reality, where queer people have managed to find places for themselves for hundreds of years in conformist or puritanical societies.
Industries with a disproportionate representation by queer people, much like those dominated by women, have historically been first in line to be derogatorily labeled, from unnecessary to frivolous to a corruption of the soul. The alternating between belittling and condemning the arts and social and cognitive sciences long predates the modern American sensibility of things like music and dance as ‘for little girls’. It precedes women being allowed to participate altogether. The association of queer behavior and people (in this case, predominantly queer men) with the aesthetic and the representation of feeling and emotion, however, date back to touchstones of Western culture in ancient Rome and Greece. Since its inception, Western society has echoed that, from what we are to what we do, we are unnecessary at best. Often, we’re a messenger of evil.
Cancelling gathering in crowds for Pride is logical from a public and personal health perspective. 75 percent of queer people supported decisions to cancel local Pride events in research conducted in mid-March – a time when fewer than ten states had enacted stay-at-home orders. So, too, do the painful shutdowns of stages, nightclubs, concerts, bars, parades, make sense.
That does not change the fact that the repetition of this centuries-old refrain, “you are not essential,” impresses upon queer people an unspoken, often unconscious loss of self-worth. The constant stream of pessimism – some warranted, some seemingly the thoughtless start of self-fulfilling prophecies – that “live performance is dead,” “say goodbye to bars until 2021,” “arts will be a casualty of the economic calamity” has a recurring theme.
These prophecies say “in the new normal, this will not exist” as though “this” is a menu item eliminated for lack of demand and not people’s lives. In the greater chaos and destruction of the virus, it is unsurprising, but still concerning, that almost nothing has been done by public figures to emphasize: Being a nonessential worker means, at this moment in time, we need you to stay home. It does not mean we don’t need you.
Pride in New York is the city’s attitude turned inside out. It’s rainbow hot pink sparkled tutus where everyone wears all black, it’s touching and mayhem and luxuriating where everyone is constantly on a mission and on the move, it’s taking pictures and dancing in your underwear in the city where everyone’s afraid to look stupid.
It’s, Come to the city, leave your parents or husband or wife or high school bullies or tiny bigoted town if they refuse to love you the way you are. And if you’re fourteen, or you’re forty-eight but you’re not ready to come out, we’ll be here when you are.
Pride is the flare saying, when you’re ready, come. We’re here. Come. You have a future waiting for you. This is waiting for you. We are waiting for you.
And now we’re not waiting. The Castro, the Village, Stonewall, Alibi Lounge, Broadway are closed. Where do those scared kids, the ones across the country and world in the closet, and the ones we all still are a little bit, where do they go?
I remember Rent’s tagline from the movie trailer. It came out in 2005 and I was eleven. “No day but today” was already corny to me. Despite that sanitized version of Jonathan Larson creation, that lyric has always and still does resonate with the queer community because of the underlying sense of urgency. I wasn’t there – like I said, I was eleven in 2005 — so what I know is only from listening and reading. But I have the impression that, like the musical itself, that urgency comes from the last pandemic that so completely ravaged the United States.
AIDS is just one aspect of the centuries-long reality that being a member of the queer community in ‘normal’ times, in pre-COVID times, our members have walked the streets with a constant elevated threat of death if they do not actively hide who they are. Because of AIDS, and homophobic bullying, and hate crimes, there is a sense of urgency with joy and celebration, and sex, and life in the queer community, because we don’t ever know how long it’s going to last.
On 6 June, at the second consecutive day of protests outside the Stonewall Inn calling attention to Tony McDade and other Black trans people killed by police, the NYPD took advantage of the 8pm curfew to beat and punch peaceful demonstrators. Activist Jason Rosenberg posted an image of his bloodied face, beaten for the crime of being on the streets of the West Village at 8:15pm (he was likely shielded from more permanent injury by his white skin and attention to his case paid by out State Senator Brad Hoylman).
This was not a mistake. Like Pride, this was a message.
In 2019, on the fiftieth anniversary, the NYPD commissioner finally apologized for the brutal violence and abuse police inflincted at the 1969 Stonewall Riots. In 2020, the NYPD set out to re-enact that abuse. They sent a message: their thin veil of tolerance for the most mainstream of us is a privilege for which we should lick their boots. If we are not complicit in keeping their racial division and control in place, if we rise up to protect the people of color in our community, they are happy to put the dykes and fags back where we came from.
Kinsey, among many, many others, observed that homosexuality goes in and out of fashion – acceptance and acquisition of rights do not move in an overall long-term progressive trend, but in a highly cyclical pattern. In the mainstream, when something goes out of fashion, it means that thing becomes popular or not popular to wear or use. In the queer community, it means it becomes popular or not popular for you to exist.
For instance — when was there, in modern history, another point with as much sexual freedom expression, experimentation, or with gender as 1920s Berlin? Can you point to a time? Then, an economic collapse of unprecedented scale, resulting poverty, shame over a loss of geopolitical stance, and a crumbling government power vacuum happened. In less than ten years, Berlin became one of the most deadly places to be a homosexual in human history.
There’s no security in the gains we’ve made. It is a constant loop. The future is uncertain. So we have this permanent sense of urgency of living as who you are, because you never know how long you’re going to be allowed to live that way, and in this, we’ve dispensed with that urgency.
It’s not today. Not today. Go home. Not today, not this year, not this time. Go home. We’ll do it again later.
The idea of “no day but today” doesn’t exist right now. There is no today. It’s not that there’s no future or past, there’s no present. We live in the Nothing Time. We live in the waiting. Waiting to be ourselves again.
Mark this day.
It is a day Pride should have happened.
It is a day Pride could have happened, I believe, if our government had acted with even basic consideration of what made our last pandemic so deadly.
Mark this day.
The United States government has ignored and minimized a global pandemic and exploited it for political gains, resulting in unnecessary devastation and death.
New York City is shut down.
Black and brown communities are being hit the hardest.
My friends can’t pay rent.
The rich have fled Manhattan.
Contact that meant touch and love now means danger and fear.
There is no future, there is no past, there is no present.
There’s just today, and today is the same as yesterday.
Sources & Research
Stonewall 50: Don’t Forget the Black & Brown LGBTQ Struggle, The Daily Beast
The Economic Impact of COVID-19 on the LGBTQ Community, The Human Rights Campaign
Why Black Preachers Pretend a Key Civil-Rights Leader Didn’t Exist, The Daily Beast
4 Policemen Hurt in ‘Village’ Raid, NYTimes (article from June 29, 1969, accessed via timesmachine, digital archive of all Times articles)
Are Academics Disproportionately Gay?, Inside Higher Ed
Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life, by William D. Romanowski, p.47-57
The Cambridge Introduction to Early American Literature, by Elliott Emory, p.71-79
Romosexuality – embracing queer sex and love in Ancient times, The Conversation
The Proceedings of The First Invitational Conference On Health Research in Housing and its Environment, Warrenton Virginia, March 17-19, 1970; p.60; statement by Dr. John Hanlon
Cops Turn Violent on Queer Protesters in Manhattan, Gay City News
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Homosexuality
17 Reasons Why Germany’s Weimar Republic Was a Party-Lovers Paradise, History Collection
Lifetime Risk of HIV Diagnosis, CDC Press Release