Here Comes the Pride

LGBT Pride remains a contentious issue – one writer explains why he had his doubts, and a moment in Montréal that turned it all around...

Feature by Toby Sharpe | 06 Jun 2017
  • Pride

Most large cities have a Pride: an event where queer people burst onto the street (and sometimes into song), prowl about together, and generally have a wicked ol’ time.

Fun as it can be, Pride can be a controversial topic. On one hand, you’ve got your usual throng of bigots, homophobes and moralistic blowhards railing against it, claiming that Pride runs the risk of upsetting children with displays of adult sexuality. Those people don’t seem to have noticed how depictions of sex and sexuality are plastered all over modern society, from billboards advertising lingerie to commercials where an M&M is caught sleeping with a married woman. I think the public is pretty used to displays of human sexuality, as long as they’re aimed at straight people.

On the other hand, many queer people express very legitimate concerns that some Pride festivals have become too corporate and too exclusive, becoming more of a tourist attraction for straight voyeurs than an easy-to-access, legitimate outpouring of queer joy. Similarly, there are disputes in some countries as to the roles that certain organisations should play in proceedings. Canadian Pride festivals are debating whether or not to allow police to have floats in the rallies, as many attendees feel the police represent the fascist powers that oppress many queer people, particularly those of colour. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ equivalent has attracted criticism for having sold out, by rebranding as an expensive musical festival for straight millennials with money to spare.

I have a pretty complicated relationship with Pride, as I’m sure many queer people do. Recently, one of those memories popped back into my brain. You’ll know the kind – you drop your groceries or spill milk everywhere after suddenly recollecting a moment of true cringe, and spend an hour or two just gawping at how much one person can resent their past self. That kind of memory.

While talking about Pride with some friends, I suddenly flashed-back to being sixteen or so, and asked whether or not I’d attend London Pride. I’d been out as gay for a few years; self-consciously quirky and painfully eager to be accepted by literally anyone in earshot. I replied: “Me? Gay Pride? More like... GAY SHAME, amiright?!” The joke didn’t land too well. Even my straight friends were a little disgusted at how ready I was to hate on myself for a quick gag – to try to make it funnier, I continued to chat hot air about how gay people should just try to fit in with straights and “not go on about it all the time.” 

I hate thinking about that moment. It makes my skin crawl remembering how I’d internalised so much homophobia, how I was so keen to let my peers know that I was gay, sure, but I wasn’t like ‘those other gays.’ I really was brainwashed: I thought that gay people should shut up and be quiet about their sexualities, that screaming about gay politics was counterproductive, and that things weren’t really that bad. I was horribly wrong.

The reality is that rights cannot be won in silence, and that what rights we have won are conditional and need defending; pretending to be copies of straight people won’t help us in the long run, and would be impossible for many queer people anyway. Pride is a place where we can be ourselves, openly and beautifully. There’s no pretence – rather, it’s an explosion of selfhood.

Thankfully, I got to grips with gay politics pretty quickly after that, and managed to get a little distance from those views. Even so, I didn’t attend my first Pride for years after that. I was scared – of all kinds of things. I worried that I’d somehow be rejected from other queers, that I wouldn’t know what to do, that I’d be making myself a target for violence, and that I’d just be the kind of loud, stereotypical camp gay guy that straight people love to disparage, ignore, and persecute.

My first Pride was in Montréal during the first days of my year abroad. Groggy, lonely, and confused in a hostel, I was awoken by banging and shouts. Stumbling outside, I saw Justin Trudeau walk past me (then just a floppy-haired MP with a tight butt, gay fans, and less ability to legalise weed or sell arms on a mass scale). He was followed by thousands of queer people. It was sensational, not because of Trudeau, but because I was suddenly immersed in a huge group of people who were kind to me, who made me feel at home, and whom I recognised as being like me.

That’s the nuance I didn’t understand in my brief gay-self-hatred phase as a teen: the power of Pride, and other means of queer celebration, to make one feel validated and recognised. Especially if you’re lonely, or you’re in an unfriendly environment, or you’re struggling to come to terms with your identity, the need to connect to other queer people and feel wanted and included is incredible.

One can see the power of Pride after it ends: people peeling stickers off their cheeks, rubbing make-up away, resignedly putting carefully-chosen outfits back into bags as they switch back to regular clothing. People live joyfully in Pride, but then have to go back to the straight world, where they don’t always feel safe being themselves.

I still have some reservations about some Prides because they've been painfully commercialised, and I don’t exactly feel like big banks accurately represent the queer revolution. Pride is still a political and contentious topic, but the importance of its existence in times like ours cannot be overstated. We’re living in times where Chechen authorities can purge gay men with zero accountability, when the White House removes guidelines on trans students from educational policy. Even as gay marriage photos appear more frequently on your Instagram feed, this is still not a good time to be queer.

Many LGBT+ people across the globe do not feel safe, even in our supposed havens of Western democracy. We need to have a designated time to be ourselves: loudly, proudly, and happily.

I wish my younger self had actually seen the wonder of Pride, the messy, silly joy of it. Maybe I would have seen how lucky I was to have a festival so close by, while other cities across the globe still struggle to run a festival without having it shut down by violence from authorities or protesters. Pride is so important. We need to relish the opportunity to be ourselves in the moments we can, and those moments where we can be together.