The successes and failures of LGBTQ+ Pride past, present and future

On 28 June 1969, police raided a gay club in Greenwich Village, New York. Not an unsurprising event – it was still illegal for men to dance together in a nightclub, let alone have consensual sexual relationships, and “masquerading” as the opposite sex, for example as a drag queen, was also a crime. A club such as Stonewall that was attended mostly by Black and Latinx men and drag queens was somewhere the police expected to close down without incident. Instead, the anger of the racially and sexually oppressed erupted into a riot, in turn spawning further riots and protests across the city. The riots focused national attention on the social injustice faced by homosexuals in America and sparked the conversation about tolerance and equality that has seen so much change until today. Read more about the Stonewall Riots here and its legacy

The Stonewall Inn is today a monument to the LGBTQ+ Pride movement

The question now is how far LGBTQ+ Pride marches have deviated from their revolutionary roots, whether they stand for anything anymore, and what the loss of heartfelt activism means for the future of LGBTQ+ people. I am going to try to answer these questions, highlight some of the ways that the LGBTQ+ equality and other minority equality movements have gone astray, and try to find effective alternatives that we might pursue.

The commercialisation of pride

Many argue that modern LGBTQ+ Pride parades have become little more than a celebration of relative freedoms. They annoy many straight, cis-gendered people because they draw attention to a minority having fun and make them feel left out. This is deeply unhelpful and does not reflect the need for or meaning of Pride today. It has become an excuse for businesses to engage in “pinkwashing”, selling rainbow decorated merchandise and claiming affinity with oppressed groups without engaging in practices that ensuring equity and a sense of belonging for LGBTQ+ people in their organisations or supply chains. Famous LGBTQ+ rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has gone as far as to call for a small, earnest, politically aware Pride to “reclaim” the original meaning from the commercial festival it has become.

LGBTQ+ Pride parade banner being carried in protest against the commercialisation of Pride parades, reading "1969-2009 Stonewall was a riot"

So LGBTQ+ Pride is more than a party?

The commercialised glitz and glamour of Pride marches and festivals in the west conceal and may actually be contributing to a slowdown in the movement towards inclusion and equity. Promoting tolerance of difference has been criticised as an end in itself because as we draw attention to differences – between sexual orientations, religions, ethnicities – and asks people to tolerate them. People are naturally watchful of how they are being treated compared to other groups and so the long and visible campaigns to attain something like equality for minority groups makes the majority fear that they are about to start losing out, particularly when equality comes nearer. In her book The tolerance trap, Suzanna Walters argues that what we should instead be working for is not just tolerance of difference but for recognition that the divisions in society are all arbitrary and divisive, that everyone is part of the same society and should be extended the same rights, privileges and responsibilities. It feels to many that this has been traded in for cheap words and merchandise.

Pride and the pursuit of tolerance has yet to achieve equality anywhere

Studies by both Stonewall and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) show that LGBTQ+ staff are made to feel subtly unwelcome and excluded even in inclusive workplaces. The CIPD have found that 16% of LGB+ workers and 18% of trans workers feel unsafe in the workplace, compared with 10% of heterosexual workers, while Stonewall found that 35% of LGBTQ+ people (and more trans than LGB+ people) concealed their true identities at work in order to continue to feel safe. Even in liberal organisations, the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people vary across are a patchwork of departmental subcultures.

Discrimination is worse against LGBTQ+ minority subgroups

Bi, asexual and aromantic people

Most bi and trans people in particular often feel the need to conceal their sexual identities from colleagues for fear of discrimination, while all LGBTQ+ people are forced to live in a heteronormative environment where the only families others are willing to discuss are those with opposite-sex partners and (frequently) children. This identity erasure, often combined with increased self-monitoring to ensure they do not accidentally betray their sexual orientation to others through their mannerisms, combined with the sense of being distanced from those around them and being forced to hear homophobic/transphobic remarks and ‘jokes’ creates “minority stress” that harms the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ people and can lead to or compound serious mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Childless people, more often LGBTQ+ than heterosexual, end up being asked to work the unsociable hours because others use the children they are so fortunate to have as an excuse for being unavailable, effectively disproportionately impacting the rights to personal lives of LGBTQ+ people.

Members of a Pride parade carrying a banner reading "bisexuals".
CC BY-SA 2.0 Caitlin Childs 2008 from Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nerdcoregirl/2626737533/)

Trans people

Ironically, for a movement that started with a riot by Black, Latinx and trans people, the gay scene has also become largely racist and increasingly transphobic. Trans people are still struggling to catch up and achieve rights comparable even to the rest of the LGBQ+ community, only to find other sexual minorities taking a step back when confronted by controversy. Trans exclusionary feminists (TERFs) have created such a controversy by declaring a conflict between and women’s body politics and the rights of trans women (by which I mean here men who have legally and surgically transitioned to become a woman), claiming that allowing those born as men (or intersex, essentially a hermaphrodite carrying both male and female genitals and having their gender chosen for them immediately after birth) to identify as women somehow threatens women’s rights. I have to wonder whether some cis-gendered women are simply fearful that because trans people are so heavily discriminated against, that this discrimination might extend to women’s rights should policy makers be aware that they were granting the same rights to trans people. Given that men who transition to become women suffer reduced power in the workplace while women who transition to become men enjoy an increase in power and prestige, it does seem that trans women are treated not better than cis-women and often a lot worse. Further, the argument that trans women are a risk to cis-gendered women in women’s spaces, such as toilets, has been thoroughly debunked by the evidence: trans women are the ones who are assaulted while there have been almost no attacks on cis-gendered women by trans people in such spaces. I am sure that there are subtle and rarefied philosophical arguments to support the TERF position but they are not the ones currently attempting to carry public opinion.

Trans students carrying a banner reading "NUS London Trans*".
CC BY-SA 4.0 Ross Burgess 2014 from Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trans_Pride_2014_NUS_trans_london.JPG)

Racism and sexism in the LGBTQ+ community

Racism is endemic among the LGBTQ+ community, just as it is in society in general, and in the workplace ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and gender expression all interact to unfairly influence the treatment and career prospects of employees. This led to the recent introduction of a series of new pride flags, including various designs that incorporated various skin tones alongside the traditional rainbow design, representing inclusion. I found it sad that so many people felt the need to change the symbol of inclusion that bleeds at its edges into infrared and ultraviolet representing the invisible and othered categories of discrimination not yet noticed, but clearly the new designs resonated with many.

Women complained extensively of sexual discrimination, particularly during the early LGBTQ+ liberation movement, leading to the most commonly used acronym being changed from G&L (gay and lesbian) and later GLB (gay, lesbian, and bi) to LGB+, to which trans, intersex, asexual, queer (an umbrella term for the myriad minority sexual and gender identities that exist) were added, ending up with the currently most common acronyms of LGBT+, LGBTQ+ or LGBTQIA+.

Flag design comprising an upheld fist coloured in horizontal stripes of different flesh tones from 'black' to 'white' superimposed on a circular field of horizontal blue, pink and  white stripes representing trans inclusion, all set against a background of the classical rainbow flag for LGBTQ+ inclusion.
CC BY-SA 4.0 Emercado2020 2020 from Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LGBT_Gay_Trans_Pride_BLM_Fist_Flag.png)

Where next?

It is necessary for all minorities to collaborate to demand full inclusion. It is not enough for women, ethnic and sexual minorities to simply be tolerated within society and organisations. It is not enough for them to be offered a seat at the table. They must be given a voice, be heard, what they say must be listened to, valued, reflected upon and taken forward in actions. They must feel they are welcome and wanted at the table, that they belong and are part of society, not apart from it as a (barely) tolerated subgroup. In this, we might argue that Pride has gone awry, emphasising tolerance of difference to the point where it has made integration and inclusion more difficult.

Person standing with their back to the camera wearing a shirt reading:" No transphobia, no violence, no racism, no sexism; yes kindness, yes peace, yes equality, yes love."

So, as far as gay liberation an equal rights movements in general have come, we have as far to go again. We face a worrying slowdown as politicians and companies, largely motivated by “enlightened self-interest“, are beginning to consider whether it is profitable to spend any more resources working towards making society more equitable or whether what little they have done already is ‘good enough’.

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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