June 26, 2002


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The problem with Pride
Radical group Gay Shame attacks queer assimilation.

By Alissa Chadburn

WE ARE EVERYWHERE , so goes the queer maxim. Queers come from all backgrounds, races, classes, and religions. We are the most far-reaching, diverse minority group in the world. Pride celebrations are meant to show off our solidarity despite our differences. Leathermen, gay Christians, queer Asian-Pacific Islanders, Log Cabin Republicans, Dykes on Bikes, and many more groups march (and ride) alongside one another in a gesture symbolizing the common bond queer people share.

But the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Celebration – the largest gathering of queers in the world – has become "little more than a giant opportunity for corporations to target-market to gay consumers," says Mattilda (Matt Bernstein Sycamore), an organizer for radical anticapitalist queer group Gay Shame. Nothing makes this more obvious than creepy corporations like Budweiser, Smirnoff, and Clear Channel Communications literally jumping on the queer bandwagon, adding their own rolling advertisements to the parade. The roster of corporate sponsors grows each year as queers leap at the opportunity to partner "community" interests with corporate dollars. The overarching message of Pride has become as void of meaning as the advertising slogan: "We're here, we're queer, we drink beer."

An event that was once a defiant cry for queer visibility has been co-opted by consumerism. This year the queer marketing strategy has reached a scary new low: the Pride Parade's theme – "Be Yourself, Change the World" – sounds awfully like the Bud Light advertising slogan "Be Yourself – Make It a Bud."

Gay Shame, tagged by the group as "a radical alternative to consumerist pride crap," is going to be out on the streets on Pride Day to counter rampant queer consumerism and the assimilationist agenda behind Pride. For some gays and lesbians, the fight for freedom has become a flight into privilege. Gay Shame members point out that the mainstream gay movement has, in focusing on issues like gay marriage and gays in the military, turned its back on marginal queers – the poor and working class, people of color, the genderqueers, the trannies, and the perverts.

Even here, in a city renowned for its sexual and gender freedom, there are many things we shouldn't be proud of: gay cops who sweep homeless queers off to jail, Castro residents who turn their backs on queer youth, gay real estate companies like Zephyr who profit from evicting low-income queer folk. Gay Shamer Dean Spade writes that queer activists have learned that "our supposed 'brothers and sisters' " have a "commitment to justice [that] sadly goes no further than their ability to get their own slice of the all-American opportunity to crush others." Through agitprop street theater, in-your-face drag satire, and direct political action, Gay Shame seeks to shatter the myth of the queer "community" and to expose the hypocrisy that's masked by rainbow flags.

And the award goes to ...

"Confront the rabid assimilationist 'Pride' monster with a devastating mobilization of queer brilliance!" blared the flyers wheat-pasted on poles and bus shelters around the city last month. On May 25 hundreds of queers gathered at Harvey Milk Plaza for the First Annual Gay Shame Awards – and what occurred was indeed a display of brilliance.

I arrived dressed to excess and found myself in a huge crowd of queers in varying states of genderfucking attire. Stilt walkers in tutus and trash bags hovered over the audience. A woman was decked out in a skirt made of alternating GAP bags and rainbow flags. Someone else wore an American flag skirt and a dollar bill patterned tie, all splattered with fake blood. Everyone was buzzing, anxious to see what Gay Shame had up its gold lamé sleeves.

MC Mattilda, whose ensemble included singed American and rainbow flags embedded in a huge, bright pink headdress and oversized, clownlike booties covered in enormous Prada labels, explained the reason for the gathering: "To reward the most hypocritical gays for their service to the 'community.' " Awards for the "evildoers who use the sham of 'pride' to cover up their greeds and misdeeds" were announced (via pink envelopes, natch). Gay-owned Zephyr reality, which aggressively evicts low-income tenants to sell its units to the highest bidder and is a "community sponsor" of the Pride Parade, won the "Making More Queers Homeless" award. Mary Cheney was recognized for her work in "Helping Right-wingers Cope" by acting as a liaison to conservative Coors and opening the door for further target-marketing campaigns. In the "Exploiting Our Youth" category, Castro residents who fought the ARK Shelter were lauded for putting property values above queer kids' lives. Conservative gay heroes George W. Bush and Gavin Newsom tied for the "Legends" award (Straight Allies for Reactionary Gays).

With overwhelming audience support – in the form of alternating cheers and hisses – the Pride Parade itself won "Best Target Marketing" for "equating our identities with our corporate loyalty, robbing us of our creativity and individuality in the process."

One of the stilt walkers took a ceremonial flame to a rainbow flag and the audience chanted, "Burn, baby, burn." The bright colors melted into a warped, charred mass. A hush fell over the crowd – here we were desecrating the symbol of our so-called community, the one that waves over the Castro to signify our strength and diversity. But as Gay Shame challenges, whose community does the flag really stand for? The ties the flag represents are often hollow, and our unity is weak. The flag burning was, for me, a defining moment.

After the awards ceremony the crowd took over the street for more flag melting and a serious dance-party "celebration of queer resistance." The feeling of power and possibility was intoxicating. It reminded me that the true spirit of Pride is still among us – and that it's time to bring back the meaning and the message, before it's too late.

Legacies to live by

Gay Shame was born in New York in 1998 at queer collective performance-living space DUMBA. Mattilda, one of the original organizers, says it started with an activist group called the Fuck the Mayor collective, a queer response to the racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic policies of the Giuliani administration. The goal of Gay Shame in New York was to form a free "non-consumerist space for creating culture and community building" and to try to "build some opposition to the reactionary gay mainstream," which he says has "a stranglehold on all representations of queerness in the media."

Mattilda sees Gay Shame as growing out of the flamboyant, community-minded, and in-your-face political radicalism of other queer protest groups like the Cockettes, ACT UP, and Reclaim the Streets.

Last June, Gay Shame San Francisco held an all-day political gathering, complete with art and performance, at Tire Beach. With political speakers, performers, tabling, free vegan food, and collective art projects, Gay Shame '01 brought more than 400 revelers to the industrial park to create "autonomous queer space."

This year Gay Shame is taking a more confrontational approach, which began with the awards ceremony and will continue by taking on the "Pride monster" itself. Not surprisingly, the group is being met with opposition – and from other queers. At the Gay Shame Awards, organizer Jenna Scout Stephens spoke with a man who was agitated by the group's name and its action: "He talk[ed] about his coming out in San Francisco in the early '70s and how that in itself was 'cutting edge.' That's probably what I'll be saying in 30 years and what I believe now: that Gay Shame is 'cutting edge' in terms of pushing the boundaries of what it means to be queer, political, conscientious, and community focused."

San Francisco LGBT Pride Committee executive director Teddy Witherington points out that not only is putting on a free celebration of S.F. Pride's magnitude impossible without corporate sponsorship, but financial support also allows the committee to create an event where "there is something for everyone." He respects Gay Shame and says he is glad that "our community is broad enough and mature enough that it can support a variety of perspectives and opinions."

For Mattilda, though, the so-called diversity touted by Pride supporters is ultimately a "screen" that hides the larger message of assimilation. Gay Shame, he says, is about "taking back control of what it means to be queer. Queer is a challenge [to] everything of mainstream identity, from its heteronormativity to its racism, misogyny, transphobia, and classism – and on and on. It's about creating an identity outside of that. We want to bring the outsider back to queer identity – that's where the meaning, the community, the sustenance is."

Above all, Gay Shame reminds us that identity is not about what you can buy: it's about your community and how you treat its members. At Pride, Mattilda hopes the Gay Shame action will "encourage people to celebrate what makes them special and unique, rather than what makes them the same." We're here, we're queer, and we're not a market. Let's show the world what we're really proud of.

To take part in Gay Shame's alternative Pride event, meet Sun/30, 11 a.m. sharp, Mission and Ninth St., S.F. For more information go to www.gayshamesf.org. Alissa Chadburn is a queer writer who lives in San Francisco.