What to take from SF Pride's bumblings and shut-outs? Maybe we're not so equal, after all
OPINION And so Pride has come to this: what began as a ragtag, radical potluck of perverts, fairies, and criminals (which is what we were in the early 1970s), celebrating the grassroots uprising that birthed the gay rights movement, is now a sleek, corporate-sponsored, multimillion dollar mega-event that refuses to engage with its own community.
From Stonewall to stonewalling. From protesting the Vietnam War and police oppression to "protecting" the military from any symbolic statement about its conduct or mismanagement during Iraq and Afghanistan. What's going on?
"I live in a bubble, I guess I was naive when it came to how badly and inappropriately the Pride Board would react," Joey Cain, the Radical Faerie elder and former Pride Community Grand Marshal who nominated Bradley Manning for the position, told me. (The full backstory of Wikileaker Manning's election to grand marshal and the resulting firestorm? Here you are .) "Of course, I knew he was controversial — I hoped to bring more attention to him in the community at large and celebrate what he did. This is San Francisco, I thought it wouldn't be a big deal."
"When I heard he'd been elected, I smiled, shrugged, and went on with my day. I had no idea it would blow up like this," said Tom Temprano, young president of the progressive Harvey Milk Democratic Club, whose monthly meeting last week became a de facto forum on Pride's rescission of Manning's election, after the Pride Board announced via Facebook that it was cancelling its scheduled public meeting and that "the discussion of that matter is closed for this year."
Indeed, Pride's own utter ineptitude in handling this situation would be hilarious if it didn't smack so much of outright disdain for the community it represents. It's as if Pride board president Lisa Williams and CEO Earl Plante, specifically hired to repair Pride's nagging budgetary and communication problems, have clumsily ripped a page from the "War on Terror," or the BP oil spill, or Too Big To Fail. Press lockouts, media blackouts, decision by fiat, a complete lack of transparency, internal investigations, contested elections, massive flip-flops, a widely known but officially unnamed staffer fired and bound by contract not to speak about the incident.... add to all that surreptitiously deleted Facebook comments and a wacky story about Plante disappearing for days throughout the whole controversy due to "hitting his head," and you pretty much have Borat in the Bush War Room.
Calm down honeys, it's just Pride. Pour yourself a Bud Light and chill.
Manning's election probably would have been celebrated by most of San Francisco in the Wikileaks heyday of late '00s, when the tech scene was still streaked with misfit visionaries and data libertarians, our mayor was given to spouting utopian pronouncements that caused national headscratching, and the anti-war protest energy of the Bush era hadn't been completely subsumed by domestic economic concerns (or whatever happened to that energy).
And maybe a majority of locals don't have any objection to Manning, a queer person who did something, being honored at Pride, if they know who Manning is. Yet to the rest of the country — and to some gay military organizations perhaps still traumatized by Don't Ask Don't Tell, who reportedly flooded Pride with calls demanding that Pride rescind the Manning election — the advances we've made in terms of assimilation and tolerance are like a fragile egg that must be protected at all costs.
Fear, not pride, is still the major motivator for many in the fight for gay rights. It's as if any whiff of controversy, or as Pride put it in its initial statement rejecting Manning's election "even the hint of support for someone [like Manning]" will immediately turn the clock back and we'll all be thrown in jail for cross-dressing. This narrative of fear has certainly pervaded the national media. Even before I had heard of Manning's election, I was fielding calls from nervous relatives who saw the news on CNN, saying the gay community "didn't need all this bad press and in-fighting right now."
But the fact that the national news was paying attention at all underscored our development in the media from a single gay stereotype that plays nice in order to get rewarded with "rights" into a diverse mass of individuals roiling with differing viewpoints. It also reinforced the radical potential of Pride: Hey, Bradley Manning was back in the news. Can we nominate Guantanamo next?
The rumblings about Pride becoming a corporatized, assimilationist machine have divided the queer community for years, with organizations like Gay Shame formed specifically to protest what they saw as Pride's estrangement from its original purpose. On the other side, there was the constant clutching of pearls about what Pride's images of "outrageous" drag queens, breast-baring Dykes on Bikes, and grinding, chaps-clad leathermen (how dare we embrace sex as part of our sexual orientation!) were projecting to the world, and how they were endangering our potential for broader acceptance.
And yet, every year, there they were: the leather daddy twirling his flags behind the PFLAG grandma from Punxsutawney, the thriftstore-diving queer activist booing the oily, shirtless muscle queens on the Stoli float, the half-naked, mohawked baby dyke grinning at the button-down Log Cabin Republican, all in one spot, representing every color of the LGBTMNOPQ rainbow. And here we are in 2013: Twelve states with legal gay marriage, gays serving openly in the military, a president pushing for the overturn of DOMA, and gay rights the cause célèbre du jour.
Haven't both our outrageous courage to live outspoken lives and our touching familiarity as neighbors and fellow human beings been equal partners in our recent history?
"This is the first time that I know of that Pride has put its foot down and said to members of its own organization and community: 'You are not welcome. Your choice is not valid,'" Cain said. "Even when they arrested members of Gay Shame [for rushing Gavin Newsom's car at Pride 2003], the Pride Board went to the police and said, 'Hey, you need to let these people go.'
"That's what made Pride what it is today, the notion of radical inclusivity. That yes, we're all different, and of course we don't agree. We should be free to elect Bradley Manning, just as others should be free to elect someone some of us think should be hanged for treason, or what have you." (One wonders what the reaction would have been if, say, gay-marriage advocate Dick Cheney had been elected Community Grand Marshal.)
"But we're all somehow in the same boat," Cain went on. "And that's how we can continue to have these debates that drive us forward while celebrating the incredible diversity in the community."
With the recent actions of the Pride board, however — and especially now that the military ban is lifted, same-sex marriage is within our grasp, and "gay" is becoming just another flavor of Americana — I have to wonder: are we still all in the same boat?