The Dark Side of Pride

Does celebrating once a year have unintended consequences? 

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Here’s what my Pride weekend looks like: At my drag show tonight, I’ll stir up a gay bar with rants about queer power, before pressuring some handsome straight boy to take off his shirt for everyone’s entertainment. If I manage to wake up on Saturday, I’ll go looking for a spectacular dress. On Sunday morning, I’ll wear the dress regally on a train from Harlem to Christopher Street, shouting back at hecklers all the way. Before Sunday’s Pride March even begins, I’ll be my own one-bitch, loud-and-proud parade.

But then, when it’s all over, I’ll go home, slouch on my bed, and get ready to tone it down for the office on Monday.

It should go without saying that I love Pride. As a working drag queen, I’m counting on it to pay my electric bill! I love that it offers me a free pass to take to the streets in broad daylight and confront the world with my gayness. But every year after the festivities end and I’m scrubbing the grease paint off my face, I wonder why I confine that confrontational spirit to a few days in June. If—as letters in the LGBTQ community—we are really proud of ourselves, why can’t we live in that spirit year-round?

To be clear, I’m not saying that we all go back into the closet after June 30; I’ve just noticed that many of us stop acting like it’s a joy to make ourselves heard. As it stands now, I spend most of the year with a muzzle on my sexuality—and I know too many other gays who do the same. Here’s an example that might sound familiar: Last weekend, my friend Marcus welcomed a female cousin into his Brooklyn kitchenette for a few days of long-overdue family bonding time. Marcus felt uncomfortably aware that their relationship had cooled since he came out as gay, but to keep things pleasant he let the matter pass. In fact, the subject of gayness didn’t come up until the last day of Ms. Cousin’s visit when she glanced around Marcus’ apartment and sighed, “It’s cool that you’re not too gay. Like, you don’t even do your dishes.” Sharing this story over lunch, Marcus told me, “I’m not sure if that was supposed to be a compliment or what. But for some reason I ended up saying thank you.

This is the kind of mundane homophobia or stereotyping that we’d never accept during the heady effervescence of Pride. Why do we let it slide any other time? When someone congratulates us for being the right kind or the right amount of gay, so many of us act like Marcus and feign gratitude—or, worse, feel gratitude. When co-workers demand fashion advice, we don’t hesitate to take their cue and yap about high heels. When friends beg us to “do a Beyoncé dance,” we oblige. We play the roles we’re expected to play, and if we feel degraded in the process, we try not to let anyone know. Then, once a year in June, we gather to celebrate the importance of unbridled self-expression.

As it’s currently practiced, Pride isn’t helping us live proud. In fact, it’s probably working to keep us quiet. Like the designated bars, restaurants, shops, and gayborhoods we escape to after work at night, it gives us the little break we need in order to stay compliant and complacent in other contexts. It gives us the strength to be caricatures of ourselves, or conversely, to code-switch, butch up, and shut up for the rest of the year. Instead of symbolizing our bravery, it’s an icon of our double-consciousness—our capacity to be perennially docile so long as we can act out in special contexts.

But Pride doesn’t have to function that way. Let’s start with a small fix—if you don’t feel comfortable actively calling out homophobia and condescension quite yet, at least stop helping it along. From now on, don’t force a smile when strangers call you “girl.” Don’t nod approvingly when a man says “Hey, I don’t care what you do behind closed doors as long as you don’t come at me with that stuff.” Don’t glorify parents who accept their gay kids, as if it’s a feat to love a homo. When an opportunity arises, demonstrate the pride you plan to celebrate this weekend. Otherwise, you are about as “proud” as a Christmas/Easter church-goer is religious.

Of course, there may be gays among us who already live their pride year round. I know a few outspoken queens who crowd their Facebook walls with posts about heterosexism and homophobia, using trendy terms like “micro-aggression.” Maybe they’re as confrontational in their daily lives as they are online. But I’m not writing for them. I’m also not writing to stir up animosity between gays and the rest of the world. Most of the irksome remarks I’ve mentioned were made by well-meaning allies, people who consider themselves to be friends of The Gays. It would be counterproductive to lecture or shame these folks every time they misstep—we’d end up driving our only support away. But it would be helpful if we started speaking up when we have an opportunity to defy an unwelcome stereotype, rebuke a thinly veiled insult, or help someone learn about who we are as individuals. It would be good for us to start acting and talking proud.

And staying vocally proud all the time means more than speaking up to alleged heterosexuals; it also means standing up to people in the queer community. A few weeks ago, I overheard a gay boy teasing my girlfriend Dana for failing to pick a sexual preference. The gist of his joke was that Dana had to give up men and declare herself a lesbian because she wears plaid shirts and has slept with women. I didn’t intervene, probably because I expected Dana to laugh it all off. But she didn’t. “How about this,” she said, “How about I do what I want and call myself what I want?” And that was the end of that.

The problem with Pride is not the event itself. The problem with Pride is that we don’t back it up with action when it’s over. This year, I want to fix that by behaving differently—starting now. Just a few minutes ago, as I was finishing up this piece, a co-worker that I never talk to dropped by to tell a story about his gay friend, a person who I’d never met or heard about. Normally, I let things like this go, giving the benefit of the doubt—maybe his gay friend and I have some common interest that makes his story relevant to my life. But today, I leaned back in my chair and asked, “Are you telling me this just because I’m gay?” There was a pause. “Oh,” my co-worker said, “I guess so.” I’m not sure if that was the right approach. And, I may have done some Beyoncé dancing for a tension-breaking laugh soon thereafter. But it was a step.

The names in this essay have been changed.