15 July 2012

Proud / Out

"Once upon a time, we were for gay liberation...That's a big word. . . . Equality is a small word and a small concept. It's just accepting what little piece everyone else has...." -- Bill Dobbs

I've wanted to write something about Pride this year, but "Gay" News keeps on coming. So I better do it now

This was the first NYC Pride I've been to since I moved here from Baltimore, and we managed to go to events in three boroughs: Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, as well as the "Leather Pride" event, Folsom East. Staten Island's Pride was the same day as Queens, and The Bronx's event is coming up in July - and, sadly, we missed Harlem Pride this year as well.

Martha Wash at Queens Pride
Brooklyn's event was more of a Street Fair (although we didn't stick around for the evening parade), as was Queen's Pride for the most part - although Queens capped off the day with a wonderful but too short performance by Martha Wash (although we did get to say hello as she rode by in a chauffeured Cushman after the performance, which was a thrill). As a friend who lives in Harlem said about Pride there, for many it was like a reunion or family day, where you get to meet people you haven't seen in a long time, hang out with friends, and have fun (Baltimore's Black Pride Block Party was like this for me. In fact there's someone who we invariably would ONLY see there every year)

The "Big Pride" in Manhattan on the last Sunday in June was, as could be expected, more of a mob scene. One aspect of it, however, was particularly troubling. The Christopher Street area and the waterfront along West Street/The West Side Highway below it has traditionally been a place for young gays to gather. This year, it was nearly impossible to get to "The Piers." Streets - including Christopher - were blocked and limited numbers of people were allowed to get down to West Street. It took some people we knew who went to Rockbar almost an hour to get there, for example.

Once you did manage to get to and across West Street, only a strip of the walkway was open and available to revelers. Benches and the running and cycling track were blocked. There was very little room for people to do more than just slowly walk up and down along the river. As someone who has fond memories of the Pier area before 'renovation' (and spent the evening of Stonewall 25 in 1994 up all night sitting by the Hudson) this felt tragic to me. Even The High Line was closed on Pride Sunday, I'm assuming to prevent partiers from taking that area over as well. Friends who were in Manhattan for Pride last year also say that this year was much more cordoned off and constrained than in 2011.

I can't help but wondering if part of the reason for what I can only call mistreatment or mismanagement of one of the largest events in New York City had something to do with race, class, and age.

The crowds in The Village, along Christopher, Washington, West Streets and the Pier area were overwhelmingly Black and Brown. One can't make generalizations about people's economic status at a glance, but I'd estimate that most were Middle to Working Class, who wanted to enjoy the day inexpensively (ie not at a bar or club that very likely had increased prices or cover charges specifically for Pride). I'd estimate 60 - 80% of the people on the streets in the West Village were under the age of 35.

What does it mean when The City/we treat the Next Generation of LGBTQ people in this manner? It felt very obvious to me that those of us in the streets that day were not wanted in that area. The obstacles felt like a form of harassment, of disrespect, a way of saying "Go back where you belong." It disgusted me.

One of the post-Stonewall triumphs of the Gay Rights Movement was to create safe spaces for 'Queer" people to live, work, and gather. In a Gay variation on "Stadtluft macht frei" - City Air makes you Free , being in places like The Village, "Boys Town," Dupont Circle, The Castro, and others gave gays and lesbians a place to live their lives openly and without fear. And gays were quick to inform straights who came into those areas that this was Our space, not theirs.

Now these spaces were never Paradise, particularly if you were a person of color: they were and remain overwhelmingly white. But for the most part we understand how to navigate a majority white world (having had to do that all our lives anyway). The chance to be with others like ourselves, to hold our boy or girl friends hand in the streets, was (and is) worth putting up with some racial crap.

It seems to me that The Village and other spaces like this still hold that promise of freedom for many young LGBTQs, and for same gender loving people of color as well. We flock to these areas because they are our spaces too. We also want to breathe the air of these cities created by our LGBTQ foreparents, as a way to thank them for creating them, enjoy what they fought for, and to keep the space open for those who come after us. The kind of disrespect and herding of that mainly young, mainly minority, crowd on Pride Day Sunday flies in the face of that idea of freedom. The City of New York, and organizers of NYC Pride, should be ashamed of themselves for what they did to this huge segment of our population.

@ Folsom East

The big post-Pride news has been about coming out, with Anderson Cooper leaving his 'glass closet,' and singer Frank Ocean revealing that one of his first loves was another man. For some (particularly here in New York where its standard to adopt an  "Everybody Knew" attitude, Cooper's admission was no big deal. But I thought his statement, particularly this section, was very good:

It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something - something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.
I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible. There continue to be far too many incidences of bullying of young people, as well as discrimination and violence against people of all ages, based on their sexual orientation, and I believe there is value in making clear where I stand.

The fact is, I'm gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.

I have always been very open and honest about this part of my life with my friends, my family, and my colleagues. In a perfect world, I don't think it's anyone else's business, but I do think there is value in standing up and being counted. 

In large part, this is the way most of us live our lives, I think. We're 'out' to those we are close to and need to be honest with, and its none of anyone else's business. Pride gatherings do allow us to add our number to the thousands of others like ourselves, show support, and cavort in the streets for a while. Then we go back to work and the ordinariness of our lives the next day. 

Frank Ocean's 'coming out' is something different, more complicated. My reading of his statement indicates that Frank has 'come out' as possibly bisexual, not 'Gay' in the way we now take such admissions to indicate which side we are on in the 'never the twain shall meet' camps of either One Thing or The Other. I was an remain very moved by his revealing that he fell in love with another man when he was 19, and that while something physical may or may not have happened, his feelings were not reciprocated by the other man, and that he couldn't tell Ocean that he felt the same way until three years later. That kind of heartbreak is something most if not all of us have been through, particularly as teenagers.

Frank Ocean - who, I'll admit, I'd never even heard of before his statement broke - is to be commended for his honesty, and for being so brave to admit his vulnerability. And for writing and performing songs where he does not change the gender of his love object, as so many closeted performers have done in the past. One would hope his honesty, and the increasing discussion of the centrality of same-gender-loving people to black music (cf. Anthony Heilbrun "It is impossible to understand the story of black America without foregrounding the experiences of the gay men of gospel") will lead to greater openness by others, and a sea change in the music business. But it is WAY to early to tell about that.

Quick aside relating Ocean and Heilbrun - looking at the lyrics of "Bad Religion" it's easy to see the lines "I could never make him love me"  and It's a bad religion / To be in love with someone / Who could never love you not only as relating to the man he fell in love with, but also to a God who rejects who you really are. Millennium approaches?

But then, for some "Gay Pride" isn't what it used to be, anyway. As reporter Steven Thrasher wrote in a long article in the Pride issue of The Village Voice, Does Gay Inc Believe in Free Speech?, our current large scale Gay Rights Organizations ("Gay Inc) are more interested in remaining connected to corporations than the interests of the 'average' LGBTQ person. And the drive for liberation and freedom of expression for all peoples - gay, bi, straight, 'fluid', 'don't like labels', etc - has given way to the hazy notion of 'tolerance.'  Rather than being seen as threatening, in the current climate we are just another consumer group to be catered to (Target notwithstanding - for now), as Kraft and its "Gay Oreo" knows quite well. That wasn't quite what I was hoping for, back in my youthful days of Marching on Washington. I still have a much broader vision of the future we should be working toward.

"Never once did Martin Luther King Jr. use the word tolerance in his speeches, says Slavoj Žižek. "For him (and he was right) it would have been an obscenity to say white people should learn to tolerate us more." The goal of the Civil Rights Movement was not simply appealing to liberal magnanimity, but demanding equity, including economic equity. Tolerance is a request that represents a retreat from that ambitious vision. When King marched on Washington D.C., he didn't say, "learn to live with us." He said, "We're here to cash a check":

One hundred years [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check
Rainbow over the closing of Queens Pride