Pride is still vital because the fight for gay rights and acceptance is far from over, says Stephen Meyler.
It’s that Pride time of year again, and once again lots of people will be asking what it’s all for? Not least, all those straight people who, predictably as ever, will question the need for gay pride. ‘We’ don’t have straight pride after all.
Of course, what’s important is what gay people think Pride is for. The by now traditional arguments – the complicity of corporate sponsorship; who will be there to bore the crowd at the end of the parade with politics; should assless chaps and tits-out lesbians be encouraged – are comforting. The city centre filled with tipsy gays on a Saturday afternoon in June is comforting. The poetry jams, theatre workshops, independent film clubs and céilís are comforting. They confirm that Pride is still about a diverse community, the rainbow nation of ‘not-straight’ making public space our own by sheer numbers, and by all walking in the same direction for an hour or two.
Is comfort enough, though? The extension of legal protections to gay people in Ireland has been a fast and radical change, with the majority largely persuaded that the changes are inherently right. That is definitely something to be proud of and to celebrate this month. We should also be proud of the Irish people – few enough of them, but their numbers are growing – who are out and proud public gay voices. More than that, they show us all – gay, straight, whatever – that being gay is just one component of what makes a healthy society. Panti/Rory O’Neill, Senator Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, Dónal Óg Cusack, Aengus McGrianna, any number of TDs, councillors and now mayors, are all people to be proud of.
The Right Direction
Add to them the less public figures – teachers in particular, risking their careers by being honest about their sexuality – who nonetheless perform small, intensely brave acts of disclosure every day. These small things are what encourages Irish society in the right direction, making it normal to tolerate, celebrate or be indifferent to gay citizens.
We should also be proud of the groups who still campaign, in particular the energetic, creative folks out to make sure we win the gay marriage referendum.
And yet, look closely at the reasons we may not be doing Pride. The number one cop-out, and the most infuriating, is what you can call the integrationist argument. These gays (and they are largely gay men) argue that while they are grateful for the bravery, campaigning and direct action of previous generations, the fact that most of the freedoms and rights those people demanded have now been achieved, means that Pride is now a bit pointless and anachronistic. In fact, they argue that Pride creates an image of gays as one-dimensional creatures, defined only by their sexuality.
Pride From The Sidelines
There’s a feeling among many gays that the outstanding issues – gay marriage, rooting out religious prejudice in employment, even the distressing and dangerous to all return of HIV as a gay disease – can be easily fixed without comfortable gays engaging too much. The integrationist no longer defines himself by his sexuality, so why should he parade with people (assless chaps and tits-out lesbians) who do?
The integrationist’s natural urge is to be just like his straight neighbours, co-workers, the people he went to school with. He doesn’t want to be a one-man engine for social change. It’s not surprising, as being a ‘Gay’, a representative of a whole group of people that you may only have sexual orientation in common with, must be exhausting. Now that it’s no longer as necessary to be an activist, many gays prefer to watch Pride from the sidelines or ignore that it’s taking place at all.
How do you convince them that Pride is still vital, that the fight for gay rights and acceptance is far from over? In the past, gays risked a lot by taking to the streets to protest against legal prejudice, hostility and hate crimes. Hate crimes are still happening all around us, but now many of us have the luxury of a comfortable bubble from which we can objectively view these incidents, happening to someone else. We expect the professional gays to make a few indignant statements in sympathetic media, and the Gardaí to respond in the acceptable manner, and we all get on with our lives.
Similarly with HIV. It should be frightening to all of us that gay men are once again topping the charts of new infections. Yes, the drugs are wonderful, but it’s still an incurable disease, something that the one in ten gay men who only bareback don’t care about. It’s not just their well-being that’s at risk either – how easily could the integrationist project come off the rails if – in the face of gay indifference – that old plague discourse re-emerges? We can’t rest on our laurels yet, the gay project isn’t over and that is why I’ll be doing Pride this year.
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