The Persistent Power of Pride? Looking ‘past’ 2020

BY Phillip Ayoub, Douglas Page, and Sam Whitt

Do prides still yield the transformative potential to change society? This month’s Prides, and their cancelation in 2020, invite us to reflect on their contemporary purpose, and return to the ethos of their past.

“Maybe it’s not so bad that Pride is canceled … After all, the silence allows us to stop, reflect, and ask ‘What exactly is Pride?’” – Historian Eric Cervini

Part 1 – Loss and Renewal

Pride month is here. The year 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. Normally, we would expect such an occasion to be marked by unrivaled jubilation and pageantry, but last year’s commemorations were upended by the onslaught of Covid-19. The isolation that has defined pandemic life made for an unfitting anniversary of a celebration predicated on visibility and entry into public life. Indeed, the first Pride demonstration in 1970 ushered in a new generation of L.G.B.T.Q. activism, called Gay Liberation, defined by its visibility and the notion that “coming out” and “coming into the streets” would transform the lived experience of queer people, as well as the lives of those around them. The losses of the Covid Era provide an opportunity to renew and reevaluate the meaning of Pride in the face of ongoing societal struggles for change.

[Emergence of Prides]

Led largely by drag queens, trans and gender non-conforming folks and homeless youth, the Pride innovation spread to multiple countries with thousands of new queer organizations emerging in the decade that followed. Within a few short years, several pioneering activist groups emerged: the Gay Liberation Front in the United Kingdom, the Front Homosexual d’action Révolutionnaire in France, and FUORI! in Italy, just to name a few. Today, similar events take place around the world to generate visibility and demand rights for the groups they represent. While local activists are conscientious about grafting the event to local contexts (e.g., Prides take on different names, such as “Equality Marches” in Poland), they typically connect back to the original intent of the New York City Pride. In Germany, they are called “Christopher Street Days”, in homage to the street where the Stonewall Inn is located. Despite their different manifestations, Prides have become an enduring fixture of L.G.B.T.Q. visibility, identity, and community.

[Enduring Legacies of Pride – Recognition, Rights and Acceptance]

A half-century since the first Pride, the world looks markedly different in many ways and the same in many other ways for queer people. Many parts of society celebrate L.G.B.T.Q. people, especially in the creative spaces that they have long helped to define. Almost unthinkable even five years ago, openly-gay presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg emerged in 2020 as a serious contender. Also, actor Elliot Page came out as transgender and aspires to roles that center transgender identity. Yet in most corners of the globe, the struggle for rights, recognition and acceptance is ongoing. Most L.G.B.T.Q. people globally are represented by governments that fail to protect (or actively discriminate against)them. Reflecting on Pride’s significance today, do L.G.B.T.Q. people living in intolerant environments still look to Pride as a source of inspiration and a call to action? How do their struggles resonate with the legacy and continued significance of Pride? 

[Pride’s Other Legacy – A reminder that the struggle continues]

The recognizability and celebratory nature of today’s Pride events rests on the struggle past marchers endured amid state hostility. Dangers associated with being ‘out’ still exist in many parts of the world, and early Prides offer one path toward visibility if mobilized in an indigenous and demonstrative way. Perhaps, in the wake of COVID-19’s ravaging toll on people of all walks of life, and disproportionately the L.G.B.T.Q community, the interruption of the past year’s Pride celebrations, and the mainstreaming most commonly associated with them, offers a chance to reset and reconsider the meaning of Pride activism at its roots.

Part 2 [The Current Debate]: Is Pride a Victim of its Own Success?

There is an ongoing debate on the meaning and significance of Pride among activists and within the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Between being a necessary and defining element of social justice activism, or an anachronistic relic of times past, Pride has competing meanings moving forward. In some contexts, Pride marches have become celebratory, often criticized for their corporate orientation and diminished political fervor. According to New York Times reporter Corey Kilgannon, a segment of the L.G.B.T.Q. community complains “that the event has evolved from a political protest into a bloated parade — a frivolous party that is overregulated and too commercial.” In other contexts, they remain deeply political performances that come with serious risks to participants.

For others, like political scientist Conor O’Dwyer, Prides exemplify L.G.B.T.Q. activism, defining “the movement both to itself and to broader society: they attract attention to the cause; they generate discussion; and they articulate identities and represent interests”. Proponents of Prides portray them “front and center” as the most visible displays of mobilization that allow people to live out their sexual and gender identities more than before. They respond to opponent groups, capture hearts and minds, and mobilize sustained participation.

Yet, the sceptics are concerned that Prides might also lead to resentment or backlash towards queer people in socially conservative societies. The prevalence of homophobia and nationalism in many societies offers conservative political movements opportunities to build social support by rallying against L.G.B.T.Q. activists. Contemporary Prides may also center the most privileged and idealized L.G.B.T.Q. people: those that can assimilate are celebrated, but those that cannot remain invisible and unacceptable. The commercialized nature of many contemporary Prides plays a role in such depoliticization, making Prides less accessible to those on the margins. Research has found that Prides may ignore the intersectional nature of the cause, and the very essence and radical fervor of the Gay Liberation Movements that initiated Pride, by privileging white, male, and middle to upper class members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community. In sum, some observers see Prides as a necessary vehicle for rights and others view them as locally insensitive, exclusive and capable of provoking increased violence toward local, marginalized L.G.B.T.Q. people.

Part 3 [New Frontiers: The Ongoing Transformative Power of a “First Pride”] 

Until now, no study has gauged the L.G.B.T.Q. community’s response to the Pride Parades held within societies with high levels of homophobia, transphobia, and L.G.B.T.Q. invisibility.  We also lack systematic research about how Pride activism is diffused across locations to new locales especially those outside of the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. Though, we cannot go back in time to capture the energy, enthusiasm and potential peril of those “first Prides”, we can find echoes of Prides past in ongoing struggles around the world, where Pride is an ongoing struggle for recognition, rights, and awareness.

Our article in the American Political Science Review highlights the radical potential of Pride activism using the 2019 Bosnia and Herzegovina Pride held in Sarajevo as a case study. We studied how the event impacted local attitudes about the L.G.B.T.Q community. We conducted polls before and after the event that gauged attitudes toward L.G.B.T.Q. people. This was a crucial case, because Bosnia was the last country in Europe to hold a Pride event. It represents a conservative, post-conflict society with heightened ethnic nationalism, and correspondingly low levels of L.G.B.T.Q. support. As is common in many conservative environments, counter-protesters devoted to “traditional values” organized protests during the September 8, 2019 Pride march. Therefore, Sarajevo’s the Pride was a conscious act of resistance, not merely a float-filled, sponsored celebration.

Ideally, Pride would boost the social tolerance of L.G.B.T.Q. communities, consistent with research on the “contact hypothesis”, which posits that direct or indirect interactions with outgroups lead to more favorable attitudes. However, some activists feared Pride’s visibility might also generate a violent backlash against L.G.B.T.Q. people. In our paper, we drew on arguments of both Pride optimists and skeptics to theorize that Pride induces multiple effects and work and travel differently across geography and social group.

[A major milestone in an ongoing struggle]

We found clear evidence of progress but also continued struggle. There was a marked decline in homophobic attitudes after Pride, but only in its immediate surroundings in the city of Sarajevo. Throughout the rest of the country, opinions remained unmoved. Hence, the community where advocates organized Pride saw the positive effect. And that is key. Opportunity to build at least localized support and awareness returns to the roots of this protest innovation. A localized effect may not be ideal, because many L.G.B.T.Q. people at high risk live outside of more tolerant metropolitan environments, but Pride marches in conservative countries can build awareness and acceptance within the communities where they march. 

[An End to Isolation]

Pride is not just a “show” for the outside world. Pride has value not only for building bridges to the local public but also within the L.G.B.T.Q. community itself. This is especially true of contexts where L.G.B.T.Q people are often isolated from one another and Pride offers an opportunity for the community to gather. In our interviews with Bosnian activists, they noted how Pride brought some L.G.B.T.Q. people together, with far-reaching effects in terms of empowerment, bonding and social cohesion. One activist explained to us, “We received a lot of messages from L.G.B.T.Q. people from smaller communities and towns, saying that Pride gave them hope to carry on. I think that empowerment is most important”. Indeed, L.G.B.T.Q. individuals rarely have the benefit of parents passing down and teaching their community’s history. Thus, Pride marches can play a role in identity development, through politicizing identities.  In effect, they make  visiblethe issues that disproportionately affect the L.G.B.T.Q. community and produce self-efficacious citizens.

Our research shows that localized, bottom-up L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy offers the greatest potential to produce transformational events. It also gives participants the opportunity to feel part of a group and raises feelings of social esteem. The first Prides embodied this message which continues to resonate in activist communities in the early stages of struggles for rights and recognition.

[New Horizons in Pride Activism]

These findings should be encouraging for organizers working in conservative societies, because localized Prides, even if small, may bring about positive changes. Even in rural, conservative America, there are challenges as well as opportunities for L.G.B.T.Q. activism that are often overshadowed by highly visible Pride events in more socially tolerant metropolitan areas. In a nationally representative opinion poll we conducted in October 2020, 28% of respondents, and nearly 1 in 3 rural Americans, indicated that homosexuality should not be accepted by society. That number rises to nearly 40% among Republicans, ideological conservatives, and Evangelical Christians. Our research suggests that the new frontier in L.G.B.T.Q. activism involves raising awareness and support in these more challenging environments. Early Prides, getting back to events roots, still have a role to play in rural America as well. 

[The Work Ahead]

In an era where Pride was canceled in most places, or held on virtual platforms absent the interactions that have shaped the experience of Pride in the past, it is important to reflect on its future. Is it a relic of the past? Our research suggests far from it. The work of activism like Pride is, as it has always been, a necessary struggle. Pride continues to hold a role in transformative social change, even in socially conservative pockets of this country and around the globe. At the same time, the cancellations forced by the pandemic might encourage us to embrace the mantra of “Build Back Better” by addressing the hard questions that remain in fulfilling this vision of a more inclusive and just society. For example, what does the presence of uniformed police signal to supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement – and the many communities of color that helped lead the original Pride march but whose contemporary issues are often relegated to the sidelines of Pride? Here a bit of nostalgia may be informative for the future. The solidarity many Pride organizers took with movements for racial justice are fully in line with the ethos of the first Pride, which commemorated a riot against police brutality. Indeed, Pride’s most powerful effects are there where it is most needed and where its form goes back to its earliest roots: the more local,  more radical, more inclusive, less top-down, less commercial march that facilitated important change in the world. Our research shows that these fundamentals of Pride still deliver gains. We need to be sure not to lose sight of this formula. For 2021 and the years that follow, that may mean fewer Google floatsand more intersectional demonstrations alongside protests for social justice. In commemorating Pride’s past amid the tragic pain and losses of 2020, let us find clarity and inspiration from those still fighting for L.G.B.T.Q. people, to return to the radical potential of Pride’s roots and build on its promise for the years to come.

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