Protest not profit: is Pride still relevant?
Pride forms a standard part of the gay political calendar. It is the one day in the year queers take the over the streets, asserting ourselves and our sexuality. I have attended many prides in my life, and recently I have realised how formulaic they have become -- a parade through the streets followed by some sort of part. This formula has been criticised by many as being too commercialised and completely de-politicised.
Traveling to Glasgow from Edinburgh with my dad and my parter Martyn we could feel the vibe the moment we arrived the city. Rainbows seem to be hovering over Glasgow, with major businesses, churches and public buildings all getting in the spirit. The sun was out and people were already cheering and blowing their vuvuzelas as they headed to the event. The city had a festive mood.
We started the day by going to the main Pride March. The march starts and ends at Green Square, right next to the River Clyde. It is here where the controversy over Glasgow Pride sits as well. After the march revellers are corralled back in to the park to attend the afternoons festivities — a family fair day in the middle of the park. In recent years however Pride organisers have started to charge for this part of the event — £5 last year, and £10 this year. It is this fee that lead to the creation of Free Pride Glasgow.
It is worth here discussing some of the criticisms of modern pride events. From its very beginnings Pride has been the pinnacle of the politicisation of queer identity. “We’re here, we’re queer and we’re proud” was the calling of a movement — an assertion that we will get on the streets to fight for our gender and sexual freedom.
Yet, many feel this has been lost. Pride’s become more of a celebration, and a chance for major corporations to make a profit. That’s a problem. While middle class gays and lesbians have much better lives now, trans* people still die in the streets, young queers face huge mental health issues and our society has not turned away from many of the gender and sexual norms that define our lives. Poverty is still a major issue, making many of our wins often feel irrelevant. There is still much to do.
I can feel this problem from the moment I arrive. Glasgow Pride is huge, with thousands gathering in the park and creating an extremely festive mood. Yet, I immediately notice little under that festivity. Most of the larger floats were operated by huge corporations — Tesco, Sainburys, The Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays and Nandos, amongst others. These floats, by their nature, are more interested in selling products that advancing LGBTIQ causes. Staff hand out branded rainbow flags, free products and stickers — the whole event being a mass opportunity for free advertising.
Yet, the disconnect goes well beyond that. As I march alongside the thousands of revellers I begin to realise that is what we have become — revellers. Trucks blast classic ‘gay’ pop hits, with marchers either dancing along side or walking in virtual silence. There was no chanting, no slogans, no feeling of a need to fight at all. It was very polite.
The epitome of this culture comes back to the afternoons festivities. After a short period of disturbing the peace we were sent into a park on the edge of the city , away from the prying eyes of the public. This event was designed to be ‘family friendly’, a whole lot of fun and very little else. The message felt clear -- our fights are over, the party can begin.
We however decided not go to that event and wandered instead to Free Pride Glasgow. Free Pride Glasgow was established as a direct response to the main pride charging for entry to their event, and in turn became a critique of the direction of the pride movement as a whole. A collective came together to design an event that was not only free, but political as well.
The event started at two but after a drink in the city my dad, Martyn and I didn’t make it there until about four. It was held in the rooms of the Glasgow School of Art Students Association, and from the moment you arrive you can feel the difference.
The event was split into a few different rooms — one for performances and stalls and another for talks and discussions. We stationed ourselves in the performance room, sitting on the hard wooden floor and listening to the poetry and music that ran through the day.
In almost every way this event lacked the professionalism of the main pride festivities. The banners and signs (as above) were hand made, the stalls sitting on old fold out tables, the performers, who I’m assuming were not paid for their attendance, getting up and introducing themselves as they progressed through the day. While this may not sound like a good way to run the day to me it was extremely refreshing.
In a recent essay on sex and capitalism I noted that one of the major arguments by capitalist theorists is that the economic freedom provided by capitalism allows for a unique form of identity expression as well. Capitalism, it is argued, gives us the space to express ourselves how we want, and it creates the drive for corporations to sponsor equality as a way to boost their own brand.
Yet, in attending pride I noticed how this argument falls flat. In a system based not only on the needs of profit, but also on the needs of the nuclear family, the form of expression is very restricted — pride events must be professional and ‘family friendly’ as a way to ensure it fits in line with our mainstream cultural practices. More importantly than this Pride events must be reject the radicalisation of previous parts of the movement — a radicalisation that threatens the state and capitalist class, but more importantly the business sponsors who “allow the event to happen”. This is why we see large corporate trucks blasting pop music and not a single chant in sight, and why we've seen pride organisers criticise what they consider to be the 'extremist' parts of the LGBTIQ community.
This is where Free Pride Glasgow was different. While mainstream pride is advertised as a way for queers to come out and show pride in their identity, it was in the alternative event where I felt this was more of reality. Free Pride felt to me far more authentic, primarily as it did not allow money to dictate how it should look. Each action, each moment, each expression felt spontaneous. People were enjoying the space in the way they wanted to, rather than in the way they felt they had to.
However there is an issue here. While Free Pride to me felt far more authentic there was still something missing. This, I believe goes to heart of the problem with pride itself. While the process of coming out and being proud has clearly had a positive impact on queer rights, as a political statement this is not sufficient. Coming out and being proud is still in some ways a privileged thing to do, one that taps in to a capitalist idea that equality is solely about the ability to express who you want to be as an individual. I say this as someone who has done some pretty public 'coming outs' of my own.
Yet coming out is not sufficient as it misses the notion of community. It makes equality all about the individual, rather than the collective whole. This is how we see rights debates split into different identity groups (gay, lesbian, bi, trans* etc.) with little critical discussion of gender and sexual oppression as a whole.
Here is where I believe that while Glasgow Free Pride made a great start, it also highlighted how much more we have to do. Whilst the day was an important political critique, it was also one still heavily embedded in this form of identity politics. The politics was focused around creating a ‘safe space’, while the talks were almost exclusively focused on the rights of particular marginalised groups — asexuals, bisexuals, trans* people, sex workers etc. Whilst these groups clearly deserve and need this space, at the same time more overarching discussion is still needed. The event, while being a much safer space, in many ways maintained a LGBTIQ rights agenda that took an individualised approach to equality, whilst not looking at gender and sexual liberation as a whole.
This is not an attack on the organisers of Free Pride, but rather a reflection on the nature of our movement. Battered by years of debate on gay marriage the LGBTIQ movement has found itself caught in a very liberal rights agenda. This is why we see so many in the mainstream turning to celebration. Their rights have been won, so why would we need to continue to fight? Let's "be happy" (the slogan of this year's main pride).
Free Pride was different however in that it didn't accept this. And for that reason alone it felt like a significant step up from the mainstream event. However, just like the rest of us, I don't think it has found the answers just yet. But in asking the question it made an important first step. In doing so I hope Free Pride moves well beyond the confines of just this one event.