Last year I applied to write an article for the Cork Pride Brochure and my idea was accepted and I was asked to write the piece. However, after I submitted the article on the agreed deadline I was informed that I had ‘missed’ the deadline (I had not – emails don’t lie). Set up a meeting with the head of the Pride Committee only to be informed that my criticism of corporate pink-washing of LGBTQ+ celebration of the Stonewall Riots, was unwelcome and even detrimental. See what you, a fine (and intelligent) person thinks:
Riots to Rites: From Stonewall to Assimilation By Paul J. Frewen (2017)
In the early hours of the morning of 28th June 1969, the Stonewall Inn, a queer bar in Greenwich Village New York that was a haven for trans people, queers and homeless LGBTQ youths, was raided by police. Patrons inside were humiliated, sexually assaulted and beaten with batons. Scuffles broke out between black trans customers and the police. Reputedly, when a woman, Storme DeLarverie, was handcuffed and hit with a baton across the head she turned to the assembling crowd and pleaded ‘Why don’t you guys do something?’ And do something they did.
The crowd of ejected customers started throwing coins, bottles, and rocks forcing the police back into the bar and allowing those who had been arrested to escape. Word spread through the Village and New York City. Hundreds of LGBTQ people descended on the area. Running battles between the rioters and police ensued with the police being pushed back. The following five nights the LGBTQ community returned, their numbers swelled as word had spread: enough was enough, it was time to organise and fight back.
Though the Stonewall Riots were not the first time the LGBTQ community retaliated against anti-queer violence, it did spark the beginning of the LGBTQ liberation movement and is commemorated at Pride every year.
In the direct aftermath of Stonewall, the radical anti-capitalist Gay Liberation Front formed and sought sexual liberation for all people and the abolition of what they saw as damaging social practices and institutions like marriage, the nuclear family, and the repressive impacts of gender roles. Marriage in particular was seen as akin to a burning building, and one that queers should be fanning the flames of and not banging on the door demanding entry.
That was 48 years ago, so what has changed? How did a movement started by anti-police riots and focusing on liberation for all from exclusionary social institutions, come to focus on and demand access to those very same institutions not 50 Prides later?
Along the way, the gay rights movement increasingly focused on achieving equality through gaining access to the mainstream of society, placing a heavy emphasis on goals like overcoming bans on joining the military and same-sex marriage. These came to take precedence over more radical demands for social, economic and sexual liberation which had helped spark the movements before, during and after Stonewall.
While marriage equality provides benefits- both real and symbolic- to queer families and communities, the singular campaigning focus in Ireland and elsewhere on realising ‘equality’ through expanding access to marriage also embraces the coercive and damaging power of marriage as the new expectation, normalising and legitimising the institution as the standard against which all other forms of relationship should be measured against.
During the Marriage Equality Referendum campaign two years ago, both Yes and No sides both agreed that marriage does and should occupy a central and privileged place in the hierarchy of relationship forms, that the State should continue to play a key role in sanctioning and sanctifying people’s relationships, and that rights should be accorded on the basis of conforming to marital relationships.
But what about those who are still excluded? Marriage equality does little for straight or LGBTQ individuals for those who are polyamorous, who remain single and for those who do not wish to involve the Irish State in their own personal sexual lives. The drive for marriage equality meant buttressing the power of traditional marriage, not challenging it.
Marriage is now the expected norm for LGBTQ youth, their peers and their straight friends and family. Where once we were ‘outsiders’ that saw the real systemic problems with social institutions like marriage, now the gay rights movement have become the ‘insiders’, happily veiling the problems that have long existed with marriage. Flicking through last year’s edition of the Cork Pride magazine, adverts for marriage whose form and content mimicked the traditional heterosexual marriage were omnipresent. Let’s be honest- we didn’t queer the institution of marriage, it straightened us.
If the radical, militant spirit of the Stonewall riots and their demands for genuine liberation exist anywhere today it is with our marginalised brethren, be they trans, bi, queer people of colour, those with disabilities, and those practicing alternative relationship forms. They have been pushed to the back not just in society broadly but also by mainstream gay rights movements. Ireland today has the second highest rates of violence against trans people in the entire EU, and overall high rates of LGBTQ suicide, depression and homelessness.
Yet, mental health, outreach, housing and homeless services remain poorly resourced and unable to meet our needs, and our queer community spaces, whether bars, clubs and outreach groups are closing at an alarming rate. It is still those who are most at risk and vulnerable who are in most need of well-funded public services that pay the ultimate price.
But while so much remains to be fought for, for many of us it feels as if we’ve lost sight of the idea of Pride as protest, as the place and time for radical, ambitious, determined and inclusive demands. Our parade, like those in so many other places, is now led and dominated not by queer voices and faces but by multi-billion euro global corporations from Silicon Valley and beyond. In the words of Shon Faye, us queers have become ‘capitalism’s sassy best friends’. As we’ve become more marketable, the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Absolut Vodka and Nando’s have been courted as important ‘allies’ in the fight for ‘equality’, taking leading roles in our Pride parades. But has the price paid been worth it?
It is those that march at the back of the Pride parade, behind the corporations and their thinly-veiled marketing campaigns that represent for me the true meaning of Pride: the enduring struggle for liberation, solidarity, community and love. It is those pushed to the back (again) that still strive for what Pride once did and maybe can again embody: a protest, a declaration, a demand for a transformed, liberated and truly equal world.