Monday, June 6, 2011

The True Meaning of LGBT Pride

It's the month of June, which means LGBT Pride will be celebrated in many different localities throughout the country. For Mormons in general, and gay Mormons in particular, this prospect arouses emotions that run the gamut from fear and loathing to anticipation and joy... Depending, of course, on your perspective.

A few years ago I attended Church with my parents in Springville, Utah. It just so happened the Sunday I was there, during Sunday School a member decided to report on what he had recently witnessed at the San Francisco Pride parade. He told a lurid story about public nudity and sex. Of course the point of his story was to reinforce the trope we've all heard about homosexuality being evil and satanically inspired, and gay pride being a sign of public wickedness that precedes the end times, and gay rights activists being the kind of people who call black white and who call evil good, etc.

What was interesting to me was how my parents reacted. After Sunday School was over, my dad specifically mentioned to me this guy's description of two guys engaging in public sex at the Pride Parade. Of course Dad thought the public sex was terribly inappropriate. But he basically said that these are the kinds of behavior that people engage in when they feel utterly rejected and unloved by their family and their church, and when they have unhealthily low self-esteem. Dad felt certain that if the young men who had been engaging in this act had felt the love and support of family and church friends, had they been encouraged to see their sexuality as an aspect of the wholeness of who they are, they would never have engaged in this kind of shocking public display. He understood it as an act that came from a certain kind of rejection, and the desperation that rejection inspires.

Dad saw with crystal clarity how moral behavior exists in a contextual framework. More importantly, he wasn't about to let someone quote a few isolated, unhealthy acts out of context for the purpose of issuing a blanket condemnation of all gay people, all gay relationships, and the entire gay community. It was so cool to me that my dad so totally got that on his own. Actually, both my parents completely understood what was going on, and both of them found appropriate ways to immediately reassure me of their unconditional love and of their understanding and support.

As a postscript to that incident... I also understood that the person who told this very lurid San Francisco Gay Pride story was not necessarily a bad person. He certainly had witnessed some shocking behavior. The problem was, he had no context for interpreting it. My parents had a context for interpreting his experience that he didn't have: their experience with me, their gay son. Because we understood the context of this man's story, AND we also understood the context of his reaction, we were able to react in a way that was not defensive. Frankly, I was also assisted in my reaction to this situation by the reassuring, comforting, calming presence of the Spirit.

When this man told his story, instead of getting up and walking out of the room -- which I felt a strong desire to do! -- I stayed. I continued to attend the rest of the meetings at church with my parents, including a priesthood lesson taught by the same man who had recounted this episode. It was a good priesthood lesson, and I realized this man had many positive qualities, and I said so to my dad afterwards. That provided a context for my dad later to speak to this man about me -- about his gay son -- in a way that might help him have a different context for his understanding of homosexuality. And dad was able to do this in a way that was loving, non-confrontational, not defensive, and more likely to reach and touch this good but uninformed man.

Yes, there is stuff that goes on at Pride that is reflective of spiritual brokenness, and that is not positive or functional. I have often felt ambivalent about Gay Pride, less because of nudity/semi-nudity and emphasis on sex (which actually is increasingly rare), and more because of the commercialism and materialism (which seems to be a bigger and bigger thing lately). I stopped attending the block parties many, many years go (long before I became active in the Church again) because I'm uncomfortable around large groups of people, especially when numbers of them have been overindulging in alcohol. Lately, I also hate that Twin Cities Pride conflicts with Church. I would like not to have to choose between attending Church and participating in Pride. For me both acts express an important part of who I am and what I believe in. But that's another story.

There are aspects of Pride that I do participate in and that I believe in. The basic idea of Pride itself is about promoting healthy self-acceptance that enables us to live up to our full potential. Overall, the parade and festival are an opportunity for religious, social, civic and service groups to come out and celebrate the diversity of the community, and the elements of the community that make us stronger. Of course we can and should participate in the stuff that is reflective of the best values, and pass over the other stuff.

A gay LDS friend recently emailed me and shared a story on this count, a portion of which is worth sharing here:

I [had volunteered to help out with Pride and] was involved in cleanup and take down of tents, railings, etc. of the festival site... We worked long hours and weren't done until near midnight. There was a retired couple, husband and wife in their 60s, working along side us. They had traveled several hundred miles to volunteer to support their daughter who is a lesbian. They worked cheerfully right until the end. It was a privilege for me to be there, in an atmosphere of cooperation, tolerance, and unconditional love. I had a very good feeling, tired tho I and most of us were. Are gay people the new "Samaritans" of our time... to be looked down upon, despised and derided? Or are they people with needs and hopes just like anyone else, who can and should be supported to help them improve their lives?

As a gay guy... who is striving to rebuild his spirituality after thinking he had to abandon it, experiences like that BUILD me, not the opposite. I live in a rural area with few LDS and even fewer functional LGBT people. I feel a healthy emotional/social/spiritual lift from being part of this... the part that is RIGHT for ME. It helps take away the cravings and feeling so alone, and wanting to act out in ways that are harmful to me. I've had numerous discussions with my bishop about my homosexuality. He was quite concerned when I told him I was doing volunteer work for Pride. His attitude noticeably softened when I related the above experience to him.

I was really moved by this friend's account of LGBT Pride, which reminded me that we have the power to make Pride a positive thing if we want, by getting involved in constructive ways, and reinforcing the values that mean the most to us. The best way we can celebrate Pride is to do what we can to make it reflective of us, of our pride and our values and our love for one another.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a fellow local gay Mormon, and we were wondering if we shouldn't try to organize a Pride contingent of active Mormons -- both gay and straight. Why couldn't we march together and find some way to make it our own unique statement of love for others, and of our commitment to the Gospel?

Anyone else game?


Neal said...

No matter what good intentions may have been at the root of Pride, the net effect is that straight people everywhere are shocked and offended by many of the activities that happen at these events. If the LGBT community wants acceptance, equal rights, respect and support, this is about the worst activity imaginable one could participate in. The pictures of floats filled with supportive parents of gays are not what get plastered all over the media. Pride only serves to broaden the gulf between gays and straights and reinforces the prejudices and misperceptions the LGBT community would love to eliminate.

J G-W said...

Neal, have you ever been to Pride? If so, where? I'm curious to hear what your experiences have been with it.

Neal said...

No. But I worked in Seattle for 3 years in Public Health, and my office was in the same department as the AIDS/STD prevention folks. So lets just say I was exposed to a LOT of Pride materials during my tenure there.

And to be clear, I have no desire to go. I don't want to participate in something that portrays gay people as lewd, godless circus clowns. I don't think that's the way you change public perception and/or policy on LGBT issues.

J G-W said...

Neal, I'm not sure I share your totally negative evaluation of the impact of Pride.

At one point, early in my coming out process, I got a lot out of Pride. At the time, a lot of folks in the gay community were concerned about the stereotypical images that were broadcast by media that they felt hurt the GLBT rights cause. I've often felt conflicted about some of the negative elements of Pride. Yet I realized -- for myself -- that even if Pride offended straight people, it still had value as a venue to help gay people feel good about themselves.

Whatever you think about the impact of Pride, it is unarguable that in the 20 years that have elapsed since I first started attending Pride, support among straight Americans for gay rights has steadily increased to the point where, now, a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage.

Has LGBT Pride played a role in changing those opinions? I would argue that even if the parade itself turns off a significant number of Americans, I would say that an empowered, self-respecting GLBT community has been able to persuade a majority of Americans that we deserve an equal stake in society. And LGBT Pride celebrations have played at least an indirect role in the empowerment and self-respect the LGBT community has needed to combat stereotypical attitudes and discrimination.

By the way, the media have also significantly changed their coverage of the event in those same 20 years. Yes, actually, the media are much better at covering groups like PFLAG or the gay religious and service organizations, and portraying just ordinary people who participate in the parade in a positive way...

Also, I hear many more accounts of straight people who attend Pride and have positive experiences, much like the one described in the email I quoted in my post...

C. L. Hanson said...

I beg to differ with Neal. I'm a (straight) mom, and I went to the local gay pride parade a couple years ago with my son, and the whole thing was extremely fun and positive. Here are the pictures I took. (Actually, the central image of my masthead is my son at the pride parade, smiling with a bunch of balloons marked "Your rights are my rights".)

I wouldn't say it makes gay people look like clowns -- sure there are costumes, but it was more like fun street theater. A few costumes were revealing, but it really wasn't lewd. One of the floats even had kids on it (but the gay dad was watching the crowd like a hawk, and blocked the view with his flag whenever anyone tried to take their picture). They had a huge international turn-out (it was "EuroPride"), and IMHO it was very positive visibility for the gay community.

Honestly, I was a little surprised by your remark about turning it into something positive (isn't it already positive? isn't that the whole point?).

I'm also a little surprised by the report of people publicly having sex. For balance, I'll tell you that I've not seen or heard of people having sex in public at gay pride, but I have heard reports of straight people having public sex during public carnivals and festivals...

Heidi G. aka Mom said...

I live in Houston and our pride parade is at night. It's very much a family affair, with locals bringing their kids and everyone, gay and straight having a great time. For sure booze is involved in the audience, but there seems to be a general understanding to not overdo it in public. The various supportive churches, synagogues and even a Muslim group have a float and each gets a round of applause - a great evangelism tool to show not all religious folk are bigots and hateful. Which of course is the perception of many gay folk. Our mayor is usually involved,(not just our current gay mayor but most of them in the past) and various local politicians, fire departments, police units, PFLAG, businesses (like the "evil" oil companies)and the usual folks march. It's actually done in mostly good taste, and the emphasis is on fun, not shock value. You should so get a group of LDS folk together and march in the Twin Cities.

J G-W said...

C.L. - Thanks for sharing the link to your blog... AWESOME photos.

I think my evaluation of Pride is that it has an overall positive purpose, with some negative elements. I guess to state myself more clearly, it's not so much that we have to turn a negative thing positive, as it is that we can claim ownership and contribute to making it as positive as we want.

Personally, I've never witnessed public sex at a gay pride parade, ever. I've never witnessed the San Francisco gay pride parade, but then, as we all know, San Francisco is the Williamsburg, VA of Gay, while Minneapolis is the New Gay. (If you haven't seen this clip from the Daily Show, watch it for big laughs.)

As a young gay man, like many young gay men coming out from conservative backgrounds, I was terrified by certain gay stereotypes, and Gay Pride did seem to put some of those stereotypes on display. So I'm sure that much of the "negative" that we (gay men and lesbians) experience has to do with wrestling with our own internalized homophobia.

For instance, I've come to a very different, much more positive place in terms of my feelings about the role of drag in the gay community. I hope gay pride will always have drag and fun, outrageous costumes.

J G-W said...

Heidi - I agree... Though in fairness, I have seen LGBT Pride evolve over the years. There was a time when Pride was less "family friendly" than it has become now in many localities. But I think your observations of Houston Pride recently sounds like what is becoming more of the norm.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks for the Daily Show link -- hilarious!!!

Evan said...

I love this post, john! Thanks for your perspective.

My only Pride experiences have taken place in Texas, and the three I have been to (san antonio, austin, houston) seem to be pretty tame, although I will admit the first one made me a bit uncomfortable. I feel like I personally benefit from them and I believe it is due to the reinforced concept that there is support for us out there and there are others out there. Its also cool to check out all of the gay friendly organizations in the area.

I think the commercialization is kinda a double edged sword for me.. seeing these businesses that support lgbt equality helps give me hope when it comes to support, and I definitely prefer to do business with them rather than their competition.

And Heidi, its cool to read that another Houstonian speaks positively of pride here. Ill be walking in it this year with my boyfriend and am looking forward to all the events beforehand.

J G-W said...

Evan - thanks! Part of the point of my post was to try to unpack some of the extreme negativity around LGBT Pride that we often see in the Church.

I thought it was interesting to compare my parents' reaction with the reaction of one of their ward members to what is admittedly an extreme behavior... Something I've never seen in 20 years of attending Pride, but that, admittedly, could have happened. The fact that my parents had a completely different context for understanding this brother's story tells a lot. Obviously someone whose context is extreme antipathy to gay people will put a completely different spin on a story like this.

The truth is, stereotypes often have at least a grain of truth. Some times more than a few grains. I think it really helps for us to have an understanding of history; to understand where the GLBT community has come from and where it is going; to put some of the stereotypes into an appropriate context.

There is in many parts of the gay community a casual attitude toward sex. And it is not unheard of to see that casual attitude on display in different contingents at Pride. I'm also aware of some folks who would get pissed off at me for daring to suggest that that's a part of gay history and culture that it's time for us to transcend... Who would get mad at me for suggesting that's a "negative" aspect of the gay community.

calibosmom said...

I live in NH but I'd march with you any day!

san diego said...

O U MUST BE JOKING!!!!i live in san diego. i volunteered for community service hours for my high school graduation with my fellow mecha club members. one of the events we did clean up crew for was the pride parade. not only did we witness countless incidents of public nudity and even mild acts of public sex. there were even porn vendors out in the open selling and handing out free porn. i was 17 at the time and was deeply offended and i obviously dont have a problem with lgbt because duh, i signed up to volunteer. but let me tell you many in our group got the hell out of there. i felt violated. any one who tries to water down the amount of debauchery that goes on there is A BOLD FACED LIAR. the end and omg just google some of the pictures and videos from pride parades in san diego your words dont mean a thing next to pictures of naked men and women running through the streets grinding on eachother. AND THERE WERE CHILDREN THERE! anyone who allows children to such an even should be investigated.

J G-W said...

san diego - Sorry to hear that San Diego Pride is like that.

My impression is that in the twenty years or so I've attended Twin Cities Pride, it's gotten better in that respect. This year I watched the entire parade from beginning to end -- and it was for the most part very family friendly. There were exceptions, though less than the number I could count on one hand. I witnessed some guys in skimpy undies, but no sex at all -- real or simulated.