There was an interesting editorial in The Denver Post over the weekend in relation to PrideFest, the annual gay pride parade in Denver. Keith Swain, a gay man and psychotherapist in Denver, says that efforts to advance gay rights issues are hindered by some of the flair of events like PrideFest:
Reflecting the growing dilution of the gay rights movement in the name of diversity, Denver’s PrideFest, of which the gay pride parade is a part, and the other pride marches across the country have followed the trend and have lost their ability to educate the public about the general gay community. PrideFest now is part protest, part parade, part political theater, part circuit party, and part street fair. In other words, in its attempt to meet the needs of such a diverse community, it tries to be everything to everyone. Sadly, as a result, it has become nothing to anyone, except the sexual fringe communities. The gay men and women I know stay away from PrideFest, not out of discomfort for being gay, but because current PrideFest participants are not reflective of them or their values.
There have been attempts to change the path of gay pride. In 1984, I was director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Colorado. My staff and I asked the question “What is our intended message?” It was a time when the gay community was being decimated by the growing number of AIDS deaths. We suggested a mourners march, complete with black clothes, a single drummer, a bagpiper, something to show the city we were hurting, grieving, dying daily. Community organizers and businesspeople rejected the idea. “What fun would that be? Besides, what would the drag queens wear?”
So today, we have a sexy party instead of a political statement. Yet, the sexual concerns of the early gay movement have been met. What is lost in all the glitter, feathers and leather harnesses of PrideFest is the power to move the public to better understand gay men and women. The sexual revolution is over, yet PrideFest lingers in that adolescent sexual environment of the ’70s and ’80s. Frankly, those sexual displays at PrideFest tend to do more damage than good…
…The gay community must put away the whips and gowns and get serious about the powerful impact PrideFest can have on our futures. It’s time to disengage from the fringe sexual communities and instead focus on the real needs of gay men and women in Colorado. It’s time to discourage the overt sexual displays of the poly-amorous, the drag queens, and the fetish communities. If and when it becomes illegal to be bisexual or to dress as a woman, I’ll join that protest parade. But for now, it is essential that our PrideFest message be strong, simple, and about one community with one issue: the equality of gay men and women.
Swain’s concerns are not new, and those fighting for gay rights have yet to come up with a good compromise. Obviously it hurts the gay rights movement to showcase too many flamboyant and perhaps over-sexed individuals because it weakens the civil rights argument of equal rights. It’s hard to tell someone that gay men should be allowed to get married and are very serious about the commitment of marriage if you simultaneously show images of wild, colorfully-dressed people partying on the courthouse steps like they just left a kegger.
Those behind last year’s campaign for gay rights in Colorado, led by Referendum I, were very aware of this concern but probably overcompensated too much. Remember the ad where a man paces the hall of a hospital and a voice over talks about how he should have the right to make major medical decisions related to his partner? The message was good, but the complete lack of emotion made it difficult for a voter to really care about the issue.
How do you keep the emotion of gay rights campaigns while also asking supporters to tone down the flamboyant sexuality? It’s a difficult compromise to navigate.