The degaying of Pride
This year’s Pride parade was embroiled in controversy - a minor miracle, reckons Paul Demarty
My own Pride this year began with a work do.
The office was bedecked with rainbow-coloured balloons. We had a bake sale, proceeds to go to a gay youth charity, and signed a canvas with a rainbow-flag version of the company logo on it. Fun was had by all, and all were encouraged to attend, with that sort of HR cheerfulness that carries the implied threat of being put on a list somewhere if your participation is insufficiently enthusiastic.
This was a long way from the event’s roots, to put it mildly. The first Gay Pride march in London took place in 1972, with some 2,000 participants, and was - it somehow now needs to be said - an unambiguously radical gathering. Homosexuality had been partially decriminalised in Britain in 1967, but gay people faced severe discrimination in almost all areas of social life, including - in particular - routine police harassment.
The picture was pretty similar all over the capitalist world, and the London event was part of a great political wave that followed the Stonewall riots in New York in 1968, and more generally the tendency for ‘new social movements’ to emerge on the model of US civil rights, not to mention the greater influence of the left within the labour movement, with the effect that patriarchal sectionalism in the unions and parties of the left was put under serious challenge.
We could go through the whole intervening history here, but really it is better to just pose the thing in sharp contrast. Today’s Pride march is effortlessly corporate, the mirror in which the liberal establishment - that is, an establishment that has been forcibly remade as liberal - regards itself. The march itself is not enormously bigger, because it is ground down by bureaucracy. Participants must all be registered in advance. Wristbands are strictly limited. This all seems to be a consequence of the event no longer being categorised, even for formal purposes, as a political march, and instead as a street party, and thus not covered by the reverence English law supposedly has for free speech.
The best organised contingents, then, end up being the ones with the most money, and so Pride nowadays is primarily a marketing opportunity for retailers of consumer goods to cast their various sorts of tat in the cosy glow of universal human brotherhood. The attitude at work is exemplified by a recent billboard advert for Smirnoff vodka, with a cheerful, Instagrammable picture of a group of attractive, sexually ambiguous millennials enjoying a spirit and mixer in a club, with the slogan, “Labels are for bottles, not for people”. Vodka is the path to self-realisation; and if you want to be more of a unique, affirmed individual, just drink more of it. The parade ends up less a valuable thing in itself, but rather an opportunity for people to follow along and party nearby; only 20,000 marched, but a million or more people participated in related events.
It is in this context that the one bit of actual controversy to have come up should be evaluated. At the beginning of the march, a group of 10 or so radical feminists held a sit-down protest at the front, proclaiming their opposition to ‘trans activism’, which they consider anti-lesbian - a common complaint of such so-called ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ (terfs) is that lesbians are being bullied into including biological males in their pool of potential sexual partners. In the case of this lot - centred around a website, Mayday4Women - things have gotten so bad that it is time for lesbians to separate from “this absurd coalition called LGBTQIA+” - “#gettheLout” was the chosen hashtag, which seems, at a glance, to be rather dominated by their opponents.1
In the end they were ‘moved along’, but in such a way that they led the march, in spite of their acronymic misgivings, which was not an outcome met with enthusiasm from wider society. “I am appalled that transphobic protestors were allowed to lead the march and the crowd asked to cheer them on,” said Jennie Rigg, leader of the Liberal Democrats’ LGBT section. “This is a betrayal of the thousands marching. The Pride organisers should resign and offer a full apology.” Similar statements came forth from the Labour equivalents, and the feeling seems almost unanimous that the organisers should have done more to prevent it.
We do not propose to relitigate the trans wars here. The interest is simply in the fact that the appearance of disagreement should meet with such an extraordinary allergic reaction. Janice Raymond’s ‘Terf’ ur-text, Transsexual empire: the rise of the she-male, came out in 1980, and is obviously a response to an already fiery controversy. The overlap between terf-ism and political lesbianism is large enough that this contretemps must, surely, have already disrupted the unity of a Pride march in the last 40 years.
The terfs will no doubt conclude that this whole episode reveals the residual misogyny of society, or at least that ‘official’ opinion is violently opposed to them. There is certainly some truth to that - the liberal media is at least tendentially pro-trans, although bigots in the Daily Mail are certainly not on message. Yet the picture is a little less clear: the terfs, and their habit of getting no-platformed at university speaking engagements, are being used as a stick to beat the left on campuses in the so-called ‘free speech wars’, which are in reality nothing of the sort. Establishment opinion, then, can come down on either side, according to convenience.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the allergic reaction is on the part of the marketing machine, for which Pride is a matter of gloopy, cosmopolitan lifestyle choices and corporate PR. A marketing department’s job is to present to the atomised consumer’s consciousness a picture of the world, in which some positive desire is inextricably linked to the acquisition of the marketed commodity. Political contestation is the worst possible input to this equation. It gets people defensive, and thus less immediately pliable. It gets them thinking, at which point perhaps they will decide to go for a Grey Goose instead. The need for consensus follows from the corporate reality of Pride: no disharmony may defile the photo-ops on the GlaxoSmithKline float.
And so, while anti-terf types are spitting blood over the presence of their tormentors at the head of the march, perhaps they ought to stop and think about that - at least those among them with any pretence to political radicalism; about what is also rejected, along with these particular enemies, which is the possibility that violent disagreement has a place in the LGBT movement. Gripes about the loss of Pride’s political edge are becoming something of a tradition themselves, of course, but it does not make them any less real. We feel for Peter Tatchell, as he bemoans the bureaucratisation of the event, its detachment from any meaningful political cause, its - a lovely word - “degaying”.2
Yet that is the paradoxical result of the considerable victories won over the years, the remarkable turnaround from the passing of section 28 - the last hurrah, so far at least, of serious anti-gay legislation - to a Tory government’s legalisation of gay marriage. Anti-gay prejudice certainly still exists. Yet I return to the story of my workplace: such officially trumpeted Pride-mongering would have been quite unimaginable in the 1980s, and indeed much later. In the old days, we would find ‘revolutionary’ arguments for pursuing gay rights to the effect that capitalism was so reliant on the heterosexual nuclear family that it could never accept homosexuality without somehow imploding. We would also find arguments from the bigoted right saying the same thing - that the result of liberalisation of sexual prohibitions would be the collapse of civilisation.
The disappearance of the latter idea from establishment discourse in this country ‘degays’ the gay movement, because gay life itself is ‘degayed’ by wider acceptance; it moves from counterculture to subculture, and indeed from subculture to mainstream bourgeois culture. The ‘radical’ version of it lives on, after a fashion, in literary academia as queer theory, but, despite moral panicking on the part of ‘anti-PC’ whingers like Jordan Peterson, the radicalism of its teachings is strictly limited to the ‘queering’ of various texts, reading them as far more polymorphously perverse than they actually are3 - an activity that essentially amounts to a comfortable bourgeois hobby. One of the culture war skirmishes that led to section 28 was over the Danish children’s book, Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, which depicted a gay family unit. Such families are, at least in major metropolitan centres, normal now, and all the more so single-sex marriages.
The question then arises - what problems face us that demand a gay movement, or perhaps rather renewed left attention to the question of sexuality? There is, first of all, the risk of serious reversal - capitalism is not flatly incompatible with sexual freedom, but demands ideological manipulation for its long-term health, up to and including violent lurches towards ‘purity politics’ and patriarchalism. The other problem is that large numbers of people’s sexual lives are still alienated and experienced as unpleasant or coercive; this is at issue in the battle between the lesbian terfs and the pro-trans activists - the former identifying the latter as coercing them into heterosexuality, and the latter accusing the former of forcing them into a sexual frame that ill suits their relationships with their bodies.
The trans-terf wars unfortunately teach us very little about the problem, except that extrapolating from particular niche experiences will not get us anywhere, since at first blush such experiences can lead in diametrically opposed and futile political directions. (One so very rarely gets the impression that these people actually read each other’s material, preferring instead to resort directly to moral blackmail.) The peculiarity of modern identity politics is its combination of ‘anti-foundationalist’ theoretical propositions with an absolutist conception of individual identity, with the result that its rhetoric careens between policing borders and multiplying them. It is, therefore, an obstacle to any new, more liberated sexual cultures that might emerge, reproducing only the pathological social economies of late capitalism in smaller and smaller cliques.
A more fundamental obstacle is the hyper-commercialised sexuality promulgated from the disposable material culture around us, where single life is about bodies on display and marriage - gay, straight or anything else - is a matter of getting from one end of the John Lewis catalogue to the other. In reality, for a combination of economic and psychological reasons, nobody lives these lives, not even those comfortably enough off in theory to afford it.
Unfortunately, Pride is little more than a gaudy shop window for it these days, and you do not have to be a lesbian terf to want out.
1. A scan of their leaflet can be found at https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DhgJ7FDWAAAUbX0.jpg.
3. The great example of this method is Lee Edelman’s No future: queer theory and the death drive, which offers (for example) a reading of Charles Dickens’ Christmas carol as being a story of Scrooge’s ‘degaying’. A reasonable (albeit much earlier) critique of these sorts of highly artificial readings can be found in John Hills’s ‘Ideology, economy and the British cinema’, in M Barrett, P Corrigan, A Kuhn and J Wolff (eds) Ideology and cultural production (London 1979) - specifically the discussion of The young Mr Lincoln.