Today the fortieth Gay Pride march takes place in London. I have a natural sympathy with protest movements and as a particularly striking and long-lived one, the gay pride movement has much to be proud of. It has, at the very least, encouraged millions of people in the West to feel comfortable about expressing sexual feelings that were, for most of the last century, subject to legal and cultural restrictions of a kind that now seem all but unimaginable. Reflecting on early chants from marches in the 1970s, Peter Tatchell says today in the Guardian:
Some of the slogans we shouted were particularly memorable: “2, 4, 6, 8! Gay is just as good as straight! 3, 5, 7, 9! Lesbians are mighty fine!” These were revolutions in consciousness, which went against the grain of virtually all of human history that designated queers as bad, sad and mad.
Let’s pass over the extravagant claim that ‘virtually all of human history’ has demonized homosexuals – a concept that only emerged in human history in the late nineteenth century. What I am more interested to wonder about is the extent to which Gay Pride has genuinely contributed to a ‘revolution in consciousness’.
I remember being a kid of about 10 or 11 in County Durham (this was the late 1980s), with regular appearances of Julian Clary on telly, reports of annual pride marches, and so on, all attracting the same conservative response from the adults around me: ‘these people are not simply not normal: they’re wicked, corrupting, horrible people’. This was a society in which it was perfectly normal for a family friend to say to me ‘You can bring home whoever you like, as long as it’s not a man!’, and there can be little doubt that the presence of openly gay figures in the mass media posed a challenge to that consciousness. But its effect on me, and I am sure many thousands of others, was not to liberate but to oppress. The freedom on show at Gay Pride events was, and to a much lesser extent these days remains, the freedom of people who are already pretty free.
I could not march in London. I could not live in London. I could not live, in economic and cultural independence, anywhere. The freedom I saw expressed in news reports seemed to me not unlike a huge list of economic and cultural freedoms enjoyed by people in other (more southerly, richer) parts of the country, who went to different (private, better achieving, better connected) schools than mine, who spoke with (posher, less comical) accents than mine, and so on. As I wondered about where I fitted on the approved list of sexualities (a list I still thought made some sense, at the time), I did not feel welcomed or encouraged at all by the state of gay protest in the 1980s. Quite the contrary: by making the expression of a non-heteronormative sexuality even more toxic, and making the people around me express their disapproval of it in such forceful terms, it seemed to me that the gay pride movement’s most striking achievement was to wake up my local surroundings to forms of human subjectivity that they weren’t aware of before, but might have been more likely to accept if they simply saw it expressed in me. The freedom of the marchers or the camp telly personalities seemed to redouble the pressure on me to conform. I was a nice boy; I would never be accepted if I became one of these monstrous individuals.
The same East Durham town I grew up in has a different feel these days. I’m not sure it’s possible for two men to walk down the street holding hands, and if it is possible for women it is only because it plays into the misogynist–heteronormative fantasy of ‘lesbians putting on a show for men’s pleasure’. Yet there is more acceptance. Same-sex couples cohabit visibly. There are gay nights in pubs in towns only a dozen miles away (not just only, as it used to be, in bigger cities like Newcastle). It certainly isn’t Shangri-La but a lot of the culturally conservative attitudes about sexuality have been moderated. Consciousness has been, to an extent, revolutionized. Did Gay Pride do that?
Actually, I think not. Elsewhere in the Guardian intervew I’ve already mentioned, Julie Bindel says some reflective things. In response to the interviewer’s question ‘Do you see Pride as a fundamentally conservative and mainstream event now, Julie? This is the criticism levelled at the movement for gay marriage, too.’, she says:
David Cameron said: ‘I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative, I support it because I’m a conservative’ – never a truer word has been said. It is the most conservative struggle we could adopt. But while I’m critical of us wasting time on it – hasn’t it brought the nasty, bigoted homophobes out of the woodwork, too? I think Pride has become both wildly hedonistic and a deeply conservative movement, with its message of “please tolerate us”. I don’t want tolerance, I want liberation.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the conservatism of gay marriage. But this tension Bindel pinpoints between tolerance and liberation reveals something of the complexity of what has brought about an improvement in conditions for gay people in the West. She is right to observe not only that the drive for gay marriage contributes to the maintenance of heterosexual marriage, and is thus anti-feminist, but also that the desire to become part of a ‘normal’, stable, legalized, even religiously blessed once-for-ever romantic union is a deeply conservative thing for politically active gay people – once paragons of resistance and protest – to strive for. Tatchell too bemoans the ‘commercialization’ of Gay Pride in recent years, though it’s a commercialization he thinks can be counteracted.
But the welding together of this thing called ‘gay identity’ – the monstrous social excrescence that made my early teenage years such a secretive hell – and the need to express it through the mediation of certain specially selected commodities is the thing that, by bringing together Gay Pride and the inventiveness of capitalism, has, I suggest, produced the most significant change in consciousness. Except, of course, that it is no change in consciousness at all, ultimately: it is just an expansion of an already existing consciousness.
What Gay Pride offered at first was indeed a provocation. ‘Yes, we’re repellent, but we’re not going away, and nor need we. Your society of good manners and people knowing their place is intolerable and intolerant. It must pass. We will destroy you.’ Such truly revolutionary sentiments, a faithful response to the truth claims of emancipation for people who wish to express non-normative sexuality (whatever that might mean), were inevitably met by a strong reaction. The movement for gay marriage removes in a single gesture any claim that gay rights activists might have for seeking a revolution of the social order. The call instead is a reactive response: ‘We don’t want to overturn the dependence on traditional marriage as the basis for human social organization. We just want to slightly change the definition so that two women or two men can form such units. This will be a slightly different world but still recognizably the old one. People now have even less choice about joining in the marriage system, since whether they want to do it with the same or the other sex, they must do it.’
But Gay Pride, and the increased visibility of openly gay entertainers and public figures, also generated something of much more immediate use to capital: the association of the sexuality, and particularly I think gay male sexuality (though gay female sexuality too is partly governed by the same forces), with certain commodified expressions. Somehow it became accepted as incontrovertible fact that gay men must shop more, preen themselves more, be more sensitive about colours and fabrics, about what they eat, how they gym-tone their bodies, and so on, than straight men. The sexual identity, whose only distinguishing feature from normative sexuality is its preference for different sexual acts, has become entirely mediated by what individuals must eat or wear, what music they must buy, and so on. Homosexuality has, in short, become a marketing possibility. Hence the commercialization of Gay Pride that Tatchell disdains.
Yet by creating an economic space in which gay people can perform their ‘normal’ function as consumers, and indeed show their sophisticated understanding of the West’s dependence on senseless accumulation by buying more, and more discerningly than their straight compatriots, the commodification of sexuality has arguably done more to detoxify homosexuality than Gay Pride could ever do alone. Being gay is a new ‘normal’ not only in the sense that one of its most pressing contemporary calls is for a new form of conservative marriage, but in the sense that, as shoppers, gay people have found a way to become what Capital wants them to become: comfortably interpellated as a novelty space within the totality of commodity production and consumption. Society understands and approves purchase and the aspiration to own goods that ‘express oneself’ – i.e. do our subjective formation for us. By finding a niche, even boys and girls growing up in County Durham surely have a lifeline today that is more helpful to them than Gay Pride alone could offer.
But the sad conclusion is that the new freedom, based on endless consumption, is merely a new oppression, albeit to a slightly different master, the judgement of Capital rather than just cultural attitudes. To fight against this oppression, the gay rights movement needs some radical new ideas.