pride and the politics of partying
What’s Pride really about and where did it come from?
Silence is rare in Soho. Amidst the throngs of tourists, queens, drunks, couples, city boy wankers and wheeler dealers, a moment of calm is a pipe dream. At the Orlando vigil, the mourners were still. The bustle of Leicester Square and the engine-thrum of black cabs drifted through backstreets crammed with bodies, but the crowd was a silent mass. Heads bowed, tears fell, and queers and Latinx of all creeds held each other in soundless solidarity. Then came the choir, the procession, the lighting of candles. And then, the revelry. Tragedy turned comedy; silent protest became raucous party; and it felt fitting.
The transformation took minutes. A street away from the Gay Men's Chorus singing Bridge Over Troubled Water were voguing queens, blue-haired twinkpieces pirouetting to Cher, and old-school dykes desperately trying to find each other through the crowds of muscle men. With any luck, Pride looks set to be much the same. An acknowledgement of those lost, but a defiant celebration of those remaining - a kind of bittersweet carnival of the trials and triumphs of queer life. Throughout history, the party has always been political in queer world, and the political has often ended in a party.
Gerard Koskovich, queer historian, curator, and founding member of the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society, explained to i-D, "Historically, queer public cultures were born in spaces where having a drink, throwing a party and fighting for our rights all came together. In fact, in most Western countries in the post-World War II years, one of the starting points of the movement was the struggle against the state's efforts to stop us from coming together to share social and erotic enjoyment in bars and clubs." Consequent queer activism repeatedly exposed the idea that politics must be staid or serious as a conservative falsehood, and the party has remained a staple political statement.
Stonewall, the supposed birth of the queer movement in the West, was a riot in protest at police brutality in targeting and attacking LGBT revellers. The queers - black, white, brown - were demanding their right to congregate, to dance, to fuck, to live, to party. While not the birth of the gay rights movement as often claimed - "homophile" campaigning had existed for decades - it was the birth of a consciousness that was ready to coordinate and resist at all costs.
The Christopher Street Liberation Day the following year made headlines; gay groups mushroomed across the US and internationally; and the seeds of Pride were sown. Opposition was fierce, and the rise of the movements such as the Moral Majority - in short, right-wing straights trying to ban us from schools, evict us from rented accommodation, force us out of employment, deny our access to healthcare, and undermine our human rights as best they could - posed a threat to the nascent movement. Yet, in the midst of political backlash, something more sinister still was taking hold. A virus was spreading, a virus that would turn the sexual liberties of a vibrant community into its death knell and one that would thrive under the repressive silence of the Reagan administration. In 1981, the AIDS crisis was born.
In the 15 years that would elapse before the invention of effective anti-retroviral medication to stop AIDS-related fatalities, hundreds of thousands of queers died in the US and UK alone, and 35 million more lost their lives across the globe. Entire districts became ghostlands. Funeral homes rejected the dead for fear of contamination. Police officers wore gloves when bludgeoning queers into submission in fear of their "dirty" blood. Originally known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), and informally known as WOGS (Wrath Of God Syndrome) in some New York hospitals, this was a righteous plague, sent to purify, cleanse, and eradicate the queers from the heterosexual body politic.
"It was a holocaust," recalls Jason Jones, a LGBT rights and human rights campaigner hailing from Trinidad & Tobago. And yet, as the exhibition Party Out of Bounds in NYC last year showed, the party didn't stop. Fighting the united forces of homophobic repression and a fatal retrovirus, queers remained defiant. ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) staged furious protests and roaring fundraisers in downtown queer clubs across the States. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of drag queen nuns seeking to "promulgate joy and expiate stigmatic guilt" cared for the dying and brought theatre, hope and love to thousands in crisis. Iconic fundraisers such as The Life Ball and the AmFAR drew necessary funds and world-leading creatives including Jean-Paul Gaultier and a host of others to the cause.
The AIDS crisis isn't over - either in London, which experienced the highest number of HIV transmissions in its history last year, or in sub-Saharan Africa where tens of thousands die every year - but the battleground has shifted. Same sex marriage, trans rights, adoption rights, immigration rights - all have exploded in a wave of celebration and carnival across the West. Throughout it all, Pride has become a landmark in the progress of queer history, an annual chime marking time in queer worlds that have survived existential threats year after year after year.
Yet each year come the cries that Pride is depoliticised, a commercial shitshow, and no longer a protest - in short, just a frivolous party for a community that has forgotten its roots. The politics-or-party dichotomy is false, and the overtness of Pride's political bite has always been in flux. As Gerard Koskovich argues, "Pride is the kind of cultural creature that can lose most of its teeth one year and grow a full and sharp set the next."
Suspicion of global corporations should be welcomed, and critiques of drone-building instruments of war that sponsor parades are valid, but Jason Jones, the Trinbagonian activist, throws such critiques into stark relief. "In my home, Trinidad and Tobago, there is no way you could have a pride celebration in the streets: we would be physically attacked." Pride, like carnival in black communities worldwide, is the defiant assertion of identity, he adds: "it is the day where you can be unapologetically LGBT and protected in doing so; where you can walk down the street hand in hand with your partner or your friends, the same street where the other 364 days of the year you look over your shoulder, you walk differently, you hide the limp wrist. This is the day you're not spending behind that glass closet. With that freedom, people want to celebrate." And so they should.
Pride has always and will always attract criticism, from radical queers and conservatives alike. The criticism will be of varying validity, and mostly ignored by revellers. If one myth can be put to rest, however, it is that partying isn't political, and that joy should be anything other than a primary aim of the movement that was present right from the start.
As Gerard Koskovich argues of the birth of the queer uprisings of 1969 and the burgeoning Pride movement, it was the moment at which "The right to pleasure became a political demand—and the pursuit of pleasure became an intrinsically political act. Whether they realise it or not, queer people today are heirs to this tradition" - a tradition we cannot and must not let die.
Text Edward Siddons
Photography Eliie Smith