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How appropriate that the new documentary about the Cockettes, the outrageous early 70s drag troupe that genderbended its way to infamy, was showing just a few feet from the corner of Castro and Market in San Francisco where the Gay Shame Awards were being given by a group of radical queers.
A relatively new phenomenon that sprang up on both coasts in recent years, Gay Shame is an outgrowth of a younger generation's disgust with over-commercialized pride celebrations that are more about corporate sponsorships, celebrity grand marshals, and consumerism than they are about the radicalism that gave birth to our post-Stonewall gay-liberation movement, and radicalism such as that displayed by the Cockettes.
Every movement undergoes changes in three decades, but pride, especially in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, transformed a street protest into a multi-million dollar extravaganza that has no political through line. How could it, when gay cops march next to Lesbian and Gay Insurgents and gay atheists follow Dignity, the gay Catholic group? Except for the open displays of sex and flesh, pride in a city such as San Francisco is not much different from any other parade. Thousands stand along the sidelines and cheer every corporate contingent that passes despite the fact that many of them, while good on gay rights, have policies and practices that oppress other groups (e.g., running sweatshops in Asia). For progressives, participating in the march requires a kind of political amnesia: Ignore the bad politics ahead of you and keep your banners high.
Organizers of the San Francisco Gay Shame Awards, held this year for the first time, want no part in this amnesia. They won't stand with liquor companies or gay Realtors and landlords who evict low-income queers, seniors and people with AIDS. In the city by the bay, gentrification and displacement have been major issues in recent years, with thousands (including many low-income queers and people with AIDS) being displaced for higher-income folks. Even though the dot-com bust has slowed some of this gentrification, it hasn't disappeared entirely.
The Gay Shame Awards took place in the heart of the Castro on a warm Saturday afternoon amid a festive atmosphere with many of the organizers in outlandish outfits. Awards were given in absentia to deserving individuals and organizations. "Who makes you feel ashamed?" yelled host Mattilda at the beginning of the ceremonies, wearing an outfit that would've made the Cockettes proud. Awards were presented a la the Oscars, with fanfare and the tearing open of pink envelopes containing the names of the winners.
Among the highlights: Dick Cheney's daughter Mary was "honored" with a "Helping Right-Wingers Cope" award for her work as a liaison between Coors Beer (a major contributor to anti-gay right-wing groups) and the LGBT community.
Rosie O'Donnell was dubbed a celebrity "Who Should Never Have Come Out of the Closet" for coming out after years of fiercely denying she's a lesbian and professing crushes on numerous straight celebrities -- right as her talk show ended and just in time to sell her new autobiography.
The Golden Gate Peace Officers Association (local gay police organization) was bestowed with the "Best Gender Fundamentalism" award for refusing to sign the Law Enforcement Pledge for transgender rights, and the Castro residents who opposed a shelter for homeless queer youth were given the "Exploiting Our Youth" citation.
Many in my generation will find gay shame a hard pill to swallow, not unlike the word queer. I understand that. I helped organize the first Philadelphia queer march in 1972. Pride was, for me, at the heart of the work I did in the City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love, fighting to pass a gay rights bill, heading up several organizations (including the Gay Activist Alliance and Temple University's Gay Liberation Front) and editing the Philadelphia Gay News.
But I like Gay Shame. It challenges us to ask important questions about what we've become as a community. Not everything we did was wrong; obviously, queers are an important part of the fabric of this country, thanks to the efforts of those who gave their lives to make it easier for all of us to live outside the closet. But no one back in the 70s could have imagined what a market niche we would become.
This mass appeal and corporate sponsorship of our pride has been accompanied by a de-emphasis on politics. As more and more of corporate America gravitated toward pride, the "gay pride march" changed to a "parade" (or "celebration"). The last time a parade theme here in San Francisco was political was in 1995 when a friend and I pushed through "A World Without Borders" as a protest of a statewide anti-immigrant initiative. Politicians of all stripes walk in the parade, even those who opposed a law instituting medical benefits for transgender city employees last year. After all, it's a parade, everybody loves a parade, as the old song reminds us. And being seen with close to a million people isn't bad for public officials, especially when the whole thing is televised here on a major TV station, and queers are a big voting bloc.
The Gay Shame folks will most certainly be dismissed as PC leftists who want to knock everything. Such a characterization will not make their criticisms go away. Others have raised the same issues, certainly not with the same theatricality and outrageousness as the Gay Shame Awards.
The questions have been asked before, but they've gone unaddressed and that's a shame.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a longtime leftist queer activist and former Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) editor who lives in San Francisco. This article originally appeared in PGN's June 6 issue, and is reprinted here with permission.