Be Yourself ... Resist Commercialization of Gay Pride
When the San Francisco Pride Celebration Committee designated this year's theme as "Be Yourself -- Change the World," the irony and the importance were not lost on organizers of Gay Shame, a series of actions around the increasing commercialization of Pride events.
"The Pride Parade's official theme is Budweiser's advertising slogan. 'Be Yourself -- Make It a Bud.' They're not even trying to hide it," says Mattilda, aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore, one of the organizers of this year's Gay Shame. "It's insane. Every time I drink a Budweiser I change the world ... ? Maybe they'll even have that banner."
The marriage of Bud and the rest of corporate America to Pride is nothing new and neither is the resistance to it. Ever since Susie Bright and other activists tackled the organizers of SF Pride onstage after the first corporate floats made their appearance in the Castro, chants such as the Dyke March's "We are not Bud Light whores" and Lesbian and Gays Against Imperialism's "It's a Movement, Not a Market" have become commonplace.
A less common sight was the recent takeover of the Castro by corsetted girls on stilts burning rainbow flags, dykes and trannies with suits and slicked hair, and queer boys with various levels of make-up and drag dancing to electro-house tunes. Emceed by Mattilda, the event was dubbed the Gay Shame Awards with glamorous categories such as one for the "Best Racist-Ass White Only Space" and another for "Helping Right Wingers Cope" (nominees included Mary Cheney, the veep's daughter and PR agent for Coors and the Human Rights Campaign, the national organization that has been so centrist and single-issue, it has single-handedly reduced the gay rights agenda to marriage and the military).
Throngs of onloOakiers crowded the sidewalk as one man got naked and leaned on one of the sofas that was blocking the busy intersection. Keri Oakie, one of the principal organizers, beckoned to people hovering on the curb, saying "Just step off."
Stepping into the streets in this way is something that hasn't yet happened with Gay Shame -- in San Francisco or in other Gay Shame's in cities across the world. This year's Gay Shame is a significant departure from last year's party in a deserted industrial park in San Francisco, which the organizers criticize as being disappointing in its lack of political focus.
"This year we resolved to be more confrontational, to ensure that our political agenda would remain clear," says Mattilda. But not without having fun. "Being clear about our message but being spectacular, decadent and satirical. We can have the critique and have fun at the same time. We can block the streets and we can do it on a sofa."
The original Gay Shame burst into the underground in 1998 Brooklyn. At a collectively run, not-for-profit performance space and household called dumba, the first Gay Shame consisted of "post-drag" performances, dance and spOakien word, and political speakers zeroing in on everything from welfare reform to needle exchange to Giuliani's crackdown on public sex. Free T-shirts, free food, and no entry fees were crucial to the event. "Make everything free in order to counter the idea that pride is something you buy," Mattilda explains.
This first event was planned by members of the Fuck the Mayor Collective, a radical queer propaganda campaign against police brutality, welfare "reform," and queer repression under Mayor Giuliani, which itself had splintered from Sex Panic!, a group formed to protest Giuliani's zoning laws that closed numerous sex stores, the closure and patrolling of popular cruising grounds, and the crackdown on bathhouses.
Fuck the Mayor Collective was formed in response to what was seen as the overriding insensitivity to women's and trannie's issues. Gay Shame, then, was viewed by the Fuck the Mayor collective as a way to begin to build a community of queer radical activists, uniting their politics with an actual thriving community.
"This was a chance to connect people's activism with their lives, their fun with their activism," recalls Mattilda, one of the core organizing members of the original Gay Shame. The event, born out of a disgust with the commercialization of pride and the selling out of a community, turned into a moment of alternative community building.
A critique of a community by those on the outside served as a staging ground for a new counter-community of queer radical activists. Says Mattilda, "A real actual community where it's not about bars, who has the cutest fashion, who plays the best music, but something about actually making an intervention in people's lives and creating options for people to exist outside of a mainstream consumerist identity."
The following year was equally successful and in 2000, the concept had spread, eventually spawning events in Atlanta, Barcelona, Toronto, and this year, Stockholm. In 2001, the New York event drew between 400-500 people, according to Echo, a resident at dumba. Events ranged from hair dying booths to guerilla performances in front of neighborhood security cameras to actually taking a contingent on a march to the Pride Parade. When Mattilda met up with Keri Oakie in San Francisco in 2001, they both agreed something needed to be done about the encroaching commercialization of Pride. Thus, Gay Shame San Francisco was born.
Other than creating a sense of community among radical queer activists, Gay Shame has also focused externally on broadcasting a message. In planning meetings for this year's Gay Shame awards, many debated whether media coverage was to be sought after. Some argued that actions needed to be planned specifically to garner media attention but others countered that playing to media was beside the point. Gay Shame is better served by focusing internally on creating an actual community of dissenters.
Whether the focus is on community building and bringing people into the fold of an anti-consumerist place of identity or on formulating a media-focused message to counter the "reactionary" coverage of much of the mainstream and gay press ("Any kind of coverage is better than Rosie O'Donnell or any of the tired so-called gay role models," offers Mattilda), the unifying focus of Gay Shame is its anti-consumerist (and underlying anti-capitalist) message.
Ralowe, an organizer of Gay Shame SF, argues that identity has just become another commodity. One need look no further than the nominees for Gay Shame's "Best Target Marketing":
- Gay Pride, nominated "for equating our identities with our corporate loyalty,"
- for "Gay Monopoly," winners included Out Magazine, The Advocate newsmagazine, Alyson Publications, and gay online dating service PlanetOut "for consistently marketing our identities to the highest bidder ... , consistently affirming straight celebrities sexualities and feeding us pre-packaged name-brand identities."
- and finally, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) who "shill for any company that advertises in the gay press, regardless of its product or its politics" -- an accusation supported by GLAAD's acceptance of money from tobacco and alcohol companies, including Coors, which is renowned for its support of right-wing politics.
What the speakers at the Gay Shame Awards asserted repeatedly was that relying on single-issue identity politics is no longer acceptable. While identity politics are "great to have a community," explains Ralowe, "the problems with the world are larger and way more complicated than identity. The focus needs to be expanded." Indeed, if the focus remains simply on gay-positive measures taken by particular corporations like sweatshop-operating Banana Republic and profiteering drug corporations like GlaxoWellcome, a whole retinue of issues is neglected for the sake of a few pro-gay advertising dollars. The gay community becomes a tool for corporations hoping to appear progressive in the face of and to deflect attention from repeated human and economic rights violations.
This corporatization of Pride events is not a simple matter of inclusion of different types of gay people who happen to work at gay friendly companies but, rather, a phenomenon that is shifting the entire cultural landscape of Pride and the larger gay community. For instance, at Portland's 1998 Pride, Coors, which has been trying to live down its consistent support of right wing politicians in the hope of breaking into the gay market, became one of the major sponsors of Pride. Despite the turmoil around this issue, the Pride committee then elected to ban the distribution of political literature at Pride.
Beyond the ways that Gay Shame believes gay people are being played by larger corporations hoping to cash in on the lucrative Pride celebrations and high loyalty levels of gay consumers, the Gay Shame's critique also extends to gay people who exert power within the community for their own interests. "Our critique is what do people do when they have power? What choices do they make with this power? And the choices they make are the same choices that other people with that power make. Gay bars choose to arrest homeless queers on the street because they're interfering with their business. Where's the community in that? And what about gay Castro residents who fought a gay youth shelter from being built near them?" Mattilda wonders.
Indeed, what seems to be emerging, is a critique of the old ways in which communities are formed along lines of identity. When "all your friends and all your enemies are queer," as Keri Oakie points out, the issue of community becomes much more complicated. Because someone is gay or pro-gay does not justify immediate approval by a queer community.
Gay Shame attempts "to call out the people who are using the so-called Gay Pride as a cover-up for their greed. These are gay people. We can't shy away from that," asserts Mattilda. "Gay realty companies that evict people with AIDS are not in any way a part of my community," he says, referring to Zephyr Realty, which advises landlords on how to more effectively evict their tenants in order to raise prices.
Echo, an organizer at both the New York and San Francisco Gay Shames, characterizes Gay Shame as "absolutely a moralistic event. And I think that's a good thing." The collective is offering, through events like the Gay Shame Awards, a way of organizing community not through a simplistic notion of gay or straight, but along a more politicized axis. It offers a gauge of right and wrong, positive and negative that extends beyond pro- or anti-gay to encompass issues from racism to labor exploitation, from environmental issues to the general commodication of and profiteering from identity and community.
The assertion that there is a morality coming from Gay Shame's critique is unexpected, given that queer activists are often represented and viewed as being anti-community and criticized for airing the dirty laundry of the gay community far and wide. The tremors being created by events like Gay Shame are intimating nothing less than an alternative vision of what community, politics, and identity can offer when the lens is widened to look beyond the simple boundaries of single-issue identity politics, a vision that hasn't been in national gay politics since Urvashi Vaid headed up the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the early to mid '90s, notes Echo.
"Gay Shame" says Mattilda, "comes out of an attempt to take back control of what it means to be queer from a reactionary gay mainstream that refuses to address any issues outside of an assimilationist axis."
This rush towards assimilation is a type of erasure of everything that is important and substantive about queer culture. Corporate acceptance, gay marriage, gays in the military, and so on are all part of the agenda of "gay people who want a piece of the pie. We're saying we don't want a piece of that disgusting pie. Assimilationist queers are intent on eating the pie that will kill them."
With the Gay Shame Awards occuring nearly a month in advance of Pride and another event in the works not only for Pride but also at the end of the summer, Gay Shame San Francisco seems to be at a crossroads where it is expanding itself beyond merely a critique of Gay Pride into a new and more sustained criticism of the larger queer community, a critique that depends upon the creation of a space where people can begin to imagine themselves outside of commercially-dominated community spaces; where new rituals are formed to create an alternative type of "pride" (although this term probably wouldn't be used or would be radically reformulated) that isn't bought by corporations, run by businesses who are looking for a pretty penny and attended by politicians seeking good PR.
What will happen remains to be seen. As with most radical queer political groups, infighting, power struggles, and ideological separatism may eventually tear the group to pieces. But the point may not be so much in the longevity of Gay Shame than it is in the message it is propagating, the leaders it is creating, and the communal ties it is building around a radical queer perspective.
As what has been dubbed "Budweiser Pride" bears down on San Francisco, along with other corporate Prides across the nation this month, dissatisfied people -- under the guise of Gay Shame or otherwise -- are raising a ruckus, which, like the sofas and punks strewn across the intersection of Castro and Market, is becoming difficult to ignore.
Michael Polson is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.