Gay Shame: A Challenge to Gay Pride

It's gay Pride month in the gayest city in America, but this proud queer is thinking about getting out of town.

June brings a feeling of giddy pre-summer anticipation here, especially if you identify outside of the heterosexual norm. In the weeks leading up to San Francisco's annual Pride celebration, our already-gay city gets even gayer. Flags in rainbow hues line Market Street, the main thoroughfare; queer arts festivals take over stages, theaters, and galleries; bookstore windows spotlight queer authors; our pockets bulge with flyers for upcoming parties and events; and the streets, bars and clubs fill with queers from all over the world.

So why would I want to leave?

The answer comes when I think about how the concept of Gay Pride has evolved in San Francisco. Proud of what? In what ways is that pride celebrated, and who gets to participate?

Look at the cover of this year's "Pride: The Official Magazine of San Francisco Pride." The glossy magazine could easily be mistaken for any mainstream fashion magazine. Its cover model fits all the criteria of mainstream female iconography -- she's white, thin and perfectly groomed. Underneath her photo is the 2002 Pride slogan: "Be Yourself, Change the World."

What a relief to realize that being "yourself" as a queer means simply looking like you stepped out of the pages of Mademoiselle!

Flip to the back cover and you're met with a message from Bud Light, one of Pride's main corporate sponsors. Six bare feet are raised proudly against an idyllic country background, the toenails of each painted with a different color of the rainbow. Lest we forget, in the corner of the page our friends at Bud Light urge, "Be Yourself." Too bad those chilly San Francisco evenings demand socks and shoes. How can we possibly express our individuality if our toenail polish is covered up?

Such a pro-capitalist event assumes a homogenous target market of consumers and automatically excludes anyone who doesn't have money or who chooses not to spend it in the ways prescribed by marketers. The Pride event has come to stand for social ideals that can be achieved through appropriate consumption, and has no use for those who are automatically shut out of ever reaching those ideals because they are not the right race, size or age. There's even a mainstream gay ideal that excludes people who are transgender or who disrupt binary notions of gender in other ways.

That's why this year my celebration will be more Gay Shame than Pride. Gay Shame events have been emerging in urban centers such as New York and San Francisco, where increasing numbers of queers feel disillusioned, alienated by and bored with Pride events. Gay Shame-type events critique the mainstream Pride agenda and create alternative spaces to celebrate how being queer means more than being a target market. Free or nearly free, these events are undeniably grassroots and anti-corporate, putting a high priority on diversity and inclusiveness.

At this year's San Francisco Gay Shame awards, held last month, a crowd gathered in the Castro, the gay district. The event's organizers, dressed to brilliantly homemade excess, gave out mock awards to the most "shameful" members of the gay community. Recipients included a gay-owned real estate company with a track record of evicting people with AIDS; Mary Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, who acts as a liaison between the gay community and the conservative Coors Corporation; and Castro residents, for keeping a queer youth shelter out of the neighborhood. The event ended with an impromptu dance party in the middle of Castro Street.

Ironically, the most grassroots event I know of this year will take place several hundred miles to the north of my own community. The Seattle Fruit Brigade plans an "anti-corporate, anti-racist, anti-gender rules, pro-freak, pro-trans, pro-youth, pro-DIY (do-it-yourself), pro-mischief, and pro-fun" alternative to that city's Pride celebration. On the Saturday of Pride weekend, the Fruit Brigade will hold a free series of workshops and skill-sharing sessions on topics such as silk-screening, bicycle repair, drag, fat activism, being a trans ally and guerrilla theater. They'll crash the Seattle Pride March, distributing anti-capitalist/pro-diversity stickers and flyers. Afterwards, the Brigade will host a free party.

The fact that I even have options about how to celebrate being queer speaks to my privileged position. And I do want to celebrate. I'd like to celebrate the amazing diversity and multiplicity of queer identities here at home. But the symbol of the Pride I want to honor is not a factory-manufactured rainbow flag comprised of uniform stripes in well-defined lines. Perhaps it's a prism in which all the colors of the rainbow are being constantly reflected, refracted, and in conversation with each other, creating patterns of light and shadow too breathtaking and invaluable to carry a price tag.

It's a (gay) shame that I need to leave town this year to find it.

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