Pride parade kindles debate in LGBTQ movement

Last year’s Pride Month came with a sense of jubilance — the Supreme Court had swiftly passed down the decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, truly nullifying any agency that conservative politicians claimed in battling against such progress.

The tone of Pride Month, for reasons self-evident, is markedly different in 2016.

This year’s Kentuckiana Pride parade in Louisville carried the emotional resonance of the Orlando massacre that left 49 dead in an environment considered safe by the LGBTQ community just a week prior. The timing undoubtedly catalyzed an additional swell of support from within the community, and also amongst straight allies, as acceptance nationwide continues to grow. The Kentuckiana Pride parade celebrated record-breaking attendance this year, with an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 people taking part.

But this increased participation — in the shadow of Orlando — also highlighted a growing debate within and outside of the LGBTQ movement about who can or should have a role in it. Specifically, to what extent straight allies belong and what sort of decorum is most appropriate at Pride.

A Public Invitation and Voyeuristic Tourism

In the week before Friday’s parade, Mayor Greg Fischer asked all citizens to participate in Pride as a showing of “compassion and unity.” “Our region will send a strong message to our LGBT friends and family,” he said. “We stand with you. We are Orlando.” Though undoubtedly well-intentioned and on-message for the mayor of a “compassionate city,” some who identify with the community found the proclamation poorly executed — the invitation was not necessarily his to give.

Clare Gervasi is a teacher and researcher at TSTAR (Trans and Sexuality Teaching, Advocacy, and Research), a lab formerly with the University of Louisville and is now an independent entity, who identifies as gender queer and happened to go viral with a Facebook update. Their (that is the pronoun Clare prefers) post sparked, to say the least, robust conversation on social media. In part, the post read: “I had a feeling there would be more straight people at Louisville’s Pride this year because of Orlando, but I never expected the mayor to actively encourage it. I’m trying to feel touched by the gesture, but mostly I feel like straight people need to sit the fuck down and not take over an event that isn’t for them.”

The assertive tone that aimed to push back against the de-radicalizing of Pride as a movement miffed a number of those who consider themselves allies and who felt disinvited to a public event, as well as people with the LGBTQ community who interpreted some form of gender policing therein. Sitting down with Clare over Pride weekend though, they were funny, insightful, personable and thoughtful about what Pride means as a safe space. This conforms to the truism that the internet makes everyone sound angrier than they really are.

“It wasn’t proposed like ‘the Pride Foundation has asked us to extend this invitation.’ Parades are public events, sure, and there are lots of awesome straight allies there to show support. But after Orlando, it became an official ‘let’s invade another sanctuary,’” Gervasi said. “It really was more a PR problem.”

Reached for comment, Fischer’s communications director, Chris Poynter, said in an email: “The Kentuckiana Pride Parade and Festival were great events for our city. The huge turnout at both events, by both LBGT and straight allies, demonstrates our city and its citizens are compassionate, caring people.”

“I think in the wake of the tragedy, everyone was looking for a way to show as much support as possible to the LGBTQ community,” said Chris Hartman, director of The Fairness Campaign. “The mayor’s invitation was an immediate response that he wanted to be certain that Louisville showed up and showed support like we did when we had the vigil.”

But Gervasi feels that civic leaders and people across the community should have a better comprehension of what Pride means, without taking offense or feeling as if one’s alliance is not appreciated. “Pride exists because of systemic oppression when you live in a culture that doesn’t value something you feel so strongly about that you have to pursue it and find other people who also feel as strongly. You hold yourselves together, and lean on each other, and come to have respect for yourself and the others in the community, because you’ve all been through collective crap. That’s pride. To have people who never struggled to show up like ‘yay, gay people are so cool,’ it feels like voyeuristic tourism. If you’re just an individual who shows up to check it out and see what the gays are up to, that’s cool. We wouldn’t even know you are there. It’s the mass public announcement, when nobody asked you to, that rubbed me the wrong way,” they said. “Yes, though you’ve struggled through nothing to come to this place of self-acceptance, please come anyway.”

photo by Michael Powell
photo by Michael Powell

Pledging Allegiance

Gervasi’s opinion is just one of many in a city in which an estimated 4.5 percent of the population identifies within the LGBT community. “The LGBTQ is made up of a multiplicity of political positions just like anyone else,” Gervasi said. However, much of Gervasi’s concerns were echoed in an op-ed by John Walker for Fusion after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered a similar open invitation, along with a promise of increased police presence for Pride. Attempting to address safety for LGBTQ, he argued, may actually instill the opposite effect. “Many advocates … say that this response to the Orlando shooting does not make Pride events safer for everyone in the queer and trans community. In fact, they say, these measures could discourage LGBTQ people who are not documented, white, and cis from attending such self-affirming celebrations in the first place.” Even from well-meaning civic leaders, the trust gap is still wide between the queer community and authoritative bodies, regardless of certain progress.

Hartman takes a more moderate viewpoint, and saw this year’s Pride was a phenomenal success in both environment and attendance. “The energy and atmosphere was one was love and support and solidarity. And I think straight allies came out in droves this year to show support to the LGBTQ community. Folks who had never considered coming to the parade or walking the parade came out as a way to try to show some support for the community deeply affected by the Orlando tragedy.”

But proper allegiance requires a level of a nuance that many feel is critical to understand. Gervasi’s Facebook post laid out ground rules, sans bullshit, for properly crashing a party — particularly a party that acts as a form of resistance against power structures — that an often-provincial and polite community like Louisville isn’t used to hearing,  hence its viral quality. The post read, in part:

“So, if you identify as a cis straight person and you’re planning to come to Pride, here is what I ask of you:

1. Observe quietly. Don’t take up a lot of space (physically, emotionally, auditorily).

2. If you observe something you don’t understand, don’t ask queer people to translate what’s going on for you. Take a mental note and ask someone who’s invited you to the conversation later. (Or if you’re there by invite of a queer friend, check in with them if they’re willing.)

3. If you see something that offends you, LEAVE. Or keep it to yourself.

4. Process your feelings with other straight people. Please don’t ask queers to do emotional labor for you.”

Gervasi also feels like the definitions used to parse out and partition the community, both within and outside LGBTQ, could use tweaking as well. “I wish more straight people would think of themselves as queers rather than allies,” Gervasi said. “Any time you’re having non-reproductive sex, you’re queer in our sex-negative society. If you’re poly or kink, or live with a partner you don’t plan to marry… it would be a nice conceptual shift if people would think about their sexual practices and desires, and ask: ‘Is this something my pastor would approve of?’ You’re part of the [LGBTQ] community if you want to see yourself that way, and do the work, and be on the line for that.”

Hartman, however, feels self-identified allies play a unique role in the fight for equality. “It’s 2016 and we still don’t have statewide anti-discrimination protections,” he said. “In many cities, straight allies are helping lead the movement for fairness ordinances, where people who are LGBTQ may feel very vulnerable to be on the front lines there. Allies can play an incredibly important role in speaking up, and making their voices heard locally in cities who don’t have fairness protections outside Louisville and Lexington and the six other cities that have fairness laws.”

“Even in Louisville, there are plenty of state senators and representatives who did not currently support discrimination protections for LGBTQ folks. Being an outspoken advocate for protections for our entire community is the best way for folks to show up,” Hartman said.

Celebration and Sadness

Beyond the Orlando hate crime, Pride carried additional gravity in our city, as the man police believed would carry out some sort of terror plot during Los Angeles’ Pride celebration, John Wesley Howell, came from right across the river in Jeffersonville. He was apprehended within 24 hours of the shooting at Pulse.

Before Facebook removed it, Howell’s cover image at the top of his profile featured a photo of the type of sports car that men with insecurity issues tend to enjoy, in the foreground of the Big Four Bridge. That the vigil marched across that same bridge to the tune of 5,000 people against the backdrop of a golden sky and rainbow-tinged trusses offered a powerful act of resistance and a ‘screw you’ toward bigotry that would carry on to Pride weekend. “It appeared Louisville had one of the largest vigils that Sunday night outside Orlando and LA, and a few other cities like that,” said Hartman, who was one of the speakers. “The city really showed up.”

That vigil set the pace for Pride, embracing both the triumphs and agonies. At both, signs reading the names and ages of each of the victims, adorned with a rose, and some in a large list under “#SayTheirNames” peppered the largest Pride parade yet. One group carried rainbow-colored paper lanterns in succession, spelling out the phrase “We Are Orlando,” the popular solidarity cry across social media and chanted during at events throughout the week.

photo by Michael Powell
photo by Michael Powell

Friday’s parade swung on a pendulum — visually, emotionally, and viscerally. In a public space for a community sussing out the proper role of outsiders, one group came out in a dominant presence: corporations. One of the first “Pray for Orlando” signs came attached to a giant Kroger cart, as marchers in the grocery store uniform marched along Floyd and Main Streets. Churches, generally progressive, came out to march, as did Delta Airlines, Yum Brands and PNC Bank. The Fairness Campaign very expectedly assembled a colossal congregation wielding rainbow-colored balloons. And so did Brown-Forman, if you wondered if bourbon will be on the right side of history too. The Halloween-themed Seventh Street Haunt’s march felt a bit uncomfortable all things considered, but that was quickly quelled by exuberant drag queens, leather enthusiasts and a giant fuzzy bear (in the literal sense, shortly followed by the figurative sense). Compared to other Pride parades, Louisville’s is a most-everything-goes, but not quite an everything goes. At least not yet.

By my count, there were no fewer than 10 floats dedicated to Orlando. After each one passed, a gentle hush would roll over the parade revelers on both sides of the street, inducing a moment of reflection before a flash mob of the “Time Warp” or an Edward Gorey-ized Hunter S. Thompson would break the collective concentration. The popular “Love Wins” cry, that Gervasi argues is rather heteronormative in its context (“the thing that gets centered is the romantic love of marriage, and not all the civil rights — that’s why marriage was important as a fight…”), took a backseat to other, more creative declarations like “God Hates ‘God Hates’ Signs.” The tiny band of protestors with their flimsy interpretation of the Bible were visually eclipsed by marchers raising their balloons and flags, blocking their odious soapboxing to create a safe entrance into the Festival kick-off party at the Belvedere.

“[It’s] a blessing to see so many of my friends and coworkers. Everyone is here in support,” said Rik Washburn, amongst a group of friends, reveling in the golden hour on an evening of severe clear, as rainbow flags fluttered in a dense crowd surrounding the new Aloft hotel.  “There’s so much love. It’s just a magical night. Not to mention, the weather is made to order right now.”

This November, Kentucky could elect the third openly gay senator in American history, a moment monumental not only for toppling Sen. Rand Paul, but throwing the nation’s image of our state for a loop by sending Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to Washington, a beautiful punctuation after Vicco, in the heart of Appalachia, became the smallest city in the nation to adopt a fairness ordinance. How nice it would be if 2017’s Pride offered more victories to celebrate without the contrasting tragedy.

About the Author

Pride parade kindles debate in LGBTQ movement

Michael C. Powell keeps his spear sharp in many creative endeavors, freelancing as a writer, designer, and photographer whose work has appeared in VICE, The Guardian, PASTE Magazine, The Daily Swarm, IMPOSE, Consequence of Sound, and many others. Michael, who sometimes authors under the nom de plume Kenny Bloggins, loves Twitter and actively abuses the platform at @kbloggins. He is the creator of Welp!, LEO Weekly’s food features gone gonzo.

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