6 min

Evolution, not revolution

Pride was born in fear & anger - those were the days!

ANGRY PROTEST? Participants in the 1999 Pride Parade don't necessarily share the attitudes of the event's founders. Credit: Xtra files

I barely suppress a fit of giggles as Kyle Rae describes the first officially incorporated Pride Day in 1981.

How simple it all was.

“Gary Kinsman brought a tape player and tapes,” Rae says. “I danced wearing my usual army surplus outfit. My friend Jim McNeil’s parents made peanut butter and baloney sandwiches that they sold. And Lionel Collier and Andy Fenje sold quiche off an ironing board.”

But Rae’s recollections aren’t all sentimental. He also remembers the atmosphere of “fear and anger” that permeated the event, coming only a few weeks after police raided Toronto’s bathhouses, arresting hundreds of men and destroying property: “The police videotaped and photographed us as we marched past 52 Division.”

Pride, as fanciful as it has become, has its roots in activism, primarily the result of the work of (now defunct) groups like Gays And Lesbians Against The Right Everywhere. It is this dynamic shift from a homogeneous political reaction against oppression to a more complex, inclusive one that distinguishes present Prides from past ones.

While early Prides were the domain of predominantly white men making a statement against authority – be it police harassment or the handling of the AIDS crisis – it has become a gathering of the tribes: bears, SM lesbians, transgendered people, corporate fags and club kids let their subcultures mingle for the pleasure of growing crowds of heterosexuals.

The result, despite any controversy the sight of occasional naked men and women may create, is that recent Prides are less threatening than early ones. There’s much less finger pointing. With fun winning out over politics, Pride has become a celebration of diversity within a minority group. Dialogue rather than message, sharing rather than agenda.

Being openly gay or lesbian used to mean being openly political and fighting against stereotypes. After all, it used to be films like The Boys In The Band, with its self-hating and catty cast of characters, that established people’s ideas of who queers were.

Compare today’s mega, corporate-sponsored extravaganza, which gets mostly positive coverage from even the conservative media, to the Pride of yesteryear.

“It was almost impossible to get people to perform. Males definitely wouldn’t,” says Rae. “And there were no spectators.” Though he likes what Pride has become, Rae admits the meaning has shifted. It’s no longer a local, community event, but a regional one. With Pride as a hot tourist draw, it seems inevitable that a sense of local, political urgency would be lost.

Pride, which for the past few years has been catering to roughly 750,000 people, is now about big bucks. People come from out of town, rent hotel rooms, eat in our restaurants and drink in our bars. An estimate of $50-million in revenue for the city from last year’s Pride is not an unreasonable one. Politicians and cops are not about to start raining on a money making parade.

Former Pride co-chair Michael McGaraughty (1995 and 1996) echoes Rae’s nostalgia for the good old days. Those original parades were “small, but wonderful.”

“But they were really white male oriented. There were nine men for each woman and I didn’t see much, if any, visible minority representation,” McGaraughty says.

In the beginning, the reaction of the city was also less than welcoming. The festivities used to take place in Grange Park, behind the Art Gallery Of Ontario.

“The city flooded Grange Park [with water] so that we couldn’t get into the middle of it,” says McGaraughty. Situations like that encouraged a feeling of urgency and solidarity. In 1983, McGaraughty remembers “feeling thrills and chills as Parachute Club started the party off with ‘Rise Up.’

“I also recall dancing in this hideous outfit – striped shorts with a steel blue collarless New Wave shirt. I had shoulder length hair, so I was mistaken for a woman without even trying.”

Gary Kinsman, like Rae and McGaraughty, is articulate, educated, white and male. He’s a university instructor, author and one of the first Pride organizers.

“The movement was quite real, with people coming out directly into the movement,” he says. “There was a sense of power from doing it for the first time.”

With the scope of Pride broadening, Kinsman feels something is missing. The fact that the parade now draws all kinds of spectators looking for an afternoon’s entertainment makes it less revolutionary.

“What has been lost is political focus. What was once a day of proclaiming solidarity with other oppressed groups has become a day for the ghetto to come out. When we would be chanting to passers-by, there was a more direct challenge to the hetero majority,” Kinsman says.

If Toronto’s Pride has become a slightly less hedonistic version of Sydney’s Mardi Gras, it could be because of the sheer numbers involved. McGaraughty says the Pride committee now has its hands full coordinating street closures, toilets and public safety, leaving it with little time to worry about initiating any one political agenda.

“Pride was for us,” says Susan G Cole, associate editor at Now magazine. “Now it’s more a spectator sport for heteros. The Dyke March [first held in 1996] bears more of a resemblance to old Pride marches. People, like they used to, still jump up and join the march.”

Cole, whose band No Frills played at the original Pride, points out how the meaning and perception of Pride has changed. Where once police aimed their watchful eye on marchers, now they tend to protect the marchers.

Arlene Bush is administrator of the Two Spirited Peoples Of The First Nations Centre, which provides HIV/AIDS support for native people. agrees that Pride has become an apolitical event. But if that means being more inclusive, apolitical has its advantages. Her community has gradually increased its involvement. In 1992, when the group first entered the parade, there were only 10 participants. Last year there were 25.

“It is up to visible minority communities or interest groups to work at increasing their own presence,” Bush says.

Rabin Ramah, coordinator of the Men Together project of the Black Coalition For AIDS Prevention, says he’s pleased by an increase in visible minority representation. But he’s also unfazed by the lack of it in the past.

My first Pride in the ’80s, he says, “was wonderful. Recently I’ve seen a lot more people of colour. It really surprised me. Personally, I want to be part of Pride because your [gay] community support is there. Honestly, I’m not looking for support from the black community.”

Ramah sees Pride as a forum for people in the queer community to see just how different we all are. For him, gay culture trumps his other cultural identities, as it includes them.

“I was here when AIDS started. To date, 38 friends have died from AIDS. Only two were black,” he says. Ramah sees Pride as a way of celebrating his friendships with other members of the community, whatever their race.

Masochists or magicians, Pride 2000 co-chairs Scott Ferguson and Tami Kazan and the committee have taken on the Herculean task of ensuring that an event that will attract at least 750,000 people will go off without any major hitches. Ferguson remembers his first Pride in ’88: drinking and dancing while sporting “the skimpiest little pair of shorts and a brush cut, after years of attending high school in big, fluffy hair.”

He also remembers that Pride had already started becoming less political in the late ’80s, when a controversy got things charged up again. Pride always manages to reflect its times.

“In 1994, because of the defeat of Bill 167 [an NDP government initiative that would have recognized same-sex couples in Ontario], there was more of a political feel.” The parade circled Queen’s Park for the first time.

With the size of Pride as large as it is now, Ferguson says he thinks it would be too unwieldy to make politics a primary focus.

“It’s about community,” he says. “The biggest change is the presence of so many different communities that you only hear about if you check Xtra’s community listings. These communities are in your face now when you go to Pride.”

Pride has become a noun to which can be attached any number of adjectives (black, transgendered, Asian, etc). Does that, however, introduce the danger of Pride becoming something else – an ill-defined massive street party?

Kazan suggests the answer lies with the next generation. She’s noticed an increase in youth representation at Pride. Crediting Janis Purdy of Supporting Our Youth with getting the ball rolling, the queer youth group Fruit Loopz was first in, officially joining in the Pride festivities in 1999.

“They have traditionally been left out of just about everything,” says Kazan.

With queer youth getting more of a voice, it’s possible that post baby boomer, post Generation X generation, these young up and comers will become even more inclusive, introducing other political agendas like unemployment, underemployment, environmentalism and education.

Right now, organizers have become so busy with pragmatic issues that they have less control over shaping the meaning of Pride and its many messages of sexual liberation, hedonism and solidarity. For her part, Kazan tells me her preparations for the big day centre around finding something to wear that is conducive to hauling beer and dragging tables.

Pride remains the safest demonstration or parade in the city. But whether it reflects diversity, a particular political agenda or is merely an excuse for queers to strut their stuff is up to its participants to decide.