6 min

Hanging with sexual outlaws at San Francisco Pride

What happens when Pride organizations kowtow to respectability?

Activist group Gay Shame laments the death of Gay Pride at the hands of Corporate Pride Credit: Regan McClure

At some point, I’m not sure when exactly, my in-laws started going to the Pride parade without me. The parents marched with PFLAG, the straight siblings showed up for the party with their friends. And the queer daughter and her wife? We went to the Island. As Pride got more mainstream, I got less and less involved. I noticed this was also true among my peers, so where did all the perverts and activists go? As the parades got bigger, was everyone mingling in a long, happy march together, or did the parade leak participants as it increased in size?

What better place to explore that question than San Francisco? The city celebrated its 40th Pride this year. It was large enough to stop even counting the number of people who attend, so we can look there as the grand-daddy of Pride celebrations.

A week before Toronto celebrated its Pride, I went to SF looking for pervs and transgressive people. It was an easy trek. On my first night, I caught up with Girl Talk, a spoken-word performance intended to foster dialogue between cis and trans women as allies, friends, lovers and partners.

“We’re using storytelling to carry home our points,” said Gina de Vries, one of the organizers. “People can listen to spoken word better than they could absorb a two-hour panel of heavy political discourse. Besides, there isn’t any other defined space for cis and trans women to come together and talk.”

There were 200 people in the room despite the fact that this event came at the tail end of the month-long National Queer Arts Festival, which had 68 events crammed into the program. I managed to attend a single screening of the Frameline film festival the next night. Out of a 10-day program that ran right up to Pride’s bumper, I saw Transtastic! a program of trans-themed shorts, including the premiere of Everyday to Stay by Toronto’s Chase Ryan.
Were these events affiliated with the SF Pride organization? Vaguely. Were they sponsored by it? Not specifically. Did they provide the perfect spearhead to lead into the 2000-person-strong trans march the following day? Oh yes.

The trans march, like a younger sibling of the dyke march that followed the next day, was raucous and political. There were more people of colour per square foot than I saw anywhere at the official Pride parade, and the crowd was younger too. The marches are ostensibly organized for increased visibility to the mainstream world, but it’s really about a community being visible to itself. With so few opportunities to gather in force, each of these events was a community institution that met the social needs of the people who attended as much as anyone else. These events offer the chance to flirt, to walk in public without fear, to be in a moment of majority and experience that freedom, to learn new ideas and prepare defences for the world. None of the people who attend these marches plan on going to Big Pride, which is apparently the nickname for the official Pride parade.

After the trans march, I headed for a party at the Citadel, SF’s legendary dungeon. It was beyond impressive: 5,400 square feet on two levels stocked with St Andrew’s crosses, spanking benches, bondage tables, swings, spreader bars, suspension equipment, recovery space, outlets for electrical play, cages and anything your pervy heart could desire. It is the centrepiece of SF’s BDSM community.

“It’s a permanent space that tries to be inclusive and serve the whole community,” said Ajax, one of the party hosts. It provides ongoing training and social support, as well as access to a play space that’s the size of most gyms.

“I don’t go to [Big] Pride anymore,” said Ajax. “That’s for tourists and straight people.” But Big Pride is still a product of the creativity and volunteer support of the queer community, including the Citadel. “The whole city is on fire for months, organizing everything, prepping floats and events. It’s a huge effort to put together.”

Leather alley is the official kinky presence at Big Pride and it sounds like a fun place to turn a corner and get lost. In reality it’s a half-block hidden behind a screen of blue tarps. A volunteer checked ID and asked for donations on the way inside, but after that any newbie could watch kinky demonstrations, buy equipment from local gear makers and join new groups. I asked the volunteers at Exile, the kinky women’s group, why they were here instead of at Folsom Street Fair in the fall.

“At Folsom we get experienced players who haven’t heard about our group, but this is where we get people who are just plain curious,” she said. “People who literally know nothing and no one, but are motivated enough to come in and see what’s here.”

I turned down the offer of a free decorative piercing on my chest and browsed the group’s literature instead. The newbie group is a month later. She said they get a distinct bump in membership every Pride and considered it worth the effort to be here, despite ongoing negotiation with the Pride committee. The giant blue tarp, for example, was a compromise that allowed the group to give explicit sexy demonstrations in the midst of an all-ages event. That delicate negotiation was apparently lost on the two randomly naked men masturbating for the delighted crowd just one street over, but I didn’t mention that at the time. It’s the thought that counts.

“I’m just glad they don’t put us in the next county, so people can’t find us,” said the Exile volunteer. “If people are looking, we’re here.”
And if you missed your chance at the flogging station, the Citadel passed out information about their constant stream of kink events that were running all week to capture your imagination.

So the short answer is that SF Pride looks a lot like Toronto Pride, but bigger. The more interesting answer is that the progressive and transgressive communities are expanding their own institutions even as Big Pride levels off. The month-long arts festival, the film festival, the trans march, perv parties and side-events proliferate beyond the scope of anything we see in Toronto. The only reason they don’t run competing events during the actual hours of Big Pride is because everyone’s too busy volunteering or too tired from other events.

But the connection between these events and communities is solid. Those 200 people at Girl Talk will be present among the 2,000 people in the trans march, who in turn change the tenor of Big Pride itself. In some diluted form, those new politics and discussions will shift the centre a tiny bit sideways.

But Big Pride loses part of its purpose if it lets its latent political power leak away. Take the issue of sponsorships, for example. Can’t we award sponsorships based on the commitment of companies to, say, provide innovative programs supporting trans people in the workplace? Or are we content to slap a rainbow on a beer or a bank and call it gay? Doing so sparks reactions from the activist heart of the community, such as Gay Shame. In SF, they engaged in a quick bit of cultural jamming to mourn the death of Gay Pride and its replacement – Corporate Pride. It only took about 15 activists to pull together a fake coffin and perform a cry-in to make their point, since it’s such an obvious one.

But Gay Shame has no audience unless Big Pride collects it for them, and Big Pride will turn into the fake orgasm of street festivals without some focus to keep itself together. Big Pride is not the beginning, or the end, of our queer pride. It’s just another community institution that needs to stay relevant as it ages.

A good example of that is the dust-up over Israeli apartheid. The whole affair has given more newspaper column inches to a small community group than QuAIA could have ever organized on its own. But that happened because Big Pride hasn’t presented its own coherent political message.

Big Pride is an event with a huge audience and media attention, but a vacuum of political content. Can’t Big Pride offer queer alliance and support for the sexual freedom of kinky straight people who are fired from their jobs because they got caught getting a spanking? Is there no space on Big Pride’s flyer to urge support for MP Bill Siksay’s bill to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act? How can people leave Big Pride and not be made aware of these issues? Are we afraid they won’t love us if we talk too much about the gay thing? Are we trying to turn a celebration of adult sexuality into a family-friendly fun fair? If Big Pride leaks political focus from its agenda, it’s only natural to expect other groups to pick it up.

In some ways, I’m not too worried about the ability of activists to fend for themselves and create new institutions when old ones falter. After all, the Take Back the Dyke march was ample demonstration of Toronto’s ability to pull together 4,000 political queers with no funding and little notice. At the same time, it’s incorrect to argue that Pride is irrelevant when so many people vote with their feet. If half a million people think Big Pride is worth their time, then that means that it meets their social or political needs.

The truth of Pride is that this thing is bigger than all of us. It’s gathering the courage to walk into leather alley and ask for the spanking you’ve always wanted. It’s the pamphlet you hand out to the crowds. It’s the pamphlet you read and call the number at the bottom. It’s the random meeting of someone you haven’t seen in years. It’s the ordinary events made larger with gathering energy. It’s the stranger who comes from out of town and ends up naked in your bed. Pride is where our community comes together. Even across a continent, I ran into a dozen local connections that link our little worlds together. But if Big Pride ceases to do anything but put on a party for straight people and tourists, I can just as easily make that trip some other time. And all those people can find something else to do with a Sunday afternoon in June.