In the era of urban enlightenment we who live in the big cities often forget the power of those two words.
In 1971 when a group a few hundred queers, male and female, gathered on one of the Toronto islands to celebrate their shared sexual identities being homosexual was still classified as a mental illness and most homosexual acts were illegal everywhere.
So, for those people in the late sixties and early seventies who started these original public gatherings, before they were called Pride Festivals, what they were doing, the act of admitting publicly that they were gay and proud of it, was one of the most profound and dangerous acts of civil disobedience an individual could commit.
Ten years later, when the Bathhouse raids happened in a number of cities across Canada and hundreds of gay men were arrested on trumped-up morality charges, the anger from the event and the resulting protests fed the growing Gay Pride movement. People weren’t just gathering for picnics and political planning now, they were demonstrating their anger and their unwillingness to continue to be exploited by taking to the streets.
My journey toward my own gay pride started in high school as I sought out and read the many works of the gay authors that were open to me. As that happened, and as I moved into the world of the theatre, I started to meet friends, lovers and mentors who were not only gay but also decidedly not shy about sharing the fact. From these older men, as well as a few lesbian friends, I learned that having outsider status can be a great advantage when one is an artist; that being gay was nothing to be ashamed of but actually a gift.
My first need to take part in a shared Gay Pride came, as I suspect it did for many people, in the last half of the 1980’s and the beginning of the 90’s when the AIDS crisis was at its horrifying apex. Everyone in the community was suddenly confronted with sickness, death and heart-numbing fear. And despite of this, or because of it, the idea of Gay Pride, like the events themselves, suddenly took off.
For me, and I’m quite willing to admit this could be entirely generational, those years were the golden-age of Gay Pride. As our chosen families were falling around us we refused to be silent or give in to despair. If the partying, drug taking and casual (now safe) sex was increasing so too was the community’s impatience with the straight world sitting by and doing nothing while so many died so painfully.
People who are facing imminent death don’t have a lot to lose and I don’t think that fact can be removed from the many battles we won and inroads that were made during that period. In the mid-nineties, at the insistence of those who were infected, a new regime of drugs was approved and the lives of those living with HIV and AIDS were significantly improved. Ten years later equal marriage became law in Canada. Gray Pride was a strong and powerful force and it was changing the world.
But, as so often happens, Gay Pride became a victim of its own success. First the word Gay was taken out of the title just as the festival, which had always been previously funded by the community and participants, began to receive money from various levels of government. Corporations, who’d been insinuating their moneyed tentacles into the festival for a decade, were suddenly so ubiquitous it was possible for someone to be just high enough to think they were at a Labatt’s Blue or Toronto Dominion Bank festival.
The thing we celebrate now is not Gay Pride and I suppose that’s natural. Everything changes. But I have to say I can’t relate to this week-long, overcrowded, oddly run event they try to pass off as Pride every year with it’s fenced in parade, puking kids and middle-aged straight couples wishing each other a “Happy Pride.” (I always have to suppress the urge to ask those couples what exactly they’ve done for the queer community that they should be proud of).
The whole makes me long for a lovely gathering on an island with a couple of hundred like minded people that are banding together to show the world who they are while planning ways to improve it. I want to spend time with people who are queer and proud. I want to celebrate defiance toward the status quo, not commercial success and conformity.
I want a picnic.