As I scrolled through social media on the first weekend of June — LGBT Pride Month — my online world was bursting with unapologetic queerness. My feed featured a cascade of rainbows, clips from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and loud-and-proud LGBT memes. I cruised Facebook for what felt like hours, a big, gay grin plastered across my face. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I pine for this month each year like a child longs for Christmas.
The TV was playing “The Laramie Project,” a docudrama about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man from Laramie, Wyo. October will mark 20 years since Shepard was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in the cold.
The breakneck pace of progress for the LGBT movement makes it seem like the hatred that killed Shepard is a relic of the distant past. But it’s not. I was 5 when he was killed. In a not-so-distant past, could that have happened to me?
The LGBT movement, like most equality movements, has a body count. There are the names we know, like Shepard’s. There are hundreds of names we don’t know, victims of hate slayings whose lives never got made into movies — or even made the local news. There are the thousands upon thousands who suffered and died early in the AIDS epidemic, while the Reagan administration was making jokes about the disease. How many people could have been saved by a simple public health campaign instead of the indifference shown by those at the highest levels of our government?
As I thought about Shep-ard and the other martyrs of the movement, one phrase rattled around in my head: They died for our Pride.
Those who experience Pride from the outside, for whom it is synonymous with “Pride parade” and the accompanying flamboyant joy, might find such a sobering notion at odds with the apparently festive spirit of gay pride. It’s one of the many ways that society puts us at odds with ourselves.
“Do I contradict myself?” wrote queer American poet Walt Whitman. “Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” For me, Pride contains multitudes. It’s the contentment of being in a community I don’t have to explain myself to. It’s the weariness of having to navigate a world that didn’t give me much in the way of cultural roadmaps to love or sexuality. It’s the sadness I feel when older queer people, who grew up in more oppressive times, talk about the fear, exile and loneliness of their journeys. It’s the gratitude that I’m young and gay in these times, and not those.
Pride is a celebration that is about all those things, good and bad. It’s about celebrating, and also about healing. But I’m concerned about the direction Pride has moved in the years since the Supreme Court decided on marriage equality. The parades, which began as protests against harassment, discrimination and violence, appear to have lost that urgency, even though there is still work to be done. Pride has become, for many of our straight allies who don’t always grasp the depths of its meaning, just another reason to party.
Pride parades have become corporate exercises in performative acceptance, a branding mechanism for “woke” companies, a “pinkwashing” of the same American capitalism that has, in many ways, failed the queer community.
Forty percent of America’s homeless youth are LGBT, according to a 2016 report by Polaris, a not-for-profit that studies human trafficking. The report also determined that they are up to seven times more likely than homeless heterosexuals to engage in “survival sex” to meet basic needs like food and shelter. In 2018, in almost two-thirds of these United States, employers can fire LGBT people because they are LGBT, with no repercussions.
Since 2015, the year we won the right to marry, 86 transgender people have died violently. Each of the past four years has been more deadly than the last for the trans community.
We’re more than just LGBT. We stand at the intersection of a hundred other issues. We are queer women. Queer immigrants. Queer people living in poverty. Queer people of color. Queer people with disabilities. Marriage equality was a big win, but for most of us it was only symbolic. It doesn’t help us with the problems that touch our lives every day.
As Pride Month comes to a close, let’s resolve to do it differently next year. Let’s organize Pride marches, not Pride parades. Let’s keep in mind both our history and our future. Let’s celebrate ourselves and one another by standing up for ourselves and one another, by demanding real, not symbolic, changes that have tangible benefits for the whole queer community. Next Pride Month, let’s do something to truly be proud of.
Zach Gottehrer-Cohen is the assistant editor of the Glen Cove Herald Gazette. Comments about this column? firstname.lastname@example.org.