I can’t imagine a better slogan for this Sunday’s Gay Pride Parade than the one Paris ACT UP recently came up with: “Proud of What?” To be sure, that question doesn’t reflect the rainbow spirit. But neither does it dismiss the idea of pride. It tries to give pride a point, and a more substantial one than simply being gay. Proud of what? is a real question. Is there a real answer?
The going wisdom is that the lesbian and gay movement is finally winning a place at the table. The legitimacy of gay identity is no longer contested outside the religious right, and it seems like only a matter of time before we are granted full civil rights. Our day has apparently come.
At the same time, most people I know—smart, scarcely apathetic people, of different generations—say they are fed up and bored with a movement that only seems to crave acceptance from an imaginary mainstream. Gay pride is over, they proclaim. Are they right?
Gay pride has always had its discontents. Stonewall itself magnetized so many kinds of pent-up antagonism that any official attempt to celebrate it sounds phony. From the beginning, liberationists denounced the lesbian and gay movement as assimilationist, commercialized, conformist, exclusionary, and generationally passé. More recently, queer theory has cultivated a distrust of the underlying idea of a common sexual identity. The axiom of queer life, as Eve Sedgwick writes in her Epistemology of the Closet, is that people are different. Everyone deviates from the norm. That is hardly a formula for a common identity—or for pride.
What identity encompasses queer girls who fuck queer boys with strap-ons, or FTMs (female-to-male transsexuals) who think of themselves as queer, FTMs who think of themselves as straights, or FTMs for whom life is a project of transition and screw the categories anyway?
Transpeople and other activists have gotten better at making such questions heard and raising the policy issues that are so poorly met by a gay movement fixated on marriage, monogamy, and military service. Meanwhile, the more the movement celebrates its own legitimacy in the mainstream media, the more people are freed—or forced—to measure their distance from it. Criticisms once confined to queer theory can now be lived out and expressed in politics.
This Queer Issue is devoted to such discontents. Each article describes a life outside the boundaries of gay identitarianism. Each is driven by the difficulties of living in a normal world. And each shows that the problems won’t be solved by having more gay pride. The world they anticipate—one that includes you, I hope—is not based on being gay, however many gay and lesbian people it might include. It is a world full of alterity, where people respect variance from the norm, something gay culture has often done but is now in danger of forgetting. Alterity poses a deeper challenge than mere diversity. It requires a culture of encounter, a space for transformation that doesn’t specify everyone’s identity in advance. That’s what a Stonewall holiday could be about.
At its best, gay pride is still an incomparable event. Suddenly the city works by a new set of rules. Look how many queer folks there are! You don’t have to seek them through chat rooms, bars, or subtle glances. All you have to do is walk outside. There are all kinds of people. They don’t share any kind of identity; they just live in a city that, for a single day, stops presuming the heterosexuality even of people who sleep with another sex. If they share anything, it is a history of disruption, of learning to live through shame, of having to overcome the resistance of the world in order to be here and to build this culture together. Not an identity, but a project for making a new world—an unpredictable world, in which people differ and there’s always something new to learn.
Proud of what? Proud of that.
Michael Warner is the author of The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (The Free Press).