When Gay Was Gayer

Proud Anglicans, sensible sunhats, really.

Proud Anglicans, sensible sunhats, really.

Remember when the Pride celebrations made straight people anxious?  Speaking as a lardy, middle-aged, breeder, the bane of gay folk in a social setting, I do.  For one hot summer weekend, we knew that lawlessness would grip Toronto’s gay ghetto and all hell would break out.

It wasn’t rioting and looting we feared.  It was public nudity, sexually ambiguous behavior, public consumption of alcohol, and, most terrible of all, endless exuberance.

The gathered throngs were threatening, not because mobs are unpredictable, but because they turned the straight majority into a minority for the day.  This inversion undermined our cherished illusions about how God and nature intended us to be the dictators of social and sexual norms.

Immersion in the gay community was like a trip to a foreign land where many familiar social cues and expressions are altered in their meanings.  I know people who can’t read Savage Love in Now Magazine without wearing a decoder ring.  Even the most enlightened among us can’t make sense of the various gender-bending acronyms that the GLBT people use as short hand.  Fifty one weeks of the year, GWM means “ground water management,” to most of us, but in the Pride crowd, this means “gay white male.”

For casual conversation, the personal ads in Fab or Xtra might serve as a dictionary.  But the heavy duty, politically correct terms, which gain in significance during the runup to Pride, are enigmatic to the straight mind.  For example, according to Windsorpride.com:

The longest and most inclusive term in use in Canada is LGBTTIQQ2SAA which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transexual, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, Two Spirited, Asexual and Ally.

Wardrobe choices could also be both distancing and isolating for the straight onlookers at Pride, which probably mirrors an experience gay folk have in the straight world.  No matter how GP (gay positive) I want to be, I’ll never feel comfortable on a public street dressed only in a feather boa, Elton John glasses, body paint, and sparkles.  Only at Pride can a Torontonian expect to see such fashion forward costumes without the police becoming involved.

So what happened to the big, scary, immersive, countercultural experience that was once Pride?

I’ll tell you what happened:  too many straight people jumped in as soon as it became safe to be gay.  With a lesbian Premier headlining the parade, and every political party marching in the vanguard, the event became a magnet for sober, responsible people.  Premier Wynne looked fashionably ordinary in her modest red dress, and the phalanx of trade unions and essential service groups that followed were likewise ordinary and modest.

I don’t have an infallible gaydar, but I suspect the majority of people in the parade, and a majority of people watching the parade, were straight.  There were simply too many unattractive and badly dressed marchers for them all to have been gay.  You wouldn’t survive a day on Church Street in baggy, off-brand jeans, saggy t-shirts, and bad hair.  No one should have been fooled by the double entendre placards bearing hilarious messages like Crimestoppers’ “your tip is safe with us.”

And what, for that matter, is gay about the five or more political parties represented in the parade?  Or the half dozen labour unions, the firemen, the police, and the EMS (emergency medical services) workers?  Naturally they’re all welcome to show their support for Pride and the LGBTTIQQ2SAA community(ies), but do they contribute to the event’s essential gayness?

I don’t think so.  And that’s a problem.  Because if Pride becomes too straight, it’s not going to attract anyone.  What would happen if Caribana went predominantly white?    Imagine the Bieb in front of steel drums on a flatbed truck, trying to sing anthems from Burning Spear, with a “Haile Selassie for Mayor” T-shirt over his leather onesies.  Or worse, what if Mardi Gras in New Orleans suffered a sudden influx of sober people? Christians at the Wailing Wall, Jews making pilgrimage to Mecca, blondes at a Mensa convention, cats at a dog show…  It would be ruinous!

Far better that all the straight well-wishers at Pride contributed money for floats and costumes than that they turn a celebratory gay parade into a march of dull gay advocates.  It’s a tricky proposition, but somehow organizers have to maintain straight interest in Pride without diluting its outrageous gay character.  If Pride becomes too straight, it will lose its power as a cross cultural experience, and will gradually decline in support and scale as a result.

I don’t mean to offend anyone when I say this, but I expect to hear that Pride is perfect.  In some ways, I would agree.   Where else can you crowd hundreds of thousands of people in the hot sun with no outbreak of violence or aggression?  Good will was in the air.  It was remarkable.

Yet its power is derived from spectacle, from the confrontation of strangeness and the acceptance of differences.  As it becomes more blended, too much is lost for what is gained.

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