50 Years After Stonewall: the Good, the Bad, and the Tacky

This year (2019), there has been noticeably more emphasis placed on Pride Month. One obvious reason is that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot in Greenwich Village, New York City.

Aside from that, I think this year is just the next step of an accelerating trend. This year more than ever, rainbows are on display everywhere, from store windows to the screen of the ATMs at Wells Fargo. For the past several years my former employer, Intel, has flown rainbow flags outside each of its offices, including some in foreign nations.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, it’s amazing to think about how far our society has evolved with regard to accepting and respecting differently-oriented people, particularly in the U.S.

It’s amazing to think about how far we have come in just the past decade. Only ten years ago, same-sex couples could not get legally married in most states. In fact, many states had enacted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and California’s Prop 8 had recently passed. Just ten years ago, LGBT people could not serve openly in the military.

The subsequent achievement of equal marriage rights and open military service has not just immeasurably improved the lives of LGBT people, it has brought about a rapid and noticeable shift in society. A solid majority of U.S. citizens now support equality for LGBT people.

LGBT people have become mainstream and perhaps even fashionable, at least for one month each year. Pride Month has become a bandwagon that many people, organizations, and corporations seem eager and willing to jump on.

This omnipresence of rainbows was driven home during a recent visit to Home Goods (a discount chain that sells overstock items) when I noticed a rainbow-colored flask with the legend “Love is Love,” packaged in a rainbow-striped box and displayed on the impulse-buy shelves leading up to the cash registers. ($12.99, if you’re curious.)

In that moment, I pondered how 50 years of struggling for equality has to led to having tacky rainbow-colored merchandise peddled to us. It’s hard to know whether the goal of those who create and market such merchandise is to express support for LGBT people or simply to make money from us. I suspect it’s the latter.

But in a way, this might be what we have been asking for all along. For the past three decades, LGBT employee resource groups have been trying to convince their employers that we represent a desirable subset of the market for their products, armed with data asserting our community’s purchasing power and promises of how brand-loyal we will be with all that extra disposable income we theoretically have. The Human Rights Commission publishes an annual Corporate Equality Index to let LGBT people everywhere know which companies are or are not good places to work and, by extension, which ones should receive our coveted gay dollars and which should not.

So I guess it should come as no surprise that companies are marketing products to us. We pretty much told them to do it. So now we have rainbow flasks, rainbow incense burners, rainbow coffee mugs, rainbow liquor bottles, rainbow dog accessories, and just about anything else that could come in six colors. I suppose we should have been more careful what we asked for.

The Kinsey Sicks, “America’s favorite dragappella beautyshop quartet,” summed up this trend with their parody of “By My Side” from Godspell, called “Buy My Pride.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to surround myself with rainbow-colored everything to remind myself that I’m gay. I don’t need rainbows to feel better about myself. Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I think rainbows are a fashionable choice for clothing or decor. I guess you could say that I am “over” the rainbow.

This month, and especially this weekend, it’s great to celebrate. But after all the rainbow flag-waving and merchandising, let’s not forget that we still do not have laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in many states nor at the federal level. LGBT people can still be denied housing or turned away from businesses in many places. Republicans still demonize us in order to raise funds and attract voters. Even some corporations who allocate money for funding their LGBT employee groups, marketing to the LGBT community, and sponsoring entries in Pride parades still make campaign contributions to rabidly homophobic politicians when it serves their business interests. (Learn more here.)

I want to see these problems solved. I don’t want tacky rainbow merchandise foisted upon me.

But I suppose that seeing rainbow flags, clothing, bumper stickers, and merchandise is an indication of more widespread support. And it probably annoys fundamentalists, so maybe it’s worth it.

While I have my curmudgeon hat on, I’m going to raise the topic of whether, or for how much longer, we still need to have Pride parades and Pride festivals.

I also don’t like what our Pride festivals have become. They used to serve as that one time every year when people could gather and feel the comfort and empowerment of being in the majority for a few brief hours. They were a gay oasis in an overwhelmingly straight world. The one place where we could kiss or hold hands in public. A place where we could discover social and support organizations that existed for us.

Now, thankfully, it’s easier than ever to be openly gay in everyday life. In many places, two men or two women can hold hands and nobody gives it a second thought. Soon after marriage equality became a reality, most straight people found that they could celebrate same-sex weddings without thinking twice about it.

As a side note, I am a wedding officiant. I have officiated countless same-sex weddings where almost all of the guests were straight and enthusiastically supportive, and extremely few in which the couple only invited their gay friends.

But back to Pride festivals. Now, at least in Phoenix, our Pride festival is depressing and embarrassing. Many people come just to get shit-faced drunk. Much of the clothing is tacky and trashy. I suppose I should celebrate every person’s freedom to express themselves through their clothing and their behavior as they choose, but – it’s really unflattering. It’s pathetic. Sadly, the Pride festival has become the Shame festival. I’m not looking for beautiful people and fashionable, expensive clothing. But it would be nice to see decency and self-respect as part of the enduring benefits of 50 years of struggle for acceptance.

As the LGBT community becomes more and more mainstream and widely accepted, is it even necessary to have parades and festivals? We have websites and search engines to steer us to LGBT-friendly businesses and organizations. We still need political awareness and activism, but none of that is generated from these events. We still have many who are struggling with self-acceptance and acceptance from their families and co-workers, but a tawdry drunk-fest will hardly help their situation. In fact, it’s a very poor representation of the LGBT community for those who are just coming out. It’s a bleak portrayal of what it means to be LGBT.

In the U.S. and in many other countries (certainly not all), we are closer to full legal equality and social acceptance than ever before. There will always be narrow-minded, unaccepting people (just as there will always be racists, sexists, ageists, etc.), but we are truly within reach of the full inclusion of LGBT people into society.

When that day comes, will we still need to wave rainbow flags, wear rainbow clothing, and buy rainbow merchandise?

Do we really want to be fully assimilated? In many ways, it’s kind of neat to be unique and different – although as more and more people live openly, being gay is not so unique and different.

But until we reach the day when every child who senses that he or she is different can be embraced and raised with equal love and not bullied, shamed, and kicked out of the house, we need to keep waving the flags and having Pride months. And we owe it to them to present our community in the most uplifting, positive was possible.

As we move forward from the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we need to focus on and work toward the right objectives, and treat ourselves with the same dignity and self-acceptance that we want to receive from others.

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© 2019 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.

Photo credits:
Stonewall Inn: Eric Fischer. Some rights reserved.
Rainbow flask and Rainbow cava bottles: Dave Hughes
Crowd waving flags: Naeismasgary
Six rainbow flags: Jasmin Sessler

1 thought on “50 Years After Stonewall: the Good, the Bad, and the Tacky

  • I love this post, Dave – very thought-provoking! And while I’m also not a huge fan of rainbow decor, I think Pride parades are still necessary and will be for some time to come. Just as people of color and females need to be “fully assimilated” – not the SAME as everybody else, but fully accepted and treated with equal respect in our society.

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