"Should you be Here?" Reflections on Pride, Allyship & Taking up Space
I just wrapped up my second year attending Pride Toronto, and it was as filled with emotion and energy as I remembered it being last year.
The streets were overflowed with people celebrating, dressed in everything from the most elaborately crafted costumes, to wearing no clothing whatsoever.
As I navigated through the bustling crowds with my friends, I was yet again overcome with how tremendously lucky I am to have folks in my life who are willing to share Pride weekend with me. At the same time, because I have never felt I can identify comfortably within the Queer Community because of my own laws of attraction and life experiences, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on my very existence within the spaces I found myself in throughout the weekend.
I had one conversation in particular with a brilliant and special friend that brought about much of this reflection. We talked about my being at Pride as a non-queer, cisgender, white man, and then more broadly about Growth Myndset. While the questions surrounding Growth Myndset's privileged location within the space of anti-oppressive education, advocacy, and activism will need to be unpacked in a reflection on its own, the part of our discussion about Pride was an important one for me.
Together, we asked and worked through our thoughts on questions that I ponder every single day, that revolve around the following central premise:
More specifically, in the context of Pride, should straight, white people be at these parties and at the parade?
In order to answer these questions, I'm going to outline my answers to some related questions that folks of privilege need to start becoming comfortable answering for themselves.
Should you be here?
Is Pride for 'allies' too?
Before we can even begin to answer this question, we have to unpack the term "ally" firmly and outright.
Allyship, in theory, is a nice sentiment. It is generally a good thing if folks want to be inclusive and supportive towards other people, especially when other people are experiencing varying forms of discrimination and oppression that "allies" do not.
When people label themselves "allies", regardless of intent, they are inherently cashing in on whatever social capital exists to be gained from taking up what most see as a worthy social location. This type of allyship ceases its focus on alleviating oppressive systems and begins serving the "ally" themselves.
In other words, allyship loses its teeth, effectiveness, and value to those who actually want/need solidarity, advocacy, or activism.
The word "ally" is not innately toxic, as it does sometimes get applied by those who are experiencing various systems of oppression to describe those who they perceive and experience as genuinely helpful and supportive. If you get called an ally, you have likely done something of value for a particular cause or person, and you should try and find ways of doing so again in the future. Use it as positive reinforcement!
It is not a medal or badge of honour to be flaunted; it should never be sought out. To accountably navigate one's privilege and participate meaningfully in social justice activism, allyship needs to cease being a label and instead become a suggested pattern of behaviour.
The problem is this: there simply is not a productive outcome of someone calling themselves an ally.
The answer is actually incredibly simple: Pride is absolutely not for allies.
Pride is not for people who are trying to find ways to be supportive and inclusive who do not themselves experience the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, femmephobia, cissexism, racism, and classism that is central to Pride and its events.
Pride is a space for folks to be able to express their most organic, genuine, and fabulous selves in a space that celebrates all of the above.
And, sometimes, Pride isn't about celebration at all; Pride is often a space for radical political activism.
So is Pride for 'allies'?
Why is Pride so political these days? Why can't we just celebrate sexual & gender diversity and be positive like Pride is supposed to be?
If you haven't taken it upon yourself yet to learn about where and how Pride started, it's absolutely time.
Pride's origin story goes back to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 outside of New York City's Greenwich Inn. Pride literally started out as a riot incited by violence perpetrated by Police.
The story of the first Pride March prominently features Marsha P. Johnson - a revolutionary black transwoman, activist, drag queen, and sex worker. Standing up against overtly transphobic, racist, and bigoted violence, Pride was borne out of fearless political activism against intersecting systems of oppressive violence.
Today, it would seem as if the prevailing conceptualization of Pride is a happy celebration of the LGBTQ+ community with a joyous parade, lots of glitter, and rainbows galore.
Sure, that is part of what Pride has morphed into, and I've spoken to a number of queer friends who have explained how this celebration is as happy and safe as they are able to ever feel in our world. There is value to the spectacle and glitter.
That said, we mustn't ever forget where Pride comes from. It started as, and continues to be a space for transformative radical activism; for folks to be fed up and angry; for folks to march dressed in all black with their hands raised in protest; for folks to demand more of the institutions that continually under-fund and under-value their lives and safety.
It is not my place or the place of other straight, cis, and/or white folks to try and dictate what Pride should look and feel like, nor can we be complicit in the erasure of the lives and legacies of leaders like Marsha P. Johnson.
And hey, if the protests and radical activism makes you feel uncomfortable, it's never a bad idea to engage with that discomfort to find out what you're feeling and why you feel it. You won't believe what you're able to learn about yourself. It can be terribly unsettling, but it's entirely necessary if you want to figure out how your privilege insulates you from so many things in our world, and ultimately how you can be accountable and helpful.
Lots of people who aren't part of the LGBTQ+ Community march with various companies represented in the parade... is that a bad thing?
I hate to figuratively rain on the literal parade that I enjoy so much, but with the ongoing corporatization of Pride events, if you work for a company with money that is looking to cash in on the parade, you'll likely have the opportunity to join the march yourself, and we should talk about that.
With float after float of big banks, telecommunications companies, and corporations across different industries represented, there is a distinct flavour of capitalism with tasting notes of exploitation that have infiltrated the palate at Pride parades that we ought to all be a little miffed by. Companies are literally slapping a rainbow onto their logo, coming up with a slogan that connects their industry to sexual & gender diversity, generating a #hashtag about love or being yourself, and profiting off of Pride and its mission.
To be abundantly clear, this is far from a condemnation of any employees who choose to march with these companies in the parade, regardless of their identities. If the opportunity arises and it means something to you to participate, taking part in the march seems like a no-brainer.
It's also not a suggestion that companies that don't participate in Pride at all are more commendable than those that do.
It is, however, a plea that we do not allow "Pride" from these companies, often in the form of fancy PR campaigns, to excuse the all-too-common human rights failures in their various business dealings, organizational structures, and hiring policies. If corporations want in, we have to demand that they actually serve the communities they are claiming to support.
For me, it's not black and white. It's not so simple as saying all corporate involvement is a terrible thing to see. There is often money that will go towards grassroots community programs and organizations that do actually serve people, and I would rather these organizations receive funding as part of a corporate marketing strategy than to see them go without it. I do, however, think we need to be aware of how we engage with what we see during Pride month on the part of big corporations.
Symbolic allyship doesn't get any less problematic when performed by corporations rather than by individual people.
So, let's have it: should straight/cis/white folks attend Pride at all?
I guess there isn't a ton of suspense on this one seeing as I've been each of the past two years, but alas, it's important to explore more deeply.
Yes, I think there is a particular role that, if understood and maintained, can be a tremendously beneficial addition to Pride and those who attend.
It would be pretty rich to outline all of the issues with problematic allyship before speaking from privilege and saying that I am a valuable addition to Pride. Instead, I'm going to share with you how I came to this conclusion by speaking to some of my queer friends about their experiences of Pride.
Pride is not for or about me. It is, however, about/for folks within the LGBTQ+ Community to celebrate and engage with this weekend and month in whichever ways are productive and safe.
I had a queer friend of mine come up to me at a party yesterday before the parade to ask me something.
She explained that her sister, who doesn't identify within the LGBTQ+ community, was feeling pretty uncomfortable about taking up space at the party and going to the parade. Her sister understood that the weekend wasn't about her, and as a result of some conversations she'd had, she didn't feel like she belonged at Pride.
So, she asked me how I had come to feel comfortable engaging with Pride.
I told her that I thought a lot about those questions throughout the weekend and that I couldn't say that I ever truly felt 100% comfortable, but that it came down entirely to one thing:
Friend: "What's that?"
Me: "Does it mean more to you to experience Pride alongside your friends, and your sister in particular? Is this something special to be able to share with her? Would you be a little sad if she wasn't here with you?"
Friend: "Absolutely yes to all of the above!"
Me: "Well, I've had that conversation with my best friends, and that's why I'm here."
Not everyone has the support of their friends and family.
Last year, I wrote about watching PFLAG march through the street and feeling overwhelmed when thinking about how many kids lack the love and support those children were feeling as they walked with their families.
There are folks whose friends don't speak to them, support them, or love them the same once learning about their experience of gender or sexuality for the first time.
So, when that love and unconditional support is present, the results can be truly wonderful.
Here's the text I got from my best friend, who I had the privilege of literally holding tight while we danced and got sprayed with water at the parade, once I got home last night:
"Thank you so much for being there this weekend. There were so many times where I felt so grateful for your support and unconditional love. You're one of the of the few that understood the weight of what this meant to me, and I had so so much fun."
Whether or not you should be in a particular space entirely depends on whether or not you are mindful of, and accountable to, how your presence affects those for whom the space exists.
For me, it has meant investigating and validating my discomfort, finding out more about how I can be supportive and accountable at different Pride gatherings, and never forgetting that I am there to support people I love deeply.
The result has been two years attending Pride filled with as much unconditional love as I've experienced.
Seeing people I love at their happiest and most safe is the most liberating, electrifying feeling I've ever known, and I'll continue to be grateful for every instance I'm granted access into a space where I can do so.