The End of Pride

It's time to stop parading and start marching, for Jack and Ennis' sake.

I caught up with Brokeback Mountain the other day. I don't know about you, but I usually wait quite a while to see new movies, and the more fuss and flackery there is, the longer I wait. Try all you like, there's no way to escape it, no way actually to see a movie through the fog of other people's opinions and calculations. If you wait until the noise dies down, you have a chance to see at least some of the movie the moviemakers meant to make.

But I thought I was safe assuming Brokeback Mountain was about a tragic gay love affair. I mean, that's what the writers and director said it was, not just the critics. But that's not the movie I saw. Sure, Jack and Ennis are queer, and so bent out of shape by guilt and fear that they're afraid to admit it even to each other. But the movie I saw wasn't about that. What it was about was the constant, corrosive drip of poverty, about the tethering, shackling, muzzling force of ignorance, about the inescapable cage of class. Jack and Ennis—and most of the other characters in the movie—follow the paths they're constrained to follow, eat what's put before them. Their sexual preference is just the shit icing on the cake.

The big irony of the movie—I wish I could believe the filmmakers wanted us to feel it—is that long before Jack and Ennis' 20-year affair ends, the sexual barriers that isolate them were already breaking down, being pulled down, in fact. In the summer of 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Bar on New York's Sheridan Square reacted to a police raid with flung beer bottles, broken windows, and five days of mass demonstrations. But even before Stonewall, decades before, hundreds of thousands of people in their situation had changed the rules by leaving their closets behind and moving where there was safety in numbers, where their sexual preference was not only tolerated but could serve as a central definer of their identity.

So far as the world at large knew, that meant San Francisco and New York and Miami, but by 1970, anybody looking for congenial company in Houston or Denver or Seattle or even Oklahoma City didn't have to lurk in the shadows to find it. Didn't, that is, if they were white. Pretty much everyone familiar with the Stonewall legend knows that drag queens were among those present and active in the week of demonstrations and riots; fewer recall that lesbians were there, too; but lost in most versions of the story is the fact that Stonewall's main clientele was black, Hispanic, and Asian, and it's documented fact that police overreaction during Sheridan Square's five days of rage was at least as much due to racial hostility as fear and hatred of queers. Gay Pride sprouted from a mulch of equal parts class, race, and gender, but before much time had passed, it had become a movement with rainbow pretensions but wholly dominated by educated, white, middle-class folks like me, and most likely you, too, dear reader.

I've been feeling more and more remote from the events of Gay Pride for years, but seeing Brokeback Mountain, even if I saw it differently than most, got me thinking hard again about what it's for, about just what it is that's being celebrated. Pride? Proud of what? Proud of our "difference"? Proud of our struggle to overcome fear, intimidation, and opposition? Twenty years ago, even 10, I could go along with that. But when I look at the Pride marchers today, if I see anything more than a sort of multicolored St. Patrick's Day celebration, I see people celebrating being, on average, the most privileged people on planet Earth, free to do exactly as they please, absolved even of the implied injunction on heterosexuals to reproduce, to foster their offspring, to devote the best years of their lives and much of their income to providing for the next generation. I'm not saying that's not cause for celebration. I enjoy the same privileges as they. What I don't understand is why we call it "Pride," and why the hets are willing to let us disrupt traffic with our boasting.

OK, I'm overstating. Let me bring this down to earth. What is the Pride March, or Gay Pride in general, doing for the Jacks and Ennises (and the Almas and Lureens) of our own day? What are we doing to pry the closets open in neighborhoods less salubrious to our cause than Capitol Hill? What kind of freedom are we advocating for residents of transient hotels on the Aurora strip? Are we conducting multilingual outreach among the hordes of Asian immigrants in the South End, or among the anonymous apartment complexes sprawling across the Eastside? Who's got the courage to evangelize among the numerous black men practicing the dangerous form of denial called the down low? We make a secular martyr of Matthew Shepard and dutifully attend performances of The Laramie Project, but what are we doing to change the poisonous mind-set that tacitly and not so tacitly ratifies such atrocities?

For me the most memorable performance in Brokeback is Randy Quaid's Joe Aguirre, squeezing the utmost savor of cruelty from his pathetic power over his hirelings. And there are Joe Aguirres everywhere. And the farther from the official centers of power you go, the lower down the economic scale, the deeper into the countryside (on the average, poorer and sicker than the worst urban slums), the more the Joe Aguirres make the rules, up and down the line. Lureen's ag-machinery magnate dad would despise Joe as much as he despises Jack, but, in fact, he's just an Aguirre with a credit line.

If we want to get beyond comfortable self-congratulation, we don't even need to leave our own communities. There are dozens of tax-exempt institutions dotted around the Sound where one can listen to a message of hate for queers (and Muslims and feminists and Latinos and liberals, but let's keep it focused) every day and twice on Sunday. Separation of church and state forbids legal action against hate speech in the name of Christ, but that doesn't mean we can't call bullshit on its sanctified perpetrators. Why aren't we outside Lake Washington High School every Sunday to sing a few hymns of toleration to the communicants of Pastor Ken Hutcherson's Antioch Bible Church as they emerge from their weekly soul bath? Why aren't we challenging radical Christian clergy to debates in front of their congregations? Why aren't we posting a weekly list of the most "hate-full" clergy, documenting and publicizing their institutionalized vileness?

What it comes down to for me, I guess, is that it's time to stop parading and start marching again. Marching (and fighting) are not as much fun and take up more time. But let's acknowledge that in this city, the point of the Pride March has been achieved. We are recognized—boy, are we recognized; is there a leading politician who doesn't show up to grab a piece of the spotlight? It's time to stop celebrating Gay Pride one weekend a year. Sure, let's say it loud: We're gay and proud. Now let's accomplish something we can be proud of. Do it for Jack and Ennis.

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