For some of you, the question “Why does Pride matter?” might seem like an obvious one. It’s a time to celebrate surviving and thriving in an overwhelmingly heterosexual society. It’s a time to reflect upon the very real gains same-sex attracted people have made in securing marriage rights, reducing discrimination, and winning over the hearts and minds of a previously unrelentingly homophobic populace. Or maybe it’s just a good opportunity to put on your rainbows and have, well, a good time.
But for some of you, the question “Why does Pride matter?” might be a difficult one to answer. Perhaps you see Pride as a commercialized, corporatized zombie of the movement it once represented. Or maybe you disapprove of the ideological direction it has taken. Maybe you feel like your own sense of belonging as a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person is drowning in the endlessly growing “LGBTQIA2s+” alphabet soup of identity.
However, there are many good reasons for maintaining that Pride does matter. Why say this? Because Pride isn’t about glorifying the present or apologizing for its excesses, but celebrating an entire history of overcoming adversity. Remembering and understanding our past struggles should inspire us to remain vigilant and not take our rights for granted. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the history of gay liberation in the USA and what it can teach us about our present predicament.
First, the mere fact that this article exists and is available to the public exemplifies why Pride matters. There was a time when writing about homosexuality was a dangerous and subversive act. Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals were afraid of publishing anything about their sexuality, partially because of social censure from an extremely homophobic society, but also the fear of running afoul of obscenity laws. All the way back in 1924, Henry Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights and started Friendship and Freedom, credited as the first ever homosexual periodical in the country. It only lasted two publications before Gerber was arrested and the Society of Human Rights shut down.
Luckily, as the slogan says, “It gets better.” In 1953, ONE, Inc. defied obscenity ordinances by publishing ONE: The Homosexual Magazine. When the post office objected to an issue containing lesbian content, the matter went to the courts. Finally, in 1958, the decision One, Inc. v. Olesen struck down obscenity laws that targeted homosexual publications. Gays and lesbians continued to organize to support publications from other gay and lesbian writers. Consider, for example, Craig Rodwell, who founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in 1967—the first gay and lesbian bookshop in the USA with long-term success.
The publishing landscape has changed since then, as the internet has swallowed up more and more of the printed word. Furthermore, with so much censorship and cancelation of LGB writers and artists who do not kowtow to “queer” culture, it’s temping to despair. But take advantage of the possibilities in front of you. Speak up! Produce your own LGB content, and publish on social media. Such is one way to celebrate Pride this year.
And there’s more to learn from history—Pride matters because we must never forget the abuse same-sex attracted individuals faced from the medical establishment. Quack doctors would prescribe dangerous, pseudoscientific medical treatments in attempts to cure people of their same-sex attraction. One notable procedure popular in the 1940s and 50s was the ice-pick—or transorbital—lobotomy, which involved drilling holes into a patient’s brain. This procedure frequently led to permanent disability. Sadly, medical authorities in the mid 20th century were slow to protect homosexual patients. In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, codifying the pathologization of homosexuality into formal diagnostic guidelines.
Fortunately, the past can teach us that it is possible to convince the medical establishment (and wider society) to change. For example, Frank Kameny refused to acknowledge homosexuality as a mental illness when he publicly disagreed with Dr. Albert Ellis’s characterization of exclusive homosexuality as a form of psychopathy. He won over lesbian organizer Barbara Gittings, and—in 1973—the two of them succeeded in convincing the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
Now, many of us are concerned by how gender non-conforming youth, a disproportional number of whom are LGB, are being treated with experimental treatments based on the dubious philosophical concept of “gender identity.” Many of us who are aware of the medical industry’s past absuses of same-sex attracted people are concerned that history is repeating itself. But if lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals have stood down the medical establishment in the past, we can do so today. However, this will only happen if we are willing to speak out.
Furthermore, Pride matters because community matters. Take, for example, how lesbians have organized in the past, despite abuse due to both sexism and homophobia. Prior to the women’s liberation movement, it could be hard for unmarried women to open bank accounts or rent their own apartments. When lesbians did marry men and get divorced, they risked losing custody of their children on account of their “scandalous” same-sex relationships. But that didn’t stop Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon from co-founding the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the USA, in 1955. In present times, it’s common to hear lesbians lament the loss of their spaces—most lesbian bars have closed, and lesbian venues and gatherings face relentless pressure to admit males. But don’t overlook what lesbians can and did accomplish, even in trying times, with much less legal protection than today.
Indeed, not just lesbians, but all same-sex attracted individuals found ways to protect their communities. The Mattachine society organized to protect gay men from harassment in 1950, back when every state in the country still had sodomy laws on the books; the last sodomy laws weren’t repealed until 2003. In the 80s, when the AIDS epidemic ravaged the gay and bisexual male community and a new wave of homophobia swept the country, LGB activists didn’t give up. Rather, they regrouped to breathe life into the movement to legalize same-sex marriage. Many LGB people defied bans on openly same-sex attracted servicemen and women in the military and other federal agencies. And the list goes on—every entry is another example of why Pride matters.
Finally, Pride matters because truth matters. Once again, we are approaching the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. As we do, expect to see attempts to shroud the reality of what happened on that day of June 28, 1969 with misinformation. Activists will write out the crucial role lesbian Stormé DeLarverie played at Stonewall. They will insist that that the first brick was thrown by a trans woman named Marsha P. Johnson—even though there is little evidence that Johnson (a gay male drag queen) ever identified as transgender or was even present for the beginning of the riots. But if we continue to speak out and refuse to be intimidated, the truth will not be forgotten.
There are not enough days in a year, let alone a month, to commemorate all the ways same-sex attracted individuals fought against the odds. Let us honor our history, not to cling to it, but to learn from it, move forward, and stand strong. Celebrate Pride, and remember to #SpeakUpLGB!