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Pride Parades and Respectability Politics

photograph of rainbow flag with silhouette figures crowded beneath it

Every June, the LGBT community celebrates inclusiveness, the right to self-expression, and the radical politics of queer love. Every June, the LGBT community also engages in the same circular discourse about what pride parades should look like, and what subcultures within the community deserve the recognition and visibility afforded by a parade. The most controversial aspect of pride for many (both inside and outside the community) is the prevalence of kink paraphernalia, “kink” meaning any expression of fetishistic sexuality. This usually takes the form of men in revealing full-leather BDSM outfits, those bogeymen of conservative pearl-clutchers. Almost every year, members of the LGBT community debate whether or not kink should be allowed at pride, though for some reason, the debate has flared up this year with unusual intensity. Perhaps we can blame a viral tweet from a leftist YouTuber, declaiming kink and BDSM at pride, or perhaps the absence of pride parades last year has made queer activists re-examine the existential foundations of the event.

In a recent op-ed for The Independent, gay journalist Skylar Baker-Jordan lays out the most prevalent arguments against the inclusion of kink and BDSM at pride, citing consent as a major issue:

“As Pride is held in a public space and is a public event, it should be open to the public while also following the standards of public decency. Overtly sexualized displays . . . breech [sic] the boundaries of good taste and decency even as Pride stretches what is and is not acceptable. It alienates members of our community who are modest, who have ethical or philosophical objections (as many feminists do), who have children, or who simply do not want to participate in your sex life as unwilling voyeurs. BDSM and kink displays deter many of us from attending . . . Pride should be for everyone in the LGBT community.”

The problem, as he sees it, is accessibility. Muslims who identify as LGBT, for example, might not feel fully comfortable at an event where kink is out in the open, and a community that prides itself on inclusiveness ought to take that discomfort into account. Baker-Jordan is also right that there is a long anti-kink feminist tradition. Audre Lorde, Judith Butler, and Alice Walker (to name a few) have all written against BDSM, and their arguments were compiled in the controversial 1982 anthology Against Sadomasochism. However, Baker-Jordan doesn’t seem interested in probing the ethical or philosophical motivations of those who wear leather to pride events; only the anti-kink objectors are allowed any intellectual depth or moral sense. He falls back on extremely subjective terms like “good taste and decency,” which have long been utilized by conservative critics of the LGBT community to reinforce hegemonic systems. As Alex Abad-Santos explains for Vox,

“Queer history is often about resistance to norms and embracing radical existence, so engaging in respectability politics — the idea that marginalized groups need to behave or act in a certain way to validate the compassion shown toward them — flies in the face of those goals.”

Baker-Jordan further argues that the “struggle for lesbian, gay, and bisexual equality was always about gaining parity with straight people and straight couples, of having our relationships recognized as equally valid and legitimate. It has never been about our sex lives.” Many parts of this assertion are fundamentally untrue. For one thing, kink has been a visible component of pride since the 1960’s, and the woman who spearheaded the first pride parade in early-1970’s New York City was herself affiliated with kink. Furthermore, Baker-Jordan arguing that sex has nothing to do with LGBT rights is a bit like arguing that the struggles of the civil rights movement were about social and legal equality, but had nothing to do with the color of Black people’s skin. The very thing that sets the community apart from mainstream society is elided, which only serves to homogenize and de-radicalize a subversive group.

Baker-Jordan goes on to say that members of the LGBT community are an “identifiable class of individuals discriminated against in law and culture based on shared characteristics: their sexual orientation and gender expression.” Kink and BDSM, he argues, are preferences rather than orientations, and leather is an aesthetic that (while important to many members of the LGBT movement) is not inherently queer in itself. But BDSM is an incredibly psychologically and historically complicated niche of human sexuality, and boiling it down to a preference or fashion trend feels reductive. Kink is a form of sexual expression that has long been viewed as deviant, and for that reason is very important to many members of the LGBT community. Queer anthropologist Janie Lawson explains in an interview with Vice that the

“BDSM or kinky communities recentre sex around pleasure, not reproduction. It’s no coincidence that the leather scene is so closely associated with radical, transgressive queerness – the gay leather aesthetic emerges post-World War II in America and it’s been part of queer culture ever since. That kinky, leather aesthetic has been part of queer politics and queer protest since the 1960s.”

Many are troubled by pieces like Baker-Jordan’s, which reframe the important concepts of consent and accessibility (both of which are crucial to feminist, disabled, and queer thought) in service of socially conservative ends. This year, New York City decided to ban police officers from marching at the annual pride parade, and many pride organizers are having conversations about “rainbow capitalism,” or the commodification of LGBT issues by large corporations looking to make a buck. Clearly there are still questions about what pride should be and who it should be for, but excluding a large and historically important portion of the community from the event in the name of “respectability” ultimately serves no one.