Another Charlotte Pride Festival is in the books — and not a single rock went through a single plate-glass window of a single anti-queer bank or business.
I pondered this omission last weekend while strolling down Tryon Street past the countless tents of corporations hocking their wares to the festival’s attendees, and I was reminded that our celebration of LGBTQ people has forsaken calls for genuine human liberation and instead embraced as its purpose the sort of economically non-disruptive self-expression consistent with consumer capitalism: Pride isn’t a radical political project, but a well-planned, well-regulated party that functions as a modern-day offering of bread and circuses.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with throwing a party — as long as we’re honest about what we’re doing and how our actions bear little resemblance to the work of the political ancestors we rhetorically claim.
Queer kids and drag queens at the Stonewall Inn launched America’s gay rights movement in 1969 when a group of misfits and outcasts resisted the established authorities and used violence in the name of liberation: They threw bricks at cops.
More than fifty years later, Charlotte Pride featured vendors of insurance, pharmaceuticals, and financial services. Police officers armed with assault rifles walked the streets. Revelers spent time in a bank-themed “festival zone” and at a McDonald’s-sponsored VIP section where tickets cost up to $250.
Meanwhile, the businesses who pandered to us by funding the celebration — Truist, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, PNC, and Duke Energy, to name just a few — regularly and generously contribute to anti-queer politicians. Today’s gay rights movement suffers not only from commodification, but hypocrisy: Our political forebears drew on raw, uncompromising rage — “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” — while we hedge our bets, look the other way, and cash our corporate benefactors’ checks. (This moral equivocation separates Charlotte Pride from the religious hecklers who condemn us: The zealots are loathsome, but honest.)
A great ethical distance separates us from Marsha P. Johnson and the other rioters at Stonewall. We are not them, and they were not us.
Observations about the domestication of the movement for queer liberation aren’t new. They are perhaps so commonplace as to be hackneyed. Since we’ve heard it all before, and because no one likes a killjoy, I considered letting go of my objections and enjoying the spectacle for what it was — until I stumbled upon Gabe, whom I first spotted at a small table in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
He was alone, white, slim, and youngish. On his small table laid a few copies of a newspaper, a pile of leaflets, and a clipboard to sign up for the email list of an anti-capitalist organization called Socialist Alternative. One of his handouts read, “Pride is protest.”
Gabe offered something other than the homogenized, business-friendly fare peddled elsewhere, and I wanted to talk to him about it, but I was tending to a friend. Once I finish up with her, I thought, I’ll come back for a chat.
When I returned after just fifteen minutes, Gabe was gone.
A couple of hours later, I ran into him again — this time outside the perimeter of the festival, on a public street open to all. After we exchanged introductions, I asked why he had moved.
“They kicked me out,” Gabe said.
“Who?” I asked.
“Some volunteers from Charlotte Pride,” he answered.
You see, Gabe had not completed the proper paperwork to set up inside the festival’s confines. Nor had he paid the necessary entrance fee. Gabe lacked the credentials to participate in Pride. His presence was unauthorized. To maintain order, Pride evicted him — necessarily with an implicit threat that if he did not heed the organization’s command and immediately vacate the area, those armed cops patrolling the streets would be asked to inflict violence upon him in the name of the state.
While lawless anti-authoritarianism animated the Stonewall riots, Charlotte Pride, in the name of bureaucratic proceduralism and public safety, ejected a radical political pamphleteer.
The banishment of a solitary non-violent individual — the sort of person who may have been deemed lamely ineffective at Stonewall by his decision to employ words instead of projectiles — speaks to the gulf that separates us from the early days of the movement. The marginalized, who often work outside the established channels of political action to achieve genuinely disruptive change, have been replaced by the well-positioned, who, in pursuit of mainstream respectability and acceptance, have sought political advancement by largely conforming to the status quo and have thereby sapped the movement of its radical vitality and helped to produce a collection of queer Babbitts. (A good rule of thumb: When two of the most conservative forces in American life — corporate capital and law enforcement — find a home at your marquee event, radicalism has been extinguished.)
Despite the obvious chasm of time and morality separating Greenwich Village in 1969 from uptown Charlotte in 2022 — and because Stonewall’s symbolism continues to hold power as motivating mythology — we cling to our origin story, and understandably so: It’s a riveting tale of oppression dramatically resisted in a fit of spontaneous, righteous direct action. It is our crucifixion, our Declaration of Independence, our March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. So we claim it and exclaim it — while simultaneously adulterating and betraying it.
In place of messy, unorganized virility we have enthroned manufactured, well-managed sterility — expressed, for example, in pride paraphernalia like TD Ameritrade necklaces and Truliant headbands. We repeat the story of Stonewall as our catechism, but it’s become an empty ritual and a cheap, plastic knock-off: Liberation now means the power to announce sponsorship deals with big businesses and issue press releases touting the financial impact of our revelry. After a long fight, participation in the existing, unjust economic order is our prize. We’ve settled for material consumption and sexual ostentation.
Stonewall is dead. We cannot honestly invoke it. To pretend our conventionalism counts as radicalism only provides cover for the entrenched forces of conservatism that fund Charlotte Pride.
By all means, let’s continue to throw a party every year, but let’s also stop indulging the fiction that our corporately sponsored, bureaucratically administered events have anything to do with the rebellious spirit that moved queer men and women to rise up.