Gay Pride: Their Own Worst Enemies

June 20, 1994|By ANDREW G. WEBB

SAN DIEGO — The gay rights movement is little more than a collection of tactics in search of a goal. Since its beginning, this has been the case.

This ''movement'' started 25 years ago when patrons of the Stonewall Inn -- a New York City bar catering to a gay clientele -- spontaneously rioted for two days. The rioters were fed up with their gathering places being randomly raided and with being roughed up by police, taken to the police station and otherwise being treated as second-class citizens merely because of their sexual orientation.

But like the Stonewall riots, almost all public actions undertaken by gay people since 1969 have been reactive rather than proactive. What's more, gay people's demonstrations, appearances on TV talk shows, parades and festivals have had no coherent purpose. Any progress lesbians and gay men have made toward their undefined goals has been the incidental by-product of individual actions which, in everyday ways, have dispelled stereotypes, lessening prejudices and making society as a whole more tolerant.

Each year openly gay men and lesbians throughout the country hold festivities under the rubric ''Gay Pride.'' (This term has always struck me as peculiar. If, as openly gay people claim, homosexuality is innate, how can one possibly take pride in being gay? One might as well take pride in being right-handed or blue-eyed.)

These festivities have no consistent focus. If they are meant to commemorate the Stonewall riots as the seminal event in contemporary gay culture, why are they not all held on the weekend closest to June 28, the actual event? Instead, each American city's ''gay community'' holds its own festivities on a different weekend over a four-month period from April through August -- like a transcontinental progressive dinner party.

If the festivities are meant to celebrate the progress gay people have made since the riots, why is it that no one in the ''gay community'' can explain what the original goals of the movement were? Without clear-cut goals, progress is impossible to gauge.

Gay-pride festivities have only two things in common: a focus on victimization and demands for equal rights. Harping on victimization is a great way to whip up a crowd's emotions. But it is no way to promote productive efforts to eliminate the remnants of victimization. And demands for equal rights, without any mention of how equal rights are denied or how they might be achieved, do little but intensify feelings of victimization.

If one reads the last 25 years' worth of books and articles by and about gay people, one is hard pressed to identify any underlying focus except complaints about victimization. The only concrete themes articulated were in the '80s, when AIDS was thought to be a gay disease, and in 1993, when President Clinton toyed with the idea of rescinding the ban on open homosexuals serving in the military. When it became clear that AIDS knew nothing of sexual orientation (and, in any case, had never affected lesbians), it ceased being a flag all gay people could rally around. And when the anti-gay military policy was made law, fair-weather gays by the thousands deserted their uniformed brothersand sisters in search of some other cause du jour.

In the next 25 years, gay people must devise and pursue concrete goals, not just hope for the best and complain when the best doesn't occur. The first of these, I think, should be to stop the dead-end practice of acting as if gay people are victims. There can be no better way to disempower people than for them to keep asserting how badly they're treated. Affirming that one is a victim merely validates the victimizer's power and the victim's lack of it.

A second goal should be to change the majority society's view of gay people. Only when Trevor and Heather Suburbia understand that they deal with homosexuals every day -- that is, only when they know that the homosexuals they deal with are homosexuals -- will the stereotypes die. Individual gays have to ''come out,'' however subtly, to those who don't already know they're gay.

Third, gay people have to learn they will reap what they sow. Many openly gay people see their homosexuality as the defining characteristic in their personalities. Perhaps because of this, they feel a need to emphasize all things sexual when the spotlight of public attention is on them, despite what they previously might have learned about behaving, speaking or dressing in ways appropriate to the setting.

At gay-pride parades and festivals, for example, men and women who usually would not dress, speak or behave outrageously feel they have a license to do so without critical comment from outsiders. They then complain when outrageous dress, speech or behavior are the only things shown on the TV news. If gay people want the press to show them as ordinary people, they must demonstrate the sense of propriety common to ordinary people or accept the consequences.

Only when we gay people identify some goals, adopt a strategy for reaching them and actually take steps to implement that strategy will we begin to realize the American dream, as stated in the Constitution's Preamble, by ''secur[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.''

Andrew G. Webb is writing a book, ''Their Own Worst Enemies: Lesbians and Gay Men in American Society.''

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