In the late 20th century, most of the vitality in gay culture emanated from its transgressive elements. Homosexuality was held to be a form of “deviance” under the moral paradigm that united western society. But contrary to the recent narratives about the history of gay culture in Europe and America, there have always been spaces for alternate sexual identities in Euro-American social landscape: it is untrue that the only place for lesbians and gays was “underground,” so to speak. Figures like Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, Sappho, the Marquis de Sade, and many more show that some non-conforming people have been flourishing in the west since antiquity. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that most such examples belonged to the upper classes, either economically or intellectually speaking.
Social norms are a major part of how any community is sustained. This is true even in the LGBT community, which maintains certain standards for behavior and interaction in gay spaces.
For a long time, members of the LGBT community had embraced the transgressive status that mainstream society ascribed to them. This embrace—an acknowledgement that sexual non-conformity was a deviation from the staid sexual ethics that derived from America’s puritan history and Britain’s Victorian-era—affirmed the “difference” that put the “sub” in gay subculture. In this sense, LGBT culture has an important role in American history. Every society needs a transgressive element. We need movements that remind us that the dictates of polite society are not wholly binding; that there are other ways to live (and thrive) that reject the demands of church, family, friends, employers, and the rest. In fact, any society in which such a rejection of cultural mores is entirely impossible cannot call itself a free society: part of what having a free society means is providing individuals with an option not to conform to these demands.
I do not mean to suggest that life in America before the formal recognition of gay rights was always pleasant for the LGBT community. There is no question that non-conforming people faced hardship and discrimination. And yet, as free as we are as a society, nowhere in our founding documents does it say that non-conformity will be cost-free for people who reject widespread cultural norms. The truth is that rejecting community norms almost always comes at some cost to the individual: if there were no consequences for violating them, the norms would have no power at all. Moreover, social norms are a major part of how any community is sustained. This is true even in the LGBT community, which maintains certain standards for behavior and interaction in gay spaces.
In the four decades that followed the Stonewall Riots, there was a lively debate about the political and cultural future of sexual identity in the United States. In brief, there were two schools of thought. The first school of thought was comprised of lesbians and gays (and sympathetic groups) who were convinced that the salient, binding characteristic of the gay community was the non-conforming, transgressive element of the subculture. These elements were most visible (at least to the public eye) in gay pride marches in the years before Pride Month became a nationwide corporate event—the parades with drag queens, feather boas, assless chaps, nudity, and more were a way to thumb a nose at (and give a wink to) the normies of American society. These flourishes were meant to be transgressive. They said, “we know you think we’re weird, we’re fine with being weird, and we’re happy being weird.”
The adherents of this school of thought were sometimes wary about the “normalization” of gay culture—to abandon the transgressive elements would be to abandon what was distinctive about being lesbian or gay. In the eyes of those opposed to normalization, the political agenda was not to make gay and lesbian life look more like mainstream heteronormative society; it was to foment major cultural change that would allow for divergent sexual identities to come out of the shadows while maintaining the differences that distinguish them from the heterosexual norm.
The second school of thought (sometimes called “legitimation” and perhaps most prominently represented by Andrew Sullivan, who wrote the first major article advocating for gay marriage in the U.S.) held that gays and lesbians should work towards integration into society as it currently exists. In short, the aim was to “destigmatize” being gay so that same-sex couples would enjoy the social, political, and legal legitimacy that heterosexual couples enjoyed. One of the ways that this legitimization was to be achieved was through a rejection of the overtly transgressive components of gay identity and the pleasure that some in the gay community took in flaunting their transgressions, which they saw as a means to undermine, mock, and scandalize the norms of traditional sexual ethics and the people who lived by them. The argument of legitimation was that integration would move much more swiftly if lesbians and gays refused to purposely emphasize their opposition to those norms.
There were certainly some people who tried to split the difference between these schools of thought: they tried to maintain the transgressive elements of gay culture even while arguing for legal accommodation, social integration, and destigmatization. But by 2000, when the push for legalizing same-sex marriage was beginning to heat up, it was clear to most neutral observers that there wouldn’t be much compromise: one of these two schools would win out. For the most part, the money and the institutional clout was on firmly on the side of legitimation, and when the 2015 Obergefell ruling legalized gay marriage nationwide, this school began consolidating its victories. But as these accomplishments continue to unfold, it is clear that the tensions between these two schools of thought continue to play out in somewhat contradictory ways. Nothing dramatizes these contradictions as well as Pride Month.
THE COMMODIFICATION AND NORMALIZATION OF PERSONAL DIFFERENCE
Fast forward to June 2021. Over the last decade, almost the entire annual calendar has been split into an endless succession of “celebrations” of various minority political identities—an echo of the old liturgical calendar that had guided the Christian year, but adapted for the new religion of secular progressivism. Every month now brings a celebration of one embattled minoritarian identity or another. February is Black History Month. March is Women’s History Month. May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. And June brings us to the High Feast of the secular year: Pride Month.
Pride Month has become a corporatized celebration of this entire milieu—one where sexual feeling, appetite, and preference lies at the very core of personal identity.
We’ve come a long way since Obergefell. Opposition to lesbian and gay rights seems almost antique—they are revered in every corner of mainstream culture, and the few remaining individuals who remain strongly opposed to these ideas are cowed into silence by threat of penalties that they may face from their schools, employers, co-workers, etc. Now the political energy is centered on the constellation of new sexual identities—pansexuals, demiboys, genderqueer “folx,” asexuals, and more. For a few years the momentum was with the “trans” community—people who demand public recognition of themselves as belonging to a different sex (or is it a gender?) than the one “assigned” at birth. There is still a great effort underway to legally mandate this recognition and accord these individuals the public privileges granted to their sex (or gender?) of choice. But there are now signs that, in the wake of pushback on the transgender cause, LGBT activists are dedicating more focus to organizing an attempt to grant legal status to “polyamorous” groups—what would have been called polygamous marriage only a few years ago.
Pride Month has become a corporatized celebration of this entire milieu—one where sexual feeling, appetite, and preference lies at the very core of personal identity. It serves as a metonym for the entire order of secular liberalism, which values individual autonomy and unfettered choice above all things. Go to any major American city, and you’ll be welcomed by Pride advertisements in airports and subways. Every significant American corporation will find a way to incorporate the rainbow (a symbol now indelibly associated with the LGBT movement) into their logo. (Interestingly, this is not something they do in foreign lands, where such an endorsement might slow the influx of global capital). Even children’s shows will highlight animal characters who have had mastectomies to align their bodily appearance with their internal sense of gender. The whole thing is a pretty big affair, expanding each year as the sacral character of the festival deepens. It is also a paradoxical event—one that attempts to invert the values of the traditional sexual ethic, but ultimately reifies and reproduces those values.
Appropriately, Pride Month became an official event in the United States just as the legitimation school of gay activism was gaining steam. President Clinton first officially declared the event in 1999. This is not a coincidence—Pride Month was a tool of those seeking to normalize gay identity. In some ways, it replaced the earlier gay pride parade, which typically lasted a day and often showcased the transgressive character of LGBT culture. In contrast, Pride Month is… well, a month. It still includes transgressive elements and parades, but expanding the length of the festival allowed for a number of other ways to celebrate, advocate, and cash in on sexual identity—ways that could be better adapted to the efforts of legitimationists. These dual impulses in Pride Month—where non-conformity to cultural norms is intermingled with efforts to normalize alternative sexual identity—highlight the reactionary aspects of the event.
THE CONTRADICTIONS OF PRIDE MONTH
The name is telling. “Pride.” Generally speaking, pride is a feeling of contentment for our own abilities or achievements. You probably aren’t proud of your sidewalk. Maybe you are, if you poured the concrete yourself, or if you had to save a substantial sum of money to have it installed. But in those cases, you aren’t really proud of the sidewalk—you’re proud of what it represents: your own skill as a craftsman, or your discipline in saving money. Similarly, you probably aren’t proud of your arm. If you lift weights to tone muscle, you might be, but then it isn’t really your arm that you are proud of—you’re proud of your fitness and the efforts you took to achieve it. What, then, are the celebrants of Pride Month proud of? What personal ability or achievement is being celebrated?
It must be noted that the identitarian type of pride manifested in patriotic sentiment, for example, is routinely denigrated by the left as divisive, misguided, and exclusionary.
Obviously, the pride is for one’s sexual identity. But is sexual identity an “ability”? Is it an “achievement”? The consensus these days is that one’s sexuality or gender identity is not a choice or preference. Rather, it is a primordial characteristic of the human soul, a natural, irresistible feature that lies at the core of one’s unique personhood. As such, it would seem that it is neither a learned ability nor a personal achievement—it just is. Thus, for the same reason that you aren’t proud of your sidewalk (unless you built or bought it), it is odd to be proud of one’s sexual identity, appetites, or behaviors. The sidewalk is just there, and so are these characteristics. So why “pride”?
Originally, gay pride events were meant as a reaction: a reaction to a society that looked down on LGBT people as deviant, immoral, and shameful. Activists refused to be ashamed—thus, public expressions of sexual identity were a means to signify the absence of shame. But the absence of shame does not necessarily mean the presence of pride. Consider my 2012 Honda Odyssey. It’s not pretty. I rarely wash it, and it has some damage to the driver’s side. Some people would be ashamed to drive it, but I’m not. I’m not proud of it either: it isn’t really an ability or an achievement. I do like it though—it gets me from place to place reliably. I don’t mean to suggest that one’s sexual identity can be equated to the car one drives. But there is some utility in the comparison because both are just facts of life: a person’s sexual identity isn’t an achievement, and neither is my car.
Some readers might suggest that there are types of pride that don’t derive from individual achievements or abilities. For example, when someone feels nationalistic pride, that pride usually doesn’t derive from any personal victories in advancing America’s situation. Rather, it is a pride for a history and an identity of which the individual is a small part. LGBT pride probably works in a similar way: people are celebrating the achievements of the LGBT cause writ large, a cause with a history to which today’s lesbians and gays have a tangible connection. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the identitarian type of pride manifested in patriotic sentiment, for example, is routinely denigrated by the left as divisive, misguided, and exclusionary.
Pride Month is thus a showcase of precisely the type of identitarian pride that earns derision from secular progressives. Further, where nationalistic pride derives from the continuity of a particular community and its traditions, Pride Month celebrates a break with tradition and convention, even while it honors the culture that emerged through their rejection of mainstream society: the self is elevated over the larger connections that bind the community of the nation.
It is clear that pride events are a rejection of the idea that LGBT people should be ashamed of their identities. But given that the absence of shame doesn’t necessitate the feeling of pride, it is also clear that Pride Month simply inverts the moral game that forms the basis of traditional sexual ethics. LGBT culture often holds that there is no moral dimension to sex, that there is no “right” or “wrong” form of sexual behavior, provided that the sex is consensual. But rather than rejecting the moralism that fueled the marginalization of alternate sexual identities, Pride Month itself advances a certain sexual moralism. Where traditional society used to say “you ought to be ashamed of this,” Pride now goes to the opposite extreme, effectively saying “This thing that you think is bad is actually good; this thing you say is wrong is actually right.” By saying that one’s sexual identity should be a source of pride, one implies that this identity is good and right, which ultimately affirms the traditionalist insistence that morality must be a consideration when it comes to sexual activity.
Through Pride Month, LGBT advocates acknowledge and participate in the moral system that once sought to oppress them, their attempts to invert it amount to an affirmation rather than a critique. Even if they were to succeed in reinventing the moral status of sexual behavior, they would still be affirming the idea that sex is a moral issue, meaning that questions of good and bad, of right and wrong matter concerning sex. This link between sex and morality is at the root of the intolerance that the LGBT community faced (and still faces in much of the world), which underscores the strangeness in Pride Month’s endorsement of sexual moralism.
PROGRESSIVISM AND THE ERASURE OF LGBT DIFFERENCE
I should be clear that I am not calling for dissolving the link between sex and morality. On the contrary. I am simply observing that, despite appearances, Pride Month retains some very traditional assumptions about sex. Further, the unwitting implication that sexual identity is an ability or achievement to be proud of ultimately encourages and sustains the idea that sexual identity is a preference or a choice; that it is something you do rather than something you are. The implication is that homosexuality is a set of behaviors rather than a category of personhood, and this undermines the favored perspective of LGBT advocates that says sexuality is a matter of inborn characteristics. In part, these contradictions emanate from the continuation of the tension between an LGBT identity that is based in transgression, and one that is popularized and celebrated by mainstream culture at large.
Too much pride can be a dangerous thing.
What happens to a counterculture when it becomes a defining element of the cultural establishment? This question will be answered over the next few decades. If alternative sexual identities are so transgressive, then why are the White House, Mastercard, Kohl’s, and Notre Dame celebrating them? And if Pride Month is a totally normal celebration of a perfectly ordinary group of people—if there is nothing at all transgressive about LGBT culture—then why must we devote a month to valorizing it as an embattled, underrepresented segment of American society?
LGBT advocates find themselves in a Catch-22. Full integration and normalization of alternative sexual identities would erase the differences that allowed for the formation of a community premised on those differences. But as long as the LGBT community simultaneously maintains transgressive difference as a defining characteristic—the difference that makes LGBT identity meaningful in a social sense—full inclusion, enfranchisement, and destigmatization of the entire range of alternative identities will probably remain out of reach. Too much pride can be a dangerous thing.
Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston–Downtown, where he studies rhetoric, writing, and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, is available now. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger, or @TheHereticalTruth on Parler.