What the Festival Community Can Learn From Pride
I’m on the phone with a friend, discussing pressing issues like plans for the summer, where we should have brunch on Sunday, who’s dating whom. Finally, I ask the question that inevitably comes up every year around this time.
“So. Are you going to Pride next week?”
He groans. “You know I can’t stand that mess. All those rainbow knee-sock-wearing, bridge-and-tunnel kids coming into the city and getting wasted in my front yard? No thanks.”
This, I’ve come to realize in recent years, is the stock standard response for a healthy percentage of the queer community in San Francisco.
Celebrate, Educate, Commemorate & Infiltrate
San Francisco Gay Pride, an event that is synonymous with the City by the Bay, has been heralding LGBT progress for 44 years. Over a million attendees descend upon the city each June to celebrate, educate, commemorate, and in the opinion of many, to infiltrate.
Yes, infiltrate. The “bridge-and-tunnel kids” have become a fixture on the Pride scene, but many of them are well meaning. They’re looking for acceptance, for camaraderie, for respect. For some, this is their coming-out party. For others, it’s just an excuse to party. To them, it’s a free festival, an opportunity to get wasted in the streets of San Francisco.
It’s a difficult distinction to make, but according to Mark Kleim, one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a group of cultural activists and renegade queer nuns who sponsor Pink Saturday), “I look at the demographics of who goes to Pink Saturday and Pride very closely. From a producer’s standpoint, the crowds really are young LGBT, though it may not seem like it. It’s a harder-edged urban culture, rather than the peace-and-love hippies who founded the gay movement during their grandparents' era.”
Bring Your Pasties
There’s still a fair amount of the peace and love mentality, though. Ravers, Burners and other die-hard festival fans love Pride for its anything-goes attitude. As festival-goer Emily Bedard put it, “The nice part about Pride is that you see human beings of all different shapes and sizes, of all different forms of sexuality and gender. You quickly realize that who we truly are is who we are meant to be. So bring your pasties."
Yes, there will be pasties, there will be rainbow socks. There will be people coming to the city from Hayward and Livermore and Bakersfield and Canada and Germany. And there will be San Francisco natives and longtime residents who feel like their Pride has been co-opted.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—fixtures in the gay community—are dedicated to “spreading universal joy and expiating stigmatic guilt by providing grants to nonprofits that promote wellness, identity, tolerance and diversity in our communities.” However, when the events organized to promote tolerance and diversity take a turn for the worse like it did at Pink Saturday in 2010, or just become overrun with outsiders and looky-loos, it leaves core members of the community feeling disenfranchised.
Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys
Mark “Sister Mary Ralph” Ruisi says, “I have not attended SF Pride for three years now...the Pride events (the Dyke March, the Trans March, Pink Saturday and the Pride Parade) have all become excuses for people (most of whom are not in the aforementioned communities) to come and raise hell. The people attending these events and displaying this behavior aren't part of my community.”
The largest LGBT gathering in the nation seems to be suffering from a nasty case of getting too big for its britches. A million Pride attendees does not equal a million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered San Franciscans (obviously—the population of San Francisco is just over 870,000). There is a large straight contingency, a huge number of tourists, and an ever-growing percentage of youth from the greater Bay Area who attend the Pride events. And despite what the media would have you believe, these groups are not all happily co-mingling and coexisting, waving their rainbow flags in unison, holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." For many, it can feel like an extremely segregated event with a strong undercurrent of hostility.
That hostility can translate to alcohol and drug abuse, arson, theft, aggravated assault, and even murder. During the 2013 Pride events, there were 103 medical patients treated, two shootings and one fire.
The city where Harvey Milk blazed a trail by becoming the first openly gay person elected to public office, where Mayor Gavin Newsom instructed the city-county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples (state law be damned), the city that flower children, freaks, geeks, gold-diggers, hippies, homos, trannies, dykes and everyone in between has come to seek refuge in now seems to be turning on itself.
What’s the solution? Well, as with anything, a conversation would be a good place to start. The Pride community could teach a thing or two to the festival kids, and vice versa, the festival crowd could enlighten the Pride community. To that end, we have a few suggestions on what each camp could learn from the other.
What the Festival Community Can Learn from Pride
Get involved. An event of this size couldn’t get off the ground without the effort of thousands of volunteers. For a truly immersive Pride experience, volunteer or become active in the movement in a more creative way. Performance artist Danyol "Tamale Ringwald" Leon remarked, "People of color, drag queens, leather daddies and transgendered activists are what propelled the gay pride movement. I would love to see this represented in the Pride events again: more local acts, more people of color, more subversiveness, more activism!"
Pride is not a petting zoo. Pride is a historical event, a cultural phenomenon, and a personal crusade for many. It is not an opportunity for you to get it on in public, and it certainly isn’t an invitation for you to grope and molest everyone you see.
Do your homework. Do you know what the Stonewall riots were all about? Do you know who Harvey Milk is? Do you know why the “Save the Children” campaign was a significant turning point for LGBT rights? If you answered no to any of these questions, it’s time for you to brush up on your queer history. The more you know, the more you'll appreciate and respect this event.
Take care of yourself. Drink lots of water, wear sunscreen, don’t drink alcohol on an empty stomach, keep the buddy system…all those things your parents warned you about when you were younger still apply here.
Take care of our city. Please clean up after yourself, don’t litter, and don’t treat our beautiful city like it’s a toilet.
What Pride Can Learn from the Festival Community
PLUR. For the uninitiated, that’s Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect. Hardcore ravers eat, breathe and sleep this motto, and the Pride community, although they preach it, could stand to put it into practice.
There is no us vs. them. You were a newbie once, too. There’s a first time for everyone: your first time coming out to someone, your first Pride, your first sexual encounter, your first festival. Everyone you meet is on their own personal journey. Be gentle.
Show compassion. That kid puking in the gutters of the Civic Center could be experiencing heat stroke or an overdose. Sure, it’s not a pretty sight, but don’t ignore it. Call a cop or a medic over to help.
Educate. You’ve been around the block a few times (not like that…OK, maybe like that, too). You know the history and heritage of the Pride community. Talk to the younger generation, and teach them why that history is important to our culture. Disdain will only perpetuate ignorance.
Just dance. As Chris Hirst, the man behind Robot Dance Party (a fixture at Bay Area festivals) says, "The robot may be fueled by music but it is driven by the energy of the crowd. On Pride Weekend everyone dances, there are no spectators. It is hands down the best robot dance party of the year." So stop taking yourself so seriously, and dance with a robot.
This article was originally published in June 2014 and has since been updated.