Reflections on Gay Pride Day from Will Taylor, TASC

Pride Day - contrary to what certain mainstream media like The Toronto Sun would have you believe - is not some kind of modern-day freak show. Pride Day is a celebration of cultural diversity - in this case on a sexual level, rather than on race or religion - which came into being as a protest against the oppressiveness of mass conformity. Yet, as of late, Pride Day has become more of a corporate marketing tool than a vehicle of social protest; and there is increasing collaboration with the very forces who originally originally acted to eliminate the very formation of a queer culture.

The history of Gay Pride celebrations began in New York City in 1969 after a police raid on a local gay bar, The Stonewall Inn. The raid itself was rather routine - city police regularly busted gay clubs - but the reaction to it was far from typical. Led by flamboyant drag queens, gays and lesbians took to the streets of Manhattan, and rioted for three consecutive days against police harassment (at the time, men could be arrested simply for dancing with one another), and brought gay activism "out of the closet".

Toronto's Pride celebrations have a similar history. In 1981, the Metro Police raided a downtown bathhouse (a private club where men would have consensual sex with other men), and charged a number of men as "found-ins" at a bawdy house. During the course of the raid, Toronto's "finest" were overheard making such hideous remarks as "It's too bad these showers weren't hooked up to gas," in obvious reference to Nazi death camps. Again, the raid itself was fairly routine, but the reaction to it - no doubt fuelled by the appalling commentary of the police - took the form of an anti-police harassment protest. Hundreds of gay men marched down Yonge Street to 52 Division to demonstrate against police harassment of Toronto's gay community. Just as in New York City, Toronto's Pride celebration was born as a political protest against oppression.

But that was then. As we approach the turn of the century, Pride celebrations throughout North America seem to have forgotten their activist roots, and in some cases, appear to have turned their backs on Pride's political past altogether. Increasingly, the focus of the celebration is more corporate than community-oriented, and there is a chillingly high level of cooperation and collaboration between Pride Day organizers and the police forces who were once the agents of the oppression faced by the lesbian and gay community.

The involvement of community groups used to be an integral part of Pride celebrations. One of the highlights of Pride day, apart from the parade, was the day long street fair which featured booths and tables from all kinds of local community groups. Recently, however, increases to the amount of money it costs to rent table space on Pride Day have forced many community groups out of the celebrations. As recently as three or four years ago, community groups could rent table space at Pride Day for as little as $75; which was a special rate apart from businesses, who had to shell out some $300. But Pride Day organizers decided to eliminate the special rate and charge community groups the same rate as businesses. The resulting increase in rental rates - more than doubling - has forced many community groups to give up even trying to rent any space. All this has been done in the name of making Pride Day more "profitable" and "fiscally accountable"; phrases we have heard politicians utter while they gut the social safety net.

One woman, "L", has rented a table at Pride Day for many years. She gives tarot card and palm readings for a fee; the proceeds of which she donates to an anti-poverty group. But she has been unable to rent a table for the past two Pride Days. "The Pride Committee has raised the rents too high," says L. "Now it's not worth it to rent a table. They're really squeezing community groups out of Pride Day."

A look at Toronto Pride Day 1998 would seem to support this claim. Chruch St. was turned into a giant beer tent with two huge drinking areas operating on the north and south ends of the street, while community groups were nowhere to be seen. One of the biggest controversies to come out of organizing for this year's Pride was not at all political, a testament to the depoliticization of Pride over the years. Instead, the controversy stemmed from the fact that two competing breweries, Molson and Upper Canada, were both chosen as sponsors of beer tents.

Another disturbing trend in Toronto Pride celebrations is a greater level of collaboration between Pride organizers and local police. This is not merely a case of greater cooperation between these two groups - that would be mere technicalities, such as the granting of permits, and "cooperation", in this sense, is something to be encouraged. But what is distressing about the relationship between the Pride Committee and police is that it has gone beyond cooperation and into the realm of collaboration.

A case in point is the nudity issue which has surrounded the last two Pride Days. During the 1997 Pride parade, a group of male nudists marched au naturel in the parade, claiming that the right to be naked in public was a political issue. In the run-up to Pride 1998, the Metro Police warned the Pride Committee that they might be refused a permit for the parade if there would be public displays of nudity. (One has to wonder, though, whether 250,000 people have to bother with permits.) This could be construed, in a way, as a threat. The police were declaring themselves the guardians of public morality - even though there are a great many scantily clad and nearly nude people at pride anyways - and were declaring that they would make things difficult should their will be challenged. The Pride organizers obviously placed a great deal of weight on the police warnings, as they publicly declared that volunteers to provide security at the parade would be trained to not only notify police of people going nude in public, but to turn them over to police as well! The gay and lesbian community had come full circle since the Stonewall riots: now, gays and lesbians were helping the police to round up members of their own community, instead of fighting against that oppression.

As it turned out, there was only one arrest for public nudity. The person in question - a young woman - "streaked" along Church Street, and was met mostly by laughs of amusement, and also by cheers of encouragement. She was seen by police, but they were not going to act until they received a complaint. They did - the complaint came from Pride security volunteers. Quite a shocking act of collaboration with the very people who have historically oppressed the gay and lesbian community - and who continue to do so to this day. Were community standards violated? That is unlikely, given the risque element so pervasive in the gay and lesbian community. For example: in any given issue of Xtra magazine, there are a number of advertisements for adult video stores or bars where men go for the sole purpose of having sex with each other. And there are photos of male escorts, as well. So it would be difficult to argue that the standards of the gay and lesbian community could be violated by a public display of nudity.

Is there hope for Pride Day? Can it be saved from becoming a corporate marketing tool? Will the Pride Committee continue to openly collaborate with the forces of oppression? Only time will tell. Given the backlash against this year's Pride Committee that has already been raised, there is good reason to hope that Pride can be returned to its community-oriented roots. Many gay and lesbian activists found themselves alienated by the corporate, pro-police atmosphere of this year's Pride. Hopefully, those feelings of alienation will encourage more queer activists to get involved in organizing Pride - and bring it back to its roots.