27 Feb 2009

Gay Pride, Gay Shame

Shinen Wong ponders the meaning of gay Pride parades as Sydney, where he currently lives, is in the midst of the its 31st annual Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras festival season.

Recently, a gay Pride event was cancelled in Chiang Mai, Thailand following a confrontation with protesters. Earlier, a prominent Bangkok gay activist Natee Teerarojanapong campaigned against the parade. Many of the comments here on fridae.com in response to the recent news article featuring this issue have expressed disgust and surprise at Teerarojanapong's disavowal of a Pride march, especially regarding his reasoning, which I will delve into later.

In the meantime, here in Sydney we are in the midst of the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival season, about a month-long season which opened this year on 15 February with the annual "Fair Day" at Victoria Park, and which will end on 7 March with the famous parade down Oxford Street. Every year, during the Mardi Gras season, there are art events, theatre, concerts, debates, public forums, and a film festival, all of which feature work by LGBT artists and thinkers locally and from around the world. The Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is self-consciously a cultural festival born from the political discontent of sexual repression.

According to the New Mardi Gras website, the first march in 1978 in Sydney was met with violent police arrests of marchers, and sparked a successive wave of protests against laws that required registration of political demonstrations. Because of the effectiveness of LGBT organising, those laws came tumbling down, paving the way for the Mardi Gras to morph from its more exclusively anti-authoritarian roots into the more integrated and inclusive spectacle of arts and exhibitionism that it is today.

Such is the history of the Pride festival known as the Mardi Gras here in Sydney. Growing up, it was a dream to be able to attend a Pride festival, stuck as I was within the political deadlock against free speech regarding sexual expression in Singapore. It was when I was 21 that I attended my first ever Pride parade in San Francisco, June 2006, on break from university. San Francisco currently features three marches during the annual Pride season which began in the early 1970s. Usually held on each of the two days before the famous Pride march along Market Street are the Trans March, which started in 2004 in support of transgender people, and Dyke March, which started in 1993 in support of queer-identified women.

I attended all three marches that period of June 2006 in San Francisco; Friday (Trans March), Saturday (Dyke March) and Sunday (Pride March). That weekend, I was shell-shocked out of 22 years of shame and repression, getting drunk on cheap wine on Friday, followed the next day by more cheap wine, dancing and passionately kissing and making out with a beautiful friend whom I had had a crush on, in the middle of a dance party that was held on the streets of the Castro district (the famous gay district that was the site of Harvey Milk's rise to political prominence, featured in Gus Van Sant's recent film, Milk). That weekend for me was an incredible catharsis of built up tension. To be surrounded literally by thousands of queer people of all backgrounds, Asian, black, white, Hispanic, inter-racial, international, and all ages, all of them beautiful, laughing, dancing, holding each other, kissing each other, and loving each other the way our souls had always demanded.

On Sunday, during the famous daytime Pride march along Market Street, my friend and I walked around the city holding hands. After the catharsis of drunken release the previous two nights, it was equally such a magical experience to be able to express public affection, out in the open, with the sun beating down its blessings on our skin. This was a time in which we were not anomalies, not oddities, but in fact, participants in a larger urban festival of sensual and sexual freedom of expression; a privilege that many heterosexuals take for granted on a daily basis. That weekend was the first time in my life I experienced an alignment between my sexual-emotional desires and their expression, galvanised by the freedom that the San Francisco Pride festival allowed for. That night, I experienced authenticity.

Top of page: Waterboys @ Taiwan Pride 2008; above, first 2 photos: Asian Marching Boys @ the Sydney Mardi Gras 2008; above, third and last photos: Hong Kong Pride 2008.
That is the strange paradox about Pride events. On the one hand, they demarcate a time in which we can showcase our pride, our pride in our bodies, our pride in our sexuality, and our pride in loving each other. On the other hand, this demarcation is necessarily based on an implicit understanding that during the rest of the year, most of us feel we must pack it up, and walk the streets as brazenly separated from one another as society ordinarily demands of us. Back to shame. Back to fear. Back to silence.

Pride festivals will only make sense if we still have the larger "shame festival" that is the rest of the year. If we cease to feel ashamed, we may also cease to cling to creating the conditions in which we feel a distinct pride over something so abstract and superfluous as our "sexual orientation" and "gender identities." However, those of us who are "anti-Pride" should not get too excited about that sentence, as it was certainly not intended as an indictment of Pride marches or festivals. Often, when LGBT people ourselves demean the legitimacy of Pride events, it is often only superficially from a space of contentment and calm, and is usually quite directly related, instead, to an underlying bias against and hatred toward those of us who continue to struggle enough with sexual shame that these events could continue to be relevant.

In Chiang Mai, gay activist Teerarojanapong's argument was that a highly publicised Pride festival in Chiang Mai would "encourage" young people to be kathoey (a Thai word that colloquially is used to refer to male-to-female transgender or cross-dressing individuals), and would demean the traditional life of supposed discretion and sexual conservatism in Chiang Mai. Acceptance, for Teerarojanapong, seems to be in lieu of including transgender individuals. Insofar as larger society and even our own communities continue to foster an attitude of intolerance and shaming toward our more basal, sexual, and flamboyant expressions and members of our human community, Pride events will continue to be appealing and relevant. After all, if an ethnic tradition were so easily threatened by the images of a few queer people prancing around, then it is as important to me to question the legitimacy of queer expression as it is to challenge the legitimacy of a tradition that does not account for its queer members. All across Asia, people have engaged exactly this struggle, with culturally-specific forms of Pride festivals popping up all across Asia in the last two decades, from Taipei to Tokyo, from Manila to Mumbai (Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore), and across the Southeast Asian region, including Thailand's Bangkok, where Teerarojanapong himself had attended a Pride march along Silom Road one year.

If Teerarojanapong, or, for that matter, any other LGBT individual spends an inordinate amount of time challenging the legitimacy of Pride parades as an expression/reaction against discontentment and shame, then who are we really fighting for? And who do we end up fighting against? The uneasy answer is that we are spending too much time undermining ourselves. To me, this is truly the last vestige of shame we must truly aim toward dismantling. If we were truly successful in that, if we were secure in that, then there would be less fixation on whether or not Pride is an 'accurate' or 'inaccurate' portrayal of who we are, since the moment queer people ever become truly accepted and integrated into larger society, and our shame dissipates, Pride too will dissolve all on its own accord. No need for violent and hateful condemnation.

This ability to cease shame is not only an individual matter. The whole of society needs reformation, our cultural attitudes toward sex and gender must necessarily be undermined and reworked to incorporate queer expression. This is the sublime osmosis that the presence of Pride events can engender; they seep into straight/non-queer people's psyches, jarring them out of a nascent and complacent freedom, perhaps tentatively into a state of unease. But, and I know this from my interactions with many of my straight friends, Pride festivals can even free them up from their own repression.

At the moment, I am fully in support of people who choose to organise Pride parades and marches, festivals and showcases, with the caveat that this may need to integrate the struggle for pride in our own ethnic heritage that may indeed be legitimately threatened by global homogenisation of urban cultures.

Perhaps this means that I must still battle my own gay shame, and yet perhaps this also means that I am not ashamed to admit that this is a battle I still struggle with, a battle I know many of the rest of us also struggle with, that I invite you to join me in, and that we can help each other to overcome. In the meantime, the best I can do, especially given the privilege I have of being in a city in which a Pride festival is currently in season, is simply to cease the unending chatter in my head that debates the relative worth or unworthiness of an event, and to simply call out to passersby during the descent of a balmy and sticky evening ahead, "Come dance with me!"

Malaysia-born and Singapore-bred Shinen Wong is currently getting settled in Sydney, Australia after moving from the United States, having attended college in Hanover, New Hampshire, and working in San Francisco for a year after. In his fortnightly "Been Queer. Done That" column, Wong will explore gender, sexuality, and queer cultures based on personal anecdotes, sweeping generalisations and his incomprehensible libido.