World Pride is a festival with a social and a corporate agenda. The primary social agenda being the celebration of gay liberation through a festival (an international celebration incorporating activism, education, and the history and culture of LGBTTIQQ2SA communities) and the corporate agenda is the assimilation or co-opting the image of LGBT liberation to increase market share.
We can compare this to the Olympics or Pan-Am games and other corporate sponsored events, even art festivals like Luminato, that coattail on ideals like human artistic expression and human athletic achievement to the same end—to enhance brand identity and increase profits, but that fail to challenge the status quo.
From Stonewall to Pride
Pride, and now World Pride, come out of the struggles of the gay liberation movement. This is the 45th anniversary of Stonewall, which was a series of spontaneous demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn—in Greenwich Village NYC, in 1969. The Stonewall Riots are generally considered to be the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for gay and lesbian rights in the United States.
World Pride is an offshoot of Pride Toronto and other Pride celebrations whose origins are also founded in similar histories of political protest: in Toronto, the Bathhouse Raids was a raid by the Toronto police against four gay bathhouses in Toronto in 1981, in which more than 300 men were arrested. Mass protests and rallies were held denouncing the bathhouse raids and these mobilizations evolved into Toronto's current Pride Week, which is now one of the world's largest gay pride festivals.
And the history of World Pride itself is relatively short, starting in Rome in 2000, and Toronto being the first North American city to host it.
As gay rights have become more mainstreamed, the potential for market opportunities has driven corporations to compete for product/brand placement within the queer community. Corporations have differentiated themselves by this gay-positive branding, sometimes with the secondary benefits of improving employees’ working conditions—for example extending benefits for partners of employees before it was mandated by law. But it would be a mistake to characterize these changes as primarily motivated by anything other than the drive for profit, or that somehow these corporations represent a kinder, gentler capitalism.
Gains and backlash
Since Stonewall and the Toronto Bathhouse Raids there have been major gains for LGBT people—like same sex marriage and partner benefits, or the defeat of the “Defense of Marriage Act” in the US. But with austerity there has also been a backlash.
For example, the Federal Government in Canada has taken disingenuousness to a new level. On the one hand Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird has used gay rights to criticize Iran and Russia—pinkwashing imperial conflict—while the Tories are busy scoring points domestically with their right wing base by denying Ugandan activists entry to Canada for the World Pride Human Rights Conference, and withdrawing their funding from Pride Toronto since 2010. This is the same “give and take - divide and conquer” strategy that they are using elsewhere, creating divisions not just based on homophobia but fear of immigrants, women, people of colour, Muslims, etc.
Another example of contradiction is the St Patrick Day parades this year in the US. The organizers of the New York and Boston’s St. Patrick Day parades chose to exclude openly gay, lesbian and transgender participants, and it was only after the beer makers Guinness and Sam Adams withdrew their sponsorship that the organizers relented. So in this situation it is the companies who are looking to make money by selling their stuff to a gay audience who seek justice to keep market share that end up appearing to be progressive social activists.
In Toronto we have our own mayoral homophobe, Rob Ford, who has steadfastly refused to attend the Pride parade, one of the largest festivals in the city, and only begrudgingly under public pressure attended the rainbow flag raising at Toronto City Hall for the first time last year.
And we are seeing a backlash internationally. The far-right in France has been mobilizing people against equal marriage, and the National Front made significant electoral gains in the recent European elections. In Russia (where homosexuality was decriminalized almost a century ago in the wake of the 1917 revolution), Putin said the country should “clean” itself of gay people because they don’t reproduce, and has drafted a law to remove children from gay parents. In India homosexuality has been recriminalized (reverting to the British colonial law that first criminalized homosexuality), in the context of a right-wing reaction to austerity and the election of the BJP.
Why this push and pull with strides being made in LGBT rights and others emboldened in their attacks? Austerity is redirecting people’s anger to identifiable targets—racism, a war on women, disability oppression—scapegoating people for capitalism’s crisis. Homophobia and transphobia are part of the backlash, providing a scapegoat for austerity while reinforcing the nuclear family where women do unpaid labour.
To start with we need to understand how the oppression of LGBT people is closely linked to women’s oppression and the institution of the family under capitalism. We need to look more closely at the role the family plays and how this plays out in terms of sexuality and gender and how these function as a source of fuel for capitalist economic growth.
The nuclear family is a relatively recent human development. There have been other societal models based on how people organized to meet their needs. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels compared various societies, including ancient Greece and Rome as well as the Iroquois of North America, and concluded that changes in the family and sexuality were connected to the wider development of society—that social change and economic development are inextricably linked. As class society developed, inheritance through the family became more important for the men who dominated society, and determining the lineage of heirs became crucial. This resulted in the regulation of women’s sexuality and reproduction which Engels refers to as “ the world historic defeat of the female sex.”
The development of class society also had consequences for anyone who wanted to live outside the “norms” of the heterosexual family. The family was the primary means to maintaining an able and abundant workforce through stability and support. In the 19th century, in many industrial nations, the concept of family was ideologically rigid and popularly idealized, and any room for difference was minimal.
The reason the family was so critical to capitalism is that it provided a situation where the labour of nurturing and supporting the next generation of workers, as well as caring for the sick and the old, was unpaid work and largely done by women. As a result gender roles become more rigidly defined and individuals who challenged these roles, LGBT people, were attacked. In other words, capitalism needed not only to reproduce goods but also to reproduce people, including workers—and the institution through which capitalism does this, the family, is central to an understanding of how it creates oppression around gender and sexuality.
As Judith Butler, in an argument from a series of articles in 1997-98 points out: “The reproduction of gendered persons, of ‘men’ and ‘women,’ depended on the social regulation of the family” and that understanding this “is dependent upon an expansion of the ‘economic’ sphere itself to include both the reproduction of goods as well as the social reproduction of persons.”
There has been much theorizing to describe the reality of LGBT people and the dynamics and social setting of queer people and their oppression—Queer Theory, gender theory, identity politics, intersectonality—and they have all been valuable in moving forward the struggle for LGBT Liberation. Marxism unites the fight against all forms of oppression to working class resistance that has the potential to overthrow capitalism—the system that maintains oppression.
In a time where economic crisis and austerity politics are used to attack working people, it is essential to understand that all these fights are one fight, the fight for working class people, the 99%, and that by building solidarity across identities in these battles for economic and social justice, these fights can be won.
Here in Toronto many of the same people who were fighting for women’s rights and access to reproductive choice in the 1980’s, coming out for marches and demonstrations, and defending access to clinics, are the same people who were organizing resistance to the police raids on the bathhouses, and for justice for people living with HIV/AIDS. They knew that the oppression of women, LGBT people, people of colour, indigenous people were all used to create divisions that serve only the interest of the 1% and ignore and suppress the interests of the majority.
Marxists argue that LGBT oppression is rooted in capitalism and its promotion of the family, and that the working class, the 99%, is the key to ending capitalism because workers have the collective economic power to destroy it.
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