The San Francisco Gay Shame Awards were held for the first time this year. According to Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Philadelphia Gay News, Gay Shame is an outgrowth of a younger generation’s disgust with over-commercialised pride celebrations that are more about corporate sponsorships … than they are about the radicalism that gave birth to our post-Stonewall gay-liberation movement.
The backlash started some time ago. In the 1996 anthology Anti-Gay, editor Mark Simpson gathered together gay and lesbian writers including Peter Tatchell and Bruce La Bruce to critique a culture that Simpson believed had become vacuous, self-serving and tedious. Simpson wrote:
There are many reasons to feel proud at Pride. You are proud to prefer the same sex, proud to be open about it, proud of your floats and Freedom Flags, proud to be there feeling proud and especially proud of your cycling shorts three sizes too small -¦ It’s a wonder that proud gay hearts don’t just burst with pride on such a proud day.
It was a little shocking to read such heresies at the time, but even then I couldn’t help but feel a certain affinity with these views. It’s not because the Pride Week currently taking place in Sydney is a den of commercialisation -“ such criticisms might better be applied to a more American context.
My affinity with Simpson concerns his use of the word pride. For many years now I haven’t been particularly proud of being gay. I’m not ashamed of it, but I’m simply not proud, any more than I might be proud of being tall or proud of the fact that I’m balding.
I used to be proud. Gay pride was on a personal level a cathartic experience, a radical counter-narrative to what I saw as an oppressive society. Now, it seems as important yet trivial a phenomenon in my emotional development as my first game of Truth Or Dare.
Let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start. Gay Pride obviously began as an apposite position to shame. Lesbians and gay men were meant to be revolted by who they were. In a world of civil rights movements that included Black Is Beautiful, gay pride made sense. To be ashamed of something was to be invisible: to be proud of something was to be vocal, being proud went hand in hand with identity politics. To be proud of being gay was also an outrageous misuse and appropriation of the word, just as gay itself possessed the etymological echoes of happiness and frivolity.
Gay pride might seem odd now because the expectation of shame has lessened, but to me it also felt inappropriate on a deeply semantic level. Isn’t pride one of the seven deadly sins? Doesn’t pride come before a fall?
A recent anthology called In Defense Of Sin provides some detailed and solid answers, in the form of an essay by philosophy professor Jerome Neu. Neu argues in defence of pride as a strategy for the political empowerment of a number of groups, with examples including deaf people and lesbians and gay men.
There are three arguments that are worth reiterating, especially in relation to gay men and lesbians. Firstly, that pride as a sin is dead; that one can be proud of one’s natural gifts, as well as one’s achievements; and finally that pride is virtuous and necessary in a modern age that values the individual.
Firstly -“ it’s a sin. It says so in Ecclesiastes 10:15 and 1 Timothy 6:10 and then in the seventh century Gregory the Great invented a list of evils that would inspire a range of Magnum ice creams. Pride, according to the strangely immodest great Gregory, actually topped the list. Pride isolates and alienates from both God and society; it is a form of self-satisfied and self-sufficient withdrawal, explains Neu. Pride is described as an error of judgment, placing the individual ahead of God.
With the sense of certainty endemic to philosophers, Neu asserts that God is dead and that times have changed. Both identity politics and a politics of marginal positionalities , whatever their views on whether God has died, deny that the social valuations and positions that denigrate certain groups and privilege others are ordained by God -¦ An attack on social hierarchy need not be regarded as a sin, for it is not an attack on God: social hierarchy is not God-given, concludes Neu.
If not a sin, then perhaps the term has been misused, perhaps we are being proud of something utterly beyond our control or even trivial, such as my height or Simpson’s tight bike pants. Is it not more appropriate to be proud of an achievement, such as the results of working hard, rather than a gift or natural attribute, for example, desiring people of the same gender?
Neu insists, however, that there is nothing conceptually wrong with being proud of certain attributes for which one is not, in a sense, responsible. His reason is simple: the distinction between our achievements and our gifts is an arbitrary one. Traced far enough, even apparent achievements depend on conditions outside one’s control, writes Neu. -¦ Will there not always be some empirical explanation for why some are lazy, why some try to do good with their intelligence, and so on? You can insist on being proud only of your achievements, but they may be as much a result of your environment (and thus out of your control) as your DNA. It’s about deciding for oneself what is considered a valuable part of one’s being, and then to be proud of it.
Which brings us to Neu’s final point on pride, that in a modern world, pride is not only sinless, but vital for survival. Neu quotes Stanford Lyman, who asserted that humility -“ the absence of sinful pride -“ has its own failings. Humility can give way to servility and obsequiousness -¦ and a slavish devaluation of one’s own worth … that threaten social withdrawal or personal extinction.
Of course, it is always possible to be too proud. For Neu, this is a matter of having too much self-esteem, a concept which depends on how a person compares themselves to the rest of society. Self-respect, however, has to do with one’s merits and self evaluation and may be noncomparative. Concludes Neu, A politics of self-respect, where the self has a social identity, may not be so ungodly after all.
A sense of pride, once an affront to God and an error of judgment, has become in a modern age a quality essential for survival, a valid political strategy and a virtue determined by the individual.
Which brings us back to worldwide Gay Pride, with my head still hanging in ambivalence. It seems to me then that a vital distinction has to be made: to be proud of being gay is one thing, a personal choice, a valid reaction to a mainstream that still (despite Will & Grace) tells us that we should be ashamed. But to be unequivocally proud of everything that happens to be gay is quite another. Although we have produced more than our fair share of artistic masterpieces we also have vast libraries of shithouse lesbian and gay fiction, films and art that challenge the presumption that Gay is (always) Good. An acknowledgment of this fact, and a determination to question our culture and strive for something better, may be the only thing that truly distinguishes us from the implacability of the fundamentalist Christian.
I’m still not proud of being gay. I’m proud of being out and having survived. I’m proud of the best of gay culture, I’m proud to be part of a group that has made such incredible political advances, I’m proud to be part of a group that has endured (and continues to endure) the realities of HIV/AIDS. Which is reason enough to celebrate, even if only for one week a year -“ but let’s not get too carried away.