Once again, the month of June has arrived and with it we prepare to celebrate Pride. This may take on many forms – from parades to protests, debates, or other events celebrating queer visibility and identity. Reflecting on what 2021 has meant for the LGBT+ community, we can see the continuation of many of the patterns we established in our 2020 article. These range from the limitation of in-person gatherings, the renewed awareness of pride as a political movement, and persisting divides in LGBT+ rights around the world.
This year has allowed us to start to come to terms with the effects the pandemic has had on our societies – and evaluate the existing faultlines and inequalities it has made evident. For the queer community, this has meant a series of severe setbacks. Indeed, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report stating that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the rights of the LGBT+ community. In countries where queer people face social stigma, moral condemnation, or even legal persecution, some have been left out of recovery plans and suffered an even greater crackdown on their rights. And while it has undoubtedly been a hard year, I want to dedicate this space to reflect on one of the ways we build up our identity and resilience in times of crisis – through stories.
After a year and a half of isolation, confinement, and other testing circumstances, I have been taking the time to consider the ways we both use and build narratives to understand and withstand our hardest times. Stories are an inalienable part of queer experiences – those we must question about ourselves, those we fight to have recognized, and those we strive to make visible. As such, I want to focus on the role of stories in building hope, and thus a way forward.
Visibility, representation and narratives of the future
There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now okay to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly until it’s simply the way things are.Tammy Baldwin
LGBT+ stories and the importance of representation are by no means a new topic of discussion in the community. In fact, there is an almost ubiquitously recognized need for us to tell our stories. When I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality, I saw no way forward – no chance of being out, safe, and happy. Despite growing up in an accepting part of the world, I faced severe expectations of violence and abandonment were I to have come out when I was younger. That fear and need to hide permeates identity over time, and is a difficult thing to unlearn. Even today, when navigating the world, we are often forced to make the choice to modulate our self-presentation or lie to stay safe in different circumstances.
This year, many LGBT+ people have been stuck in unsupportive or abusive environments or been struggling to build back after a period of isolation. This has made me think a lot about the power of representation as a source of hope – a statement of: everything will be okay, there is more than this, our famous “it will get better”. But are we shown stories where this is so? When we need it most, where are examples we can cling to in search of comfort and strength?
Representation is important because it gives us a way to not only tell our stories and understand our present, but to envision a way forward. It’s hard to imagine a future you have never seen. Despite great progress, there is still very limited LGBT+ visibility in most public spheres, and fewer direct examples we can see of what it means to grow up and age as a member of the community. While online life has opened up new avenues for these real-life stories, they also remain implicitly or explicitly censored in many places. Around the world, many are still often exposed to only dark or degrading narratives of LGBT+ history, and provided few examples of happy and healthy peers with a real future.
This has been traditionally worsened by harmful LGBT+ tropes in books and media – where we turn to find the stories we can not see around us. But even here tropes like “bury your gays“, which echoes the moralistic condemnations of past decades, or the presentation of queer characters as victims of an uncaring and cruel world have continued to offer little hope. For a long time, these have been the only stories we had access to – those in which we were unhappy, suffering, or gone. And while media has evolved to increasingly include a wider variety of queer characters – from 2019 to 2020, 10.2% of characters in television were LGBT+ according to GLAAD – harmful tropes remain and the queer stories that we are told continue to be limited. With few LGBT+ writers and a lack of diversity in writing rooms, we often can only see stories of how others see us. This perpetuates stereotypes rather than combats them, and gives the community little or no agency to tell its own stories. Additionally, this intersects with racism and ableism, to make stories of LGBT+ people of color, LGBT+ people with disabilities, or specific LGBT+ identities – like those of the asexual, trans, non-binary, and intersex communities – almost impossible to find.
Equally important as having stories is having those that reflect the diversity, dynamism, and reality of the community. LGBT+ stories and activism towards equality are worldwide phenomena, and when media and society fail to provide them – or explicitly suppress them – we must search them out ourselves. Jenni Chang and Liza Dazols did just that, in searching to find stories of what LGBT+ life is like around the world:
The relationship queer people have to visibility has always been a complicated one – a double-edged sword that allows us to hide, but also often condemns us to do so. When possible, being visible in public life serves as both a validation and reinforcement of the worth and legitimacy of LGBT+ identities. This has always been an act of rebellion in spaces that often promote shame, exclusion, and even violence. Being visible signals to others struggling with their identity that there is a way forward and a future for them, that they’re not alone. In the same way, it shows those outside the community that we are a part of the world – we are out there, we are real, and we deserve to be heard.
It is important we examine our privilege and use our voice to support and advocate for those whose identities face an even more severe lack of recognition and discrimination – even within the community itself. While these messages are not new, the need for them echoes in 2021, where we have seen both progress and regression in the rights of LGBT+ people around the globe.
Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it’s a good place to start.Jason Collins
The commodification of identity: rainbow capitalism
But visibility can sometimes be done wrong and identity can be made a commodity. As we work towards a “return to normalcy” in 2021 – tentatively and with vast differences around the world – we have seen a worrying return to the status-quo of corporations at Pride. While it is not necessarily an issue that companies voice their support for the LGBT+ community, these demonstrations have little to do with real support, and a lot to do with profit. Rainbow capitalism – also known as gay capitalism or pink capitalism – refers to the branding that corporations use during Pride month, generally characterized by rainbow-themed campaigns, products, and slogans calling for equality.
The difference between rainbow capitalism and meaningful allyship is authenticity. These companies market themselves as queer-friendly mainly to capitalize on the purchasing power of the LGBT+ community, while often supporting politicians and laws that harm us. Walmart, McDonald’s, and Amazon are only some of the major companies that celebrate Pride while actively donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to political actors that deny the community basic protections. As such, rainbow capitalism serves to centralize corporate profit and interests, rather than the needs or rights of the community. Most corporations did not express their support when it was controversial and most needed – only when public opinion shifted, and the market with it. Merchandise and pride campaigns allow brands to profit, while in most cases committing no specific resources or doing any tangible work to support us – beyond the blurry notion of promoting awareness.
This is important because companies take over Pride spaces created by and for queer people. They exercise power on how Pride will take shape, and may even exclude some members of the community that they don’t view as appropriate. They use queer language and aesthetics, which marginalized communities create as a form of protection, not to be commodified and commercialized.
Of course, this is not without its own complications. For many, seeing companies share rainbows in June is a sign of acceptance and support – one unthinkable and highly desired in parts of the world where LGBT+ people are criminalized and further censored. The view that this visibility can have its benefits, and at the same time the notion that we must go beyond the simple performance of allyship, are not mutually exclusive. For so long, the community has been denied even basic acceptance, that many feel the need to secure even superficial support. But we deserve better. There are limitations to symbolic gestures. In a time that is progressing towards the acceptance of LGBT+ rights, it is no longer enough to simply color your logos and stores rainbow and call it Pride. The community and its allies do not want fake activism, we want real action and real support.
The stories we must tell: both a personal and community journey
As we have seen, there is a need to not only tell our stories – diverse, inclusive, and intersectional stories – but to have them really reflect queer people’s authentic voices, and not let these narratives be commodified for profit. The risk of forgetting Pride’s political roots is to leave behind the less-pleasant and less-palatable issues that define life for many people in the LGBT+ community today. LGBT+ issues are a global human rights movement, and have been so in all periods of history. Modern Pride was born as a protest against police brutality, built and led by Marsha P. Johnson and other Black transgender women. The Pride we know today is their legacy – a fact we should never forget.
As a result, there have been renewed calls to critically understand what pride is becoming. Reclaim our Pride Coalition states that the Pride March is turning “into an entertainment venue instead of a true expression of our cultural legacy”. This is actively against the ideals it was founded upon – Pride is political, it always has been, and it always must be.
The renewed social movements against racism and police violence that defined 2020 remain a fundamental part of what this year’s Pride must address. Intersectionality must be at the basis of any LGBT+ activism.
Today, the struggle for LGBT+ rights is increasingly visible – with examples of young LGBT+ leaders and global activists offering a vision of ways in which we can engage with current challenges and promote positive change. This is especially true for the new generation – with organizations like the Trevor Project helping support youth in the community, the GenderCool Project telling stories of thriving transgender and non-binary youth, and OutRight International leading global advocacy efforts, among others. Today, there are resources for those coming to terms with who they are, and for those that want to support a more inclusive and diverse society.
Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really countsBarbara Gittings
Young people need to remember what pride is meant to be as they choose the path it will take in the next few decades – a space of hope, celebration, and resistance in equal measure. As we celebrate this year, its important to highlight that we all have the chance to affect change – with everything from small gestures to long-term efforts. It is always needed and it is always valuable. We stand to make life a little kinder, a little safer, and a little better for those that are struggling, afraid, or hiding. We can make spaces welcoming and create acceptance actively. We can learn, listen, and be ready to lend support to those advocating for their rights. We can make a difference.
Pride needs to once again remember its roots and the stories it seeks to represent.
Pride must critically understand the changes we see today must not eclipse the nature of what we are fighting for.
Pride must center the experience of those that continue to be excluded, discriminated against, and harmed – even in spaces that should be safe for them.
Pride needs to bring back its identity and core values – in order to be able to build on them.
There are stories to be told still, and we need to welcome their voices.
Let those stories be the base from which we legitimise our past, understand our present, and visualise our future.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of IVolunteer International.
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