Every year someone looks at a candid Folsom Street Fair photo and just Jimmy Neutron brain blasts their tushy off, marching off to Twitter to type out some variation on “kinks at Pride are harmful actually” before going off to dream journal about their queer cafe. It’s practically tradition now to observe the same discourse of what is and isn’t appropriate public queer behaviour, one side vouching for the “safety” of children (this particular screenshotted tweet doing an incredible amount of legwork on multiple pride-related discourse topics), while another side continues to fight against the presence of cops at pride, an unfortunately recurring topic due to the lack of meaningful change regarding policing and the role of the police. There’s also people making other takes that are neither hot nor cold, just void of temperature, but bears are a whole other conversation anyway.
“No kink shit at pride” is and continues to be a baffling stance for a lot of people, but there’s a clear delineation being made here regarding what people think “kink” is. Kinks are often subversive, taboo, and blur some of the lines between pleasure & pain, domination & equity, and any psychoanalyst would be frothing at the mouth to explain the (Freudian) roots of why kinks exist. Subversion for many queer people is sort of the motto, going against the grain, defying norms and expectations, so why is it that this particular type of subversion is suddenly deemed “cop-calling” worthy?
The answer lies in a question, specifically the “gay question”, the alleged next step in human rights after the “race question” in the West. There is somewhat of a checklist for a nation regarding how “progressive” they are (politically and also, in their eyes, how “advanced” they are) on the basis of legislation surrounding racial inequality and the ever ambiguous gay rights. Gay marriage being legalized in the United States led many to believe that the fight for gay rights was effectively over, having achieved the one last goal in gay people’s way for being fully integrated and no longer ostracized by society. This, of course, is an unbelievably naive stance to have, however in the joyous celebration of the landmark legislation, the feeling of hope was undeniably palpable.
The unfortunate side effect of such joy is then the insistence that there’s nothing more that gay people need, an opinion clearly expressed by this really not great The Atlantic article claiming that the fight is over because discrimination is, I guess, “illegal”. As we know, things simply cannot happen when they are illegal because we have a four-year-old’s understanding of the world.
However, this same dizzying assumption seeps into the queer community as well. Going back to the idea of subversion, cisgender queer couples are being viewed as more normative by many younger queer people. Queerness itself is also something that has become more and more amorphous, highly susceptible to micro-divisions of identity (see: MOGAI, the still-going split-attraction model/ace discourse), and in some cases becoming more of a personality than anything else. In digital spaces, you are far more likely to find small social circles where queer people make up the majority (in contrast to the alleged 3.5% of the actual US population being queer, albeit this number is likely a little low due to self-reporting queerness not being desirable in many situations). This, compounded by many people staying home and staying online, changes their world views. It’s arguably a thing of beauty to able to find communities in which one feels safe to self-express, but digital queer spaces as a substitute for the spaces that have historically housed queer people and queer events makes for some tension.
Somewhat divergent but not unrelated to the gay rights completionist discussion is then, of course, the “queer cafe”/queer safe space discourse that arises perennially, a discussion centred around the desire for queer-centric spaces that do not emphasize sex (i.e. bathhouses, sex clubs, that one guy’s basement) or “substance” use (bars, clubs, that one guy’s basement). When spelled out, it of course reads more as a critique of nightlife in general, but also it tends to ignore the fact that many of these “desired spaces”, such as queer bookstores, community centres, and even the prized cafe, in fact do exist, or did exist but went under due to being unprofitable. Perhaps the issue then is that these spaces did not fit aesthetically with what the vision for a queer safe space small business was, which encompasses the previous point of queerness being a personality and aesthetic before anything actionable.
By insulating queerness to a digital existence there lies the problem of not fully engaging or understanding what goes in with queerness outside, in addition to creating a disconnect between them and queer history in relation to public and private space. Anecdotally, I cannot count the amount of times I have had to explain, for example, cruising and public sex to a gay person near my age or a few years younger (who typically have only been out for a few years) because the types of gay/queer spaces online have changed dramatically. As a young gay, I was limited to geocities-esque webpages about gay sex, gay dating and cruising sites that looked like the beta for Web 2.0, and weird corners of the library that discussed taboo queer topics. The aligning of “safe space” and “no sex” in the digital sphere is perhaps unintended but telling of what the vision of progress and evolution for queer assimilation looks like.
In 2019, researchers from several Canadian universities published an article on the perceptions of same-sex couples in advertising that effectively stated that people with “high social dominance orientation” (read: homophobic) where relatively unswayed by different psychological primes regarding their level of disgust towards gay couples depicted in ads. However, they found that these levels of disgust were lowered when the gay couples depicted stronger a protestant work ethic and “morality”, defined as being “kind, friendly, hard-working, and successful”, obviously mirroring a typical heterosexual nuclear family following the white-picket fence American dream. This is not at all surprising that, effectively, “less gay” gay people are less offensive to homophobes, but it’s in the pop publishing of this article in the National Post that the issues mentioned in this post start to become a bit clearer. These findings are touted as a method to “ease backlash” and “increase positive perceptions of gay couples” in advertising - a solution to the financial loss created by homophobes boycotting products and companies. That is, a way of portraying a progressive image without alienating their lucrative homophobic fundamentalist consumer base. In the same way that pride parades and campaigns often market to allies, the marketing will always follow the money.
As glaring as the problem may seem, it’s not inaccurate to the attitudes of many queer people in North America. Of course assimilation is deemed desirable, it’s a promise of freedom from discrimination and othering that plagues many queer people (especially those of us who are not white or cisgendered). But, if we look to the model minority myth often applied to Asian-Americans, we know that this freedom is nothing meaningful. It’s simply a different kind of erasure.
Kinks violate this acceptable queerness in every conceivable way. They centre sex and pleasure in a way that the normative society does not approve of, and therefore when queerness becomes aligned with normative society, that same disapproval arises. It’s a fear of being viewed as social deviants, a grand irony when observing the larger history of the queer community, but again in these insulated queer communities, there is a different world view. In the assumption that queer people are fighting to sustain, not achieve, a seat at the accepted-by-society table and must therefore de-freakify the public queer space, we are left with this repeating discourse over a public event that has long since forgotten its roots anyway.
Being icked out by a public sex act is not like, a political position, but the mirror of this attitude and the history of police and gay public (and private) sex should at the very least cause some level of concern. It truly is replicating histories of material harm from oppressors. It’s difficult to critique the desire to want things your way, to feel empowered to illustrate the world you want to see, especially as a queer person, but when these imagined worlds do nothing but enforce the same normative non-threatening queerness that has become digestible to the larger audience, then there’s a serious problem. Digital spaces allow for a customizable world free of anything remotely disconcerting to the user, and the inability to recreate this in the non-digital world feeds the beast that is this same yearly Pride discourse. The wanting and imagining for everybody will always makes sense when everybody is just like you.