National Lampoon once ran a spoof of the old EC horror comics stories, “Tales From the Tombs,” in which a bigoted gay-basher winds up – via the traditional EC twist ending – in an entirely gay society. “Everyone in the world is a homo!” the bully realizes in the last panels. What was a joke then is not so funny now, partly because few today would dare treat violent homophobia as a laughing matter, but also because the alternate reality sent up in “Tales From the Tombs” seems to have come true, at least as far as this year’s Pride season and related festivities have suggested.
It’s possible, of course, that Gay Pride celebrations are becoming a bit like St. Patrick’s Day: just as you don’t have to be Irish to wear green and drink beer on March 17, you don’t need to be part of the LBGTQ community to have fun in a summer parade. On the other hand, the steady stream of media coverage of LBGTQ issues and the barrage of rainbow-colored ad campaigns have a whiff of opportunism about them. Whatever moral stigma or legal restrictions were once imposed on non-straight sexual identities – the shame that “Pride” was meant to counter – they are all but forgotten in contemporary North American culture, where numerous executives, celebrities, and public officials are openly gay, where drag shows are offered as mainstream entertainment, and where LGBTQ advocacy resounds in politics, journalism, and education. The defiant rhetoric of Pride has been overtaken by the exploitative motif of Cool.
The conundrum here is that not only is it impossible for everyone to be Cool (it’s what sociologists call a “positional” status, defined by contrasting with the necessary unCool), but it is literally impossible for everyone in the human species to be LGBTQ. According to Wikipedia, no more than 4.5 percent of American adults claim a preference outside heterosexuality. There is thus just so much attention that can be given to a demographic minority before the attention becomes at best distorting and at worst undemocratic. Yes, gay people deserve to be accepted into the broader social organization and protected under national law, but most people aren’t gay, and neither are most consumers, most couples, and most voters. The same might be said of Irish, Jews, and the disabled (and men!), whose rights to acceptance and protection no one questions, yet LGBTQ activism is notably vague on whether the LGBTQ population consists of folks born with an inherent quality, or fashionable adapters of a distinct lifestyle. Whose Pride, exactly, are we celebrating? Who is eligible to be proud, and how is eligibility determined? How do businesses gauge the returns on their investment in Pride marketing? Is Pride an expression of personal dignity, or cultural hipness? If you can’t be proud – or if you’re a gay person who could but can’t be bothered to – should you be embarrassed?
These questions may arise more often in coming years, as the politicization – and commercialization – of “difference” fosters a competitive self-interest among many groups. Already we hear reports of “Straight Pride” marches held or flags waved in disparate locations, as hitherto nonpartisan people decide that they too belong in an exclusive category outsiders are obligated to honor and accommodate. I don’t like where this is heading. Solidarity among some encourages solidarity among others; the louder the solidarity, the louder still its counterparts. Pluralism is one thing; tribalism is something else. Unlike in National Lampoon‘s “Tales From the Tombs” comic, not everyone in the world is gay, and we do no favors to the relatively small number who are by pretending otherwise. The more forced our focus on the most vocal and the most colorful over the most typical and the most plain, the more we ought to remember that Pride goes before a fall.