Paul Ellis has seen a lot of gay pride parades. He marched in Pittsburgh’s first one in 1973 with just 40 other people, flanked on either side by angry residents holding glass bottles and rocks with only two unhappy police officers for protection.
Ellis, manager at Cliff’s Variety Store in the historic Castro district, is part of the generation of LGBTQ activists who fought for basic rights, to get jobs and to avoid arrest. So when he most recently attended the San Francisco Pride Parade with his partner, he was shocked by what he saw.
“I stopped and said (to my partner), ‘Do you see any gay people around us?’ And it was like, ‘Oh my God, no,'” he said.
They had run into a cultural shift breathtaking in its speed and still something of a disconnect to many in the gay community. In many large cities, gay pride marches have become the new St. Patrick’s Day, only with rainbow tutus instead of shamrocks.
The parades in honor of Ireland’s patron saint began as religious celebrations and in the United States date back to the 1700s. They eventually morphed into statements of Irish pride and solidarity, but have now become an excuse for many to wear green and drink Guinness stout.
When it comes to LGBTQ pride marches, that same shift has happened in less than 50 years. Today, the streets along the parade route throng with groups of people in their teens and 20s, dancing and partying while sporting rainbow-colored wigs, sunglasses and feather boas, along with the ever-present tutus.
Ellis says he doesn’t have a problem with non-LGBTQ people going to the Pride parade, but he thinks they should be focused on supporting the gay community.
“This is not their party,” Ellis said. “They are attending someone else’s party. … It just felt disrespectful.”
Straight people showing up to gay pride parades is nothing new. But the growing phenomenon of straight young adults attending just to party, sometimes in large numbers, has burgeoned in recent years. University of California-Berkeley gender and women’s studies professor Paola Bacchetta sees it as a kind of co-opting of the underlying political necessity of the marches.
“It’s not in the interest of most (LGBTQ) people of color to be in this kind of celebratory type of gay pride that has absolutely no political vision,” she said.
Groups joining pride events from outside the gay community have, at times, been a point of tension and debate within the gay and lesbian community, especially as the number of corporate sponsors joining the parades grows each year.
The first gay pride parades began in 1970 to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York. Back then, they were called ‘Gay Liberation’ marches and were both controversial and radical.
In the 1980s, gay pride’s protest culture began to evolve. “Gay Liberation” marches became “Gay Pride” parades, and the events became more mainstream.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the LGBTQ movement began to grow, slowly winning legal victories. Pride celebrations swelled into huge affairs in many major cities globally. Last year in San Francisco more than one million people took part, while in New York attendance numbered more than 40,000.
Those wins are, in fact, one of the reasons behind the influx of straight partygoers. For many young people now, being gay is cool, not condemned.
This progress of acceptance has become something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, say some, previous generations of LGBTQ activists fought for this acceptance, for a world in which being gay or lesbian was a non-issue.
On the other hand, this acceptance could fall into complacency, dulling the importance of the movement given the ongoing issues still facing the community and cloaking the history of resistance that helped achieve that acceptance in the first place.
Andrew Jolivette, a San Francisco native and American Indian studies professor at San Francisco State University, actually has a name for what he views as the commercialization of gay culture — he calls it “Gay Inc.” He says he has stopped going to pride parades, upset by what he sees as the false perception that the LGTBQ community has made enough progress to stop resisting.
Going to gay pride, he said, has become just a “cool thing” to attend rather than a place to uplift marginalized voices and to acknowledge the community’s ongoing struggle to achieve progress. Like St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo, he believes Pride has been taken over by people who want an excuse to drink and party, displacing the LGBTQ community from a festival meant to celebrate them.
“These young people are not concerned about the issues that continue to impact the (LGBTQ) community that much,” Jolivette said. “What they want is the freedom without the struggle.”
Not everyone believes that this phenomenon is a problem. Greg Pennington, curator for the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, has resigned himself to the fact that younger generations will never know the trials older LGBTQ members had to go through just to get to where they are today — and that they may not feel the need to take gay pride as seriously politically as the community once did.
He, personally, is happy to see more straight people showing up at pride events, even if they’re only there to have a good time.
It’s just part of progress, he says, and it’s what older LGBTQ activists were fighting for.
“For some of us, we feel like we’re losing that specialness that we have as gay people,” Pennington said. “That specialness was a defense. We created that sense of specialness among ourselves, and that is the price of progress, losing that sense of specialness.”