Pride March and the Contradictions of the New Sexual Revolution

Marchers at the 2019 World Pride NYC and Stonewall 50th LGBTQ Pride Parade in New York City, June 30, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
The revolution is over, but aging revolutionaries can’t stand the thought of being mainstream.

The coincidence of WorldPride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City this June is supposed to be historic, a queer celebration of mythic proportions, with millions of LGBTQ activists and allies expected to descend on Manhattan at the end of the month for the Pride March, the biggest in the world — in fact, the biggest ever.

It’s no surprise, then, that come June 30, the streets near the march are all lined with floats, trucks, banners, etc., advertising every business imaginable and assuring the masses that all companies present are sufficiently woke.

The kitschy capitalism that runs rampant at the official Pride March has actually sparked a countermarch this year. It’s called the Queer Liberation March, and it’s organized by a group called Reclaim Pride. Their whole hook is that they don’t accept major corporate sponsors (while NYC Pride welcomes them). Horrified at the mainstreaming — sellout, in their eyes — of their once-radical movement, these queer activists have decided that the next enemies to be vanquished are . . . queer activists. Bored with victory, they’ve turned on their own. It’s a strange bit of cannibalism.

On sidewalks and street corners along the route itself, spectators are packed in tight — definitely millions, as expected. After some balloons, the first major contingent is the Gay Liberation Front. The organization was founded in immediate response to the Stonewall riots 50 years ago, and it shows. Packed into the backs of two big, flatbed Penske rental trucks, many of them have to sit and the rest lean on the railings or on canes. The first truck is full, probably two dozen septuagenarians squeezed in there. The second, the same size, holds only two. One sits on the far side facing away from me; the other is standing at the railing, smiling from ear to ear and waving to the crowd with both hands. I think at first that the scene reminds me of Queen Elizabeth. But Nixon is a better comparison.

The older demonstrators — who definitely constitute a disproportionate percentage of the attendees — seem to be reliving the glory days (as it were) of the ’60s, when being radical was actually radical, and being a cross-dressing lesbian Marxist actually meant something other than fitting in on campus. The revolution is over, but they’re not ready to admit it. Their senses of community and meaning have been formed for decades by their self-conception as rebels. Just like the members of Reclaim Pride, they can’t stand the thought of being mainstream. They can’t stand the thought of success.

The crowd’s not entirely elderly, though. There are plenty of Millennials among both the marchers and the spectators, and they form a stark contrast with their more senior comrades. They have a different response to the mainstreaming: While the older activists just sort of pretend that they’re still living in the Stonewall era, many of the younger ones just keep pushing further to ensure that they stay out of the mainstream. Thus, among the Millennial demonstrators, there are some trends that must seem horrifying to the old veterans: packs of young men in nothing but underwear, dog masks, and collars; the morbidly obese insisting on near-nudity in public as a necessary condition of empowerment; couples leading each other around on leashes (whither “liberation”?). As the limits of social acceptability constantly expand (in no small part due to the activism of the older people here) the younger people feel the need to stay beyond those limits so that they can feel as revolutionary as the generation that came before. It causes some obvious tension.

It also causes some confusion. There’s a taxi parked next to me with two teenage girls sitting on top of it. They have rainbow clothing and stickers and various other souvenirs of their participation. Talking about the souvenirs, one of them says to the other, “I got a pink and blue flag, so I don’t really know what I represent, but oh well.” (It’s the transgender flag, for what it’s worth.) These are the soldiers of the next sexual revolution, and they have no idea what they’re doing.

The revolution is over. Its leaders, all of them old now, cling to some romantic memory of their rebellious past. Its opponents mourn the tradition it overturned and grimace at the libertinism that rose up in its place. Its descendants search desperately for a revolution of their own, flying flags whose meaning even they don’t know, obsessively convincing themselves that they too are heroes in a fight long ended. And none of them seem happy with what the revolution wrought.

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