Does Gay Pride Matter?

Essay for The Huffington Post, June 2014

Me wearing an Olympic Tracksuit designed by artist Scott Hug for "Purple & Gold" collection to benefit the Russian LGBT Network
(photo by Michael Burk, courtesy of Print All Over Me)


Gay Pride is upon us, and the question on many people's minds is: Does it still matter?

When I first arrived in New York nearly 20 years ago, one of the most vivid impressions of my new home city was the first Gay Pride parade I saw. After being thrown out of my country for speaking out on gay issues, seeing such a massive and festive demonstration of freedom and unity was a total revelation for me. This was the American gay utopia as I had imagined it. I couldn't stop the tears, thinking how lucky I was to be able to witness this and be a part of it, unlike my gay friends in Russia whom I had left behind.

Even though Weimar Berlin was officially the birthplace of the gay liberation movement, New York City is where it really took off, when a bunch of raunchy drag queens and drunken fags at Stonewall bar on Christopher Street fought back against police harassment back in the summer of 1969. For the first time gays rebelled into the streets, and they have done it every summer since to commemorate the beginning of global gay revolution.

Fast-forward 45 years, and we now live in a world where gay marriage is officially recognized in 18 countries and 19 states in the U.S. (plus the District of Columbia). When I attempted to register the first same-sex marriage in Russia back in 1994, this seemed like a distant future, and many of us fought and worked hard to get to this point. The new generation of gay people who are fortunate enough to live in this gay utopia are far less concerned about politics; they're more interested in Lady Gaga's latest releases or the next gay cruise than the situation with gay rights in other, less fortunate parts of the world -- nearly 80 countries where it's still illegal to be gay.

Sadly, most Gay Pride parades I've seen in recent years reflect and promote this political disaffection, targeting instead a huge consumerist appetite of the gay community. The last parade I went to was an endless stream of corporate floats with a bunch of half-naked, logo-wearing muscle clones who were paid to dance around them. The few activist groups with political slogans got lost in the rainbow-colored sea of corporate advertisement. The excitement of my first Gay Pride memories gave way to resentment against gay parades of any sort.

Does Gay Pride still matter, after all the accomplishments and victories achieved by gay people around the world? And what's the point of holding these parades in capitals already so cosmopolitan and progressive -- almost like preaching to the choir, as they say in America? Wouldn't it be wiser if the corporate sponsors of Gay Pride spent the same money on helping our brothers and sisters who are in trouble in places like Zimbabwe, run by notorious dictator-homophobe Robert Mugabe; or Iran, where gay people, including teenagers, are being routinely hanged in public; or Mauritania, where gays are subjected to death by public stoning? And the list goes on and on, with the entire Muslim world and most of Africa being aggressively anti-gay. Add to that the two most populated countries, China and India, where homosexuality is semi-legal, and Russia, which recently adopted anti-gay laws, and the map of the world suddenly doesn't look so gay-friendly anymore.

Isn't it ironic that homophobia is about the only thing that unites bigots and religious fundamentalists across the globe? In Moscow a small group of gay activists tried to organize several demonstrations over the last few years, only to face arrests and gay bashings by neo-Nazi skinheads, while the cops watched. Moscow's new mayor recently signed a ban on Gay Pride parades for the next 100 years, calling them "satanic." However, the massive international backlash against Putin's anti-gay crusade gives us hope that we can unite again for the good cause.

So does Gay Pride matter in 2014? The history of Stonewall, which started with a drunken brawl and grew into a huge international movement, teaches us one important lesson: A bunch of queers and drag queens can, in fact, change the world. History is on our side, and we shall overcome the recent bans like all the previous bans imposed on us in the past.

Gay Pride is a good reason to rally and protest, reflect and celebrate. It's time to remember our rebellious past and reclaim the streets, show our power in numbers and fight for equality not only in places like New York or Berlin but in all the homophobic capitals of the world, from Tehran to Moscow. It's time for us to make homophobia a disease of the past.

Quoting the classic Queer Nation slogan, "We're here. We're queer. Get used to it." Or, as the bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst proclaimed after winning the recent Eurovision Contest, "We are unstoppable!"