It’s Pride Season! I’ve just had three amazing in Toronto at the World Pride Human Rights Conference. I’ve had the pleasure to meet and hear activists from more than fifty-one countries, including Brazil, Russia, Nigeria and Uganda. From the first session to the last, it was wonderful to participate in so many great discussions and share ideas with the hundreds of other delegates. One highlight was Edie Windsor, the 85 year old woman who sued the US government over DOMA and won, opening the door for same sex marriage throughout the United States. Another highlight was the reception last night at the Lieutenant Governor’s Suite in Ontario’s Parliament, and hearing Premier Kathleen Wynne, Canada’s first elected LGBT* head of government, discuss the importance of Pride.
I am here in Toronto doing research for my graduate studies in media and LGBT* activism at Simon Fraser University. All this Pride excitement reminded me of a paper I wrote in my first semester. It’s geeky and academic but it reflects on the potential of Pride, and I thought I would share a short excerpt from it before the big party starts this weekend.
I hope you enjoy it as well. Happy Pride!
Pride Affects: Queer Transformations in Public Spaces
“Pride, really worldwide, it’s the same story. People are making costumes. They’re making music. They’re writing poetry. And all of that creative energy is so powerful. It’s our answer to guns and bombs, quite truthfully.”
Gilbert Baker – Artist and Activist
Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride (2009)
The power of Gay Pride events is not derived from simply representing a community, parading sexuality, attracting huge crowds, or making money. The true social and cultural power of Pride is its ability to create change in society by deterritorializing and reterritorializing the public sphere with a queer frame. It breaks down the inherent heterosexism of society that marginalizes LGBT* people, and this reframing removes the threat of violence that many people experience daily. It replaces the isolation, violence and danger of public displays of queerness with intense playfulness, humour, love, joy and community. Pride is extremely effective at initiating this process for a number of interconnected reasons. Its history, ritual and ceremonial aspects imbue it with an intrinsically meaningful component for many people, who are therefore very emotionally invested. Moreover, the duration, richness and complexity of the shared sensory experience gives Pride incredible affective power for social change.
I didn’t fully experience the powerful force of Pride until many years after first celebrating it in nightclubs. The difference was that I was involved and I shared the experience in public. I volunteered. My duty was to be the liaison between the parade director and the police officer patrolling the route before the parade. The assignment was with Officer Chris, a handsome, straight, city police officer who slowly drove the route in his cruiser while I walked alongside. I had no idea that our presence would be profoundly symbolic for so many people, and it was on this day that I first recognized the magnitude of the transformations taking place at Pride. Transformative forces are much more powerful when the experience includes performing the rituals; participation in the parade heightens the intensity of the experience, as does the huge scale of the event.
A Pride parade is what Brian Massumi (2011) characterizes as an “occurrent art” that transforms the potential into the actual. The qualitative component of an event, like Pride, depends upon how it unfolds, how it becomes co-felt, and the immediacy of the experience (Massumi, 4). There is a relational and participatory element to activist art that is in essence political, as well as a creative, self-enjoyment aspect that is an aesthetic experience. Along with the aesthetico-political, there is a speculative realm that relates to the shaping of social activity and worldly potential, and a pragmatic force that directs the “how” of the experience of becoming, the process of change (Massumi, 16).
Pride is an occurrent art, steeped in creative self – enjoyment, as well as socio-political purpose. Its speculative sphere envisions a more inclusive, less discriminatory future; the pragmatics involve organizing the parade, and the event unfolding. Officer Chris and I were the first dimension in a world of activity larger than our own – larger than the parade waiting behind us – larger even than the hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets. The ritual that was about to be performed was a step towards establishing equal rights for people worldwide. Claiming social justice for LGBT* Vancouverites was merely the activity of the day, and like all Pride parades since Stonewall, this process is primarily about reshaping the territory of gender and sexuality in both the social sphere and individual minds. When we appeared on the parade route, the crowd saw the happening just beginning to stir, “the cusp of the ‘more’ of the general activity of the world-ongoing turning into the singularity of the coming event” (Massumi, 3). The anticipation and enthusiasm of the crowd was palpable. They cheered loudly, and literally screamed out “Thank you” to Officer Chris for the entire route. People ran up and shook his hand, and gushed appreciation towards him. I was overwhelmed by the fact that his presence caused such unbridled excitement and emotion in people, but I soon understood why. He was the established authority securing safe space for the further acts of deterritorialization that were about to take place. In many parts of the world this is unthinkable. By his side, dressed as queer cowboy, I operated as the figure of a parallel yet to be realized future territory; I indicated the possibility of more than what was now. I was also unprepared for how many people would recognize me, thank me, hug me, scream and cheer just because I was there. The crowd was feeling the potential of what was coming; we were all literally on the cusp of becoming more than before, and there was powerful energy resonating between us.
I also felt the affects of the crowd; the just-beginning forces of Pride. Joy, excitement, appreciation, anticipation, everything was unfolding in the moment as we reterritorialized the streets. There are many understandings of this term “affect.” In her book The Affect Theory Reader, Melissa Gregg describes an in-between-ness “in many ways synonymous with force or forces of encounter.” These forces are constantly modulating, rhythmic waves of sensation, immanence and encounter that position a body’s (human or other) belonging or non-belonging to the world (Gregg 1-3). In her essay After Affect, Anna Gibbs explains mimesis as corporeally based forms of imitation that occur either voluntarily or involuntarily and generate a tendency to “converge emotionally” (Gregg, 186). Affect contagion is at the core of mimesis, which like affect, does not belong to the subject or object but rather as a force that connects and propels them (Gregg, 194). The waves of feeling at Pride demonstrate how affect is contagious through mimesis. Smiles, hugs, laughter, and cheers resonate through the massive crowds as the parade experience affects the participants with feelings of joy, purpose, belonging, and hope happiness. The shared understanding of this queer public space is the incredibly valuable potential of the Pride affect.
Bob Christie is a Vancouver based filmmaker, activist and media theorist researching, and advocating for LGBT* social justice worldwide. His 2009 feature documentary Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride has screened in more than fifty festivals at festivals around the world, winning several best documentary awards.
Gregg, Melissa; Gregory J. Seigworth eds. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Brian Massumi. Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.