Now that COVID restrictions are letting up, major US cities are preparing to host in-person Pride parades once again. The growing presence of families and major corporations at parades reflect the LGBT movement’s shift toward “respectable” bourgeois cultural standards. Accordingly, many have expressed concern over whether BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadomasochism) and “kink” groups should be allowed to march along with the more tame participants.
This controversy reflects a deeper split within the LGBT movement. More traditional homosexual rights activists defend the presence of these groups at parades, in keeping with the narrative of queerness as an attempt to transgress cultural and moral norms. Others, who celebrate the shift in the understanding of homosexuality toward a neutral form of self-expression on equal par with heterosexuality, worry that their presence will deter families from bringing children to the parade.
The metaphysical principles undergirding the traditionalist critique of the domestication of homosexuality, and of the widespread emergence of “rainbow capitalism,” reveals a surprising overlap with a Catholic worldview.
The phenomenon of “rainbow capitalism”—in which major corporations put out rainbow-themed ads targeted toward LGBT consumers—is becoming more and more ubiquitous these days. It’s hard to walk two feet in Manhattan this time of year without noticing another rainbow-colored storefront.
Take the ATMs at TD Bank: “Be You. Be Free. Be Forever Proud”… next to a rainbow circle. Then there’s the more family-oriented ads of Visit Philly which proudly presents a photo of a lesbian couple in front of the Liberty Bell, inviting potential visitors to “Let Wedding Bells Ring.”
Restaurants and food suppliers have been getting crafty with their rainbow-colored foods. Take Just Salad’s “Big Gay Garden Salad,” complete with vegetables that cover every color of the rainbow. Or Shake Shack’s strawberry shake mixed with lemonade, and topped with whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles. Not only can you slurp your shake with pride, but you can wash it all down with a gulp of altruistic gratification—$1 of what you paid for that shake is going to help the Trevor Project.
Many accuse these major corporations of insincerity. Surely they support pride after Obergefell, but where were they during the years when coming out was still stigmatized? Others express concern toward the lack of attention given to the injustices that LGBT people still face, namely youth homelessness and anti-trans violence. The optimistic picture these corporations paint whitewashes (or better, rainbow-washes) the continuous struggle toward “full equality.”
Traditionalist activists assert that rainbow capitalism negates the movement’s founding mission. Journalist Da’Shaun Harrison laments that the rainbow-themed ads, booking of celebrities and politicians for pre-parade events, and the police presence at the parades are “the antithesis to what the month is supposed to commemorate.”
Harrison continues, “[a]t its core, Pride is intended to disrupt cisheteronormativity; it is a response to police violence and an intentional act of rebellion.”
Peter Tatchell writes that when he first got involved in the London Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s, its goals were focused on “social transformation, rather than assimilation and equality within the status quo … We sought to overturn straight supremacism, sexual guilt and traditional gender roles.”
Tatchell sees the trajectory of the movement as headed toward an ideal that mimics the tamed, happily-ever-after lifestyle lived by most heterosexual couples—which he claims contradicts the efforts of most early queer activists:
Pride is now capitalism with a pink hue. It has become monetised: we pay to march, the city authorities extort vast charges from the Pride organisers and we are encouraged to buy rainbow-branded merchandise to express our sexual and gender identity … Increasingly, LGBT+ culture has lost its critical edge. We have been mainstreamed, which on one level is great, but mainstreamed on heterosexual terms. Many of us seem to aspire to little more than an LGBT+ version of straight family life.
In a sense, the early homosexual rights movement testified to certain metaphysical truths that post-industrial consumer culture attempted to erase.
The bourgeois ideal of respectability and of “keeping up with the Joneses” presented Americans with a worldview that was closed-off to the preeminence of the metaphysical Laws of Nature. These ideals derive in part from a secular humanist anthropology, which covers over the inconvenient tension between sanctity and sin, salvation and human finitude, nature and the unnatural.
Much of the homosexual subculture prior to the 1969 Stonewall Riots understood itself to be transgressing the bounds of nature. Most active homosexuals engaged in sodomy and other forms of sexual “deviancy” precisely because they believed it was against the natural grain. This reflects the attitudes of late modern libertines such as the Marquis de Sade who intentionally sought after sexual experiences he deemed “perverse.” This narrative harkens to a Classical pagan worldview that understood homosexuality as a Dyonisian attempt to, as cultural critic Camille Paglia puts it, “transgress nature’s single relentless rule: procreation.”
The pre-modern pagan roots of the early homosexual rights movement hint at certain overlaps with a Catholic worldview. At minimum, both acknowledge that procreation is inherent to the natural order of sexual relations. Further, the “camp aesthetic” of Pride parades and of much of homosexual male culture in general intersects with what Ellis Hanson refers to as the “decadent Catholic” sensibility. Camp, which highlights the tension between nature and artifice, echoes the dramatic tension in Catholicism between the spirit and flesh, and between nature, the unnatural, and the supernatural, which is given expression through Catholic liturgy, art, and spirituality.
Works by Hanson and Frederick Roden document the many late 19th-century French and British homosexuals who were drawn to the decadent sensibility of Catholicism and eventually converted, and thus abandoned a life of sexual vice for chastity.
We can see this trajectory in early camp icons like Oscar Wilde and Marc-Andre Raffalovich, in literary figures like Huysmans’ Des Esseintes and Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte, or in more contemporary figures like Anthony Quintal and Milo Yiannopoulos.
Post-Stonewall, homosexuality has become commonly understood as means to “express oneself” or to be “true to one’s identity.” This new narrative of normalcy is a far cry from the earlier narrative of queerness as an attempt to transgress against the natural order. Thus the newfound concern with the presence of more blatantly transgressive expressions of sexuality at Pride parades.
As much as traditional queer activists decry the bourgeois turn in the LGBT movement, can we be surprised that the movement they initiated went in this direction?
Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce attributes this ironic outcome to the confused metaphysical premises of the Sexual Revolution. These young revolutionaries fell into a “tragic misunderstanding.” In their attempt to tear down “tradition,” they failed to realize that the bourgeois, consumerist social norms they opposed were not indeed a result of the metaphysical ideals of Christianity, but rather were the result of a deviation from those ideals.
And so in their attack on “tradition,” “instead of overthrowing bourgeois society, [they] swept away the last traditional constraints that held back its expansion and finally made everything, even the human body, ‘an object of trade.’” The “revolution” didn’t present a reversal, but instead an intensification of the individualistic bourgeois ideals they fought against.
Similarly, the early homosexual rights activists failed to realize the extent to which their own mission was in fact not so far removed from the ideals they opposed. As much as their pagan-adjacent metaphysical horizon was broader than that of the increasingly secular “respectable” society, they miscalculated how quickly the individualistic tendencies of pagan hedonism could turn into a repackaged version of the bourgeois lifestyle they aimed so ardently to escape.
The current discrepancy over BDSM Pride marchers invites us to look more critically at the underlying historical and philosophical presumptions of the post-Stonewall narrative of homosexuality. To claim that “love is love” and that homosexuality is totally neutral denies the deep symbolism inscribed in nature and our bodies. Both proponents and detractors of homosexuality should be able to agree on the cognitive dissonance of the attempt to domesticate an inherently transgressive phenomenon.
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