Merchandising the subaltern*

*(For those of you not hip to the post-colonialist lingo, here you go.  It’s a pretty big word in some circles.)

By far my most-visited blog post is one I wrote last year discussing my participation as a straight man in an increasingly open and inclusive queer community.  This stuff gets people talking.

(My second most traffic-heavy post is the one that turns up in search engines to “woman squirting.”  That says a lot, I think, about what most people are looking for with Google.  I bet they’re disappointed when they end up here.)

This last weekend was our local Pride celebration.  Where I live, this is not a small thing; we take sexuality seriously ’round these parts.  Or, we used to (so I’m told, anyway).  Since I moved here, what I’ve mostly experienced is a thin veneer of tolerance covering a giant excuse to party and advertise.  And, I’m generally fine with that, because a good party is a good party.

This year, though, I was struck by how the party might be getting stretched just a little bit thin.  The Sunday morning parade was fun, but I’m not sure it had to be several hours long.  Someone needs to explain to parade organisers that a flatbed with men in underwear dancing is not, by itself, enough to constitute a parade float.  Similarly, you know what doesn’t make for an exciting parade float?  A guy I’ve never heard of in a suit, waving.  If he’s gay, why isn’t he in a thong dancing to Lady Gaga with everyone else?  And, every freaking business in the state made a point of having a float. Yes, Google has eleventy-billion employees,  many of whom are doubtlessly gay. Do we need a float to tell us that?

It’s actually the latter two examples that struck me the most.  Every parade has its “boring waving politician” moments (Oh, look, it’s… some old guy, the Marshall of the Easter parade!), but there sure seemed to be an awful lot of them this weekend. Watching elected city administrators climb over each other to identify with a significant voter block really doesn’t make for festival-level entertainment.  In a city like this, being open-minded about sexuality is less a commendable political stand and more of a bare minimum, but that doesn’t prevent all the political jumping and waving, “Look at me!  I like gay folks!”

Now, this isn’t to say that the parade wasn’t still fun, and generally successful at being vibrant, inclusive, and fabulous.  But, for every well-decorated float full of mostly naked men dancing in clever costumes, there was a “Yes, yes, all your male sub-management employees are gay, Virgin America, we get it” moment.  It’s a good thing the airline companies were in the parade to let us know that their flight attendants are gay, or we might not have known.

(I expect the next big shocker on that front will come from the modern dance industry.)

But, after the lamely conservative (can’t have too much fun wearing your employer’s logo, after all) corporate float moves past, it’s replaced by a truly creative and entertaining living rainbow, made up of mostly-naked men in body paint running and climbing around in a choreographed flow.  And, the crowd cheers, and the folks on the float laugh and dance, and everyone is having fun.

And then the old Asian lady representing district 8 goes by waving politely from the back of a convertible, and the buzz is killed.  She’s not even naked.

This was the up-and-down of the entire, rather long, parade: genuinely entertaining and celebratory content alternating with corporate and political cash-ins.  And, that, in a nutshell, is the queer rights movement around here.  The transition from protest to celebration has been a slow and hard-earned one, and there is, I think, a lot to be said for appreciating both at once.  However, it’s also a little disappointing to see that once something is acceptable, it’s also exploitable; somehow, we’ve commodified tolerance into corporate and political capital.

I can’t decide if that’s a bad thing.  It seems like a patently self-serving perversion of a minority’s struggle for recognition and acceptance to so obviously milk the cultural capital of a social movement.  But, this is also a reflection of corporate and political interests treating gay rights as they would any other acceptable, mainstream, safe phenomenon, and in a goofy way that’s a bit wonderful.  You know that your days as a subaltern are numbered when AT&T makes a float in your honour.

(I bet you wondered if I were ever actually going to use that word in my main text.)

Of course, nothing I’ve written so far means that the movement to recognise the GLBTetc community is over, or even meaningfully close to the goal line; it’s a rather safe bet that major corporations aren’t scrambling to enter Pride parades in Oklahoma City.  Still, it’s got to be a good sign when private interests start trying to profit from association with minority rights.  And, maybe it’s even a good thing when the celebrations get watered down by all the self-serving irrelevant stuff; the threat of dilution and irrelevance could be a legitimate spur to progress within a movement that might otherwise drift into fabulous complacency.

Good or bad, though, none of this changes the fundamental fact that members of the city parks commission do not make for exciting parade floats.  And, that’s not an issue of minority recognition, corporatisation, or political pandering; it’s just the simple common sense not to stick too many dud floats in a parade.  If all of this shows nothing else, it’s that the gay rights movement has finally reached the big leagues, and maybe it’s time to step up and do a little quality control.  An inconsistent level of fabulousness will hurt brand loyalty.

For example, anyone wearing a banana-hammock thong need not apply.  I saw way too many of those this weekend.  They aren’t sexy. Borat was parody, people!

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