If you want to go out dancing: the corporate takeover of Pride

In ‘I Know A Place’, pop band MUNA envision a safe and healing environment – a desire borne from their own experiences as lesbians and queer women, their knowledge of shared suffering. On the pre-chorus, Katie sings:

I can tell when you get nervous
you think being yourself means being unworthy
and it’s hard to love with a heart that’s hurting
but if you want to go out dancing
I know a place we can run

The song is the band’s offering, delivering support and sympathy. It articulates the importance of communal joy, and underneath that it promises a safe place for people to exist, love and dance.

A safe place is something that we must build if we want it, and it’s all the more significant for the effort that it takes to create.

Pride originated to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, an act of resistance led by Black and brown people in response to police raids in Greenwich Village. The riots occurred at a time when the safety of gay and trans people was precarious but rooted in community, and the shared experience of being outcast. The first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was held in June 1978 and was met with police arrests and violence so widespread that the legislation enabling the arrests was repealed over the next year. The 1979 Mardi Gras became a demonstration of resistance and resilience.

Pride is about resistance, and specifically resistance through community solidarity. Police aggression will never cease, but the meaning and purpose of Pride has eroded over time. The Mardi Gras parade was held this year on March 6 in the form of an indoor event at the Sydney Cricket Ground. This was deemed a Covid-safe alternative to the ordinary parade, but it was also the natural culmination of years of chipping away at the origins, purpose, and community foundations of Mardi Gras.

During their volunteer brief, the Midsumma team described how they want to distinguish themselves from Mardi Gras. How they strive to deliver an accessible, inclusive arts festival by and for queer people, as well as a pride march event. Many staff, volunteers, partners, and performers are genuinely passionate about being involved in the community and supporting others. But there is a strange dichotomy between the festival, which genuinely seems to accept a range of voices and audiences, and the march itself.

On May 23, Midsumma hosted their annual Pride March, with 8,000 participants and hundreds of volunteers marching down Fitzroy Street from Ian Johnson Oval to Catani Gardens. That the march could take place during a global pandemic felt miraculous in itself. It was colourful, loud, boisterous, fun, and the most disruptive thing to occur was that we blocked off the road and disrupted traffic for a few hours. The march attracts the most media attention and is therefore strictly regulated. It remains dominated by white gay men, with a significant demographic of middle-class young people who are just discovering themselves. Other participants included British Petroleum, the Walt Disney Company and the Victorian Police – the presence of for-profit corporations, once again, was prioritised over community.

Pride has a corporatisation problem. This is clear. Rainbow capitalism is inescapable every June, and at seemingly every Pride event. By accepting the presence of corporations and cops — by even coming to rely on tokenistic sponsorship — organisations like Midsumma must make themselves palatable in return. It forces us to compromise ourselves for conditional support. And when we begin to accept money from banks and gas companies, when we allow for-profit companies to march in our parades, we compromise not only our identities but also our integrity. Major partners of Midsumma include NAB and Dan Murphy’s — the same Dan Murphy’s which has previously tried to exploit Aboriginal communities. Shame on the Midsumma board for prioritising sponsorship over the safety of LGBTIQ+ people.

Where are the small businesses? The multitude of talented gay and trans creators who live and love and work on Wurundjeri/Boon Wurrung land, or in the rest of the country? Where was the union presence? Charity organisations and essential services ultimately serve the community. People working in Coles management are more concerned with being seen with ‘Organisations Showing Pride’ than their own workers, including and especially LGBTIQ+ workers.

Why not let us decide who we march with? The executive board has interests to protect and connections to maintain. But maybe we want to connect with one another, to feel safe for just a few hours and not have to engage in discussion about how difficult and uncomfortable it is to march alongside the Liberal party.

With money, you can throw a good party. But you cannot guarantee a safe or welcoming space for the people who need it. In a spoken poem, Laniyuk asked

Who else in the world sits at the intersections of gay? And who isn’t marching today? Not out of lack of pride, or out of shame, but because we are still raging against the many injustices performed by the state.

Laniyuk was approached to create a piece for Midsumma Pride March’s event at Catani Gardens. She speaks on the meaning and struggles of being queer, on the history of Pride, on its corporatisation and the presence of cops. The Midsumma team then refused to show the piece, deeming it inappropriate and confirming that the comfort of oppressors takes precedence over hearing concerns from the actual community.

So today, some of us choose safety over visibility. And not just from the outside world, but within our own community. Rainbows and loud music just isn’t enough, and we’ve come to realise that you were never really marching for us.

Change is always, always possible. A few weeks ago, Heritage of Pride agreed to ban uniformed cops from New York’s pride march until at least 2025. Denver Pride followed, writing:

we cannot in good conscience, as an organization that speaks up for justice, look the other way when it comes to police violence aimed at the Black community – a history of violence that goes back even further in American history.

Last year, members from Pride in Protest envisioned Mardi Gras as a campaign site for meaningful activism, with the LGBTIQ+ community extending support to other marginalised groups. There was no way to predict the pandemic in February 2020, but this year Pride in Protest organised a countermarch down Oxford Street, along the route of the original ‘78 Mardi Gras. There were no floats, just community organisation and solidarity. Pride in Protest’s open letter to the Midsumma board was circulated prior to the march, calling for all police presence to be removed from the march, and a conversation with the community and the board going forward. The letter was signed by community members and Midsumma performers, and it went unheard and unheeded. Police continued to march.

At some point after writing and recording ‘I Know A Place’, MUNA added an extended bridge, present in live versions of the song and in the recorded acoustic version.

Even if our skin or our gods look different
I believe all human life is significant
I throw my arms open wide in resistance
he’s not my leader even if he’s my president
No, let’s build a place we can go.

These lines transform the song from an offering of protection and comfort to a more direct call for solidarity and resistance. This, to me, is what Pride should be.

MUNA acknowledges the work of community building, rather than just knowing or imagining a place. There is resistance inherent in the joy of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer people, in existing in those bodies. But there is no resistance in forgetting or compromise.  Some suggest that lesbian bars are disappearing because there simply isn’t demand any more, because a gay couple can feel comfortable walking into any bar in a reasonably-sized city. But only a certain kind of gay couple. An ‘acceptable’ kind. RuPaul has made drag glamorous and entertaining, accessible if you have literally thousands of dollars. It has helped very few people understand and accept gender non-conformity in their everyday life. We will never not need community, and places to gather, to physically gather and be healed by the simple reminder that we are not alone.

I do not actually worry that we are becoming complacent. Same-sex marriage has been legalised, and it is a legitimate victory, but many of us still vividly recall the climate of fear that accompanied that postal vote. Lesbophobia, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are all alive and well in all their forms.

However, I do worry that the groups who claim to represent and champion LGBTIQ+ people in so-called Australia are white cis people whose only experience of oppression is their sexuality. These are the people most likely to be obsessed with fitting in, with societal approval, with being accepted in a government system built on white supremacy.

We can never truly assimilate. You can try the reclaim the word ‘queer’ but there is still a history behind the term, hurled at us because we disrupt white cisheteropatriarchy and they are scared. The people who uphold this system will never truly respect us. They always attack the most vulnerable members of our community – trans people, First Nations people and other people of colour, sex workers, the homeless and the working classes.

I think of Harvey Milk, talking about being thanked by a small voice on a phone, saying ‘Without hope, not only gays, but those who are blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s; without hope the us’s give up.’

Let’s build a place we can run, starting by recognising how our communities are structured, who is represented at the higher levels. No cops at pride. No corporations at pride.


Image: Ronald McDonald at the 2012 Pride Parade in Perth, Flickr

Joanne Zou

Joanne Zou is an English literature student interested in ideas of identity, hope, and community. She currently thinks and lives on the land of the Wurundjeri people.

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