“If at first you don’t succeed, failure might be your style.” —Quentin Crisp
Pride has become a fierce celebration of progress and the success of the mainstream LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Consider New York Pride’s 2021 theme “The Fight Continues,” and the corresponding news release that can’t help but sound a note of optimism: “We acknowledge all that we’ve accomplished and look towards what still needs to be done.”
San Francisco’s 2021 Pride theme is “All in This Together,” an equally hopeful and uplifting call for in-group solidarity.
The cloying positivity of the modern Pride parade masks a far more profound, painful and frustrating reality for many queer people. Queerness is still failure.
In his provocative book, “The Queer Art of Failure,” Jack Halberstam observes that since “heterosexuality is rooted in a logic of achievement, fulfillment, and succession,” queerness becomes evidence of failure. In a society where heterosexual desire is “normal,” queer love is failure. In a society where procreation is the only or preferred goal of coupling, queer relationships are failure. In a society where capitalism ties production to procreation and the nuclear family, queer labor is failure.
What the LGBTQ+ rights movement has achieved is not liberation, but assimilation. We now have access to heteronormativity, but only so long as we play by straight rules, love like straight people, couple like straight people, procreate like straight people, work like straight people, live like straight people, and when we fail to conform, we’re expected to keep it private and never speak of it in polite company, just like straight people. But queerness is still failure.
Pride, supposedly the quintessential celebration of queerness, follows this same assimilationist script. Pride is a family-friendly smorgasbord of social respectability. Corporate titans make large sponsorship donations to have their rainbow logos splashed across every surface, while their rainbow flag waving contingent advertises their progressive bona fides in the parade.
Queer families and their kids (and their dogs) draw squeals of delight, while newlyweds tell waiting TV crews of their triumphant journey toward marriage (monogamy). The after-parade festivities meander through hetero-friendly gay bars that welcome straight tourists and regular patrons alike, with not a bath house or sex club to be found. Pride has become an absolute delight of homonormativity.
And that’s the problem. Gone are the chants of, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” replaced by signs reading “love is love” and “we’re just like you.” We stopped challenging heteronormativity, and instead starting asking permission to join it. In other words, we stopped celebrating the brilliant displays of queer failure that made our community a radiant beacon of creativity, freedom and self-expression.
I’m not saying we should not be celebrating queer success stories. On the contrary, as Jose Munoz points out in his master work “Cruising Utopia,” hope has always been a central theme in queer culture. It is important that we celebrate progress as the realization of that hope.
But queerness is both hope and failure, and, as Halberstam explains, “to simply repudiate the connections between queerness and [failure] is to commit to an unbearably positivist and progressive understanding of the queer,” that results in the stereotypical depictions of gay people seen in “The L Word” and “Queer Eye.”
In other words, we have to celebrate both. As we celebrate the queer people getting elected or appointed to high office, we must also celebrate the activists who engage in the profoundly queer art of anti-politics, protest, critique and even disruption.
As we celebrate the queer people who succeed in business, we must also celebrate those who have rejected the straight economy for queer art, cultural production and community building. As we celebrate the queer people embracing monogamy, marriage and procreation, we must also make room for those queer people who are still being marginalized for choosing not to marry, not to raise children and not to move to the suburbs.
And we must be most conscious to make space for those queer people who find little or no hope in heteronormativity at all. The homeless queer youth who feels little pride in a parade made up of rainbow corporate logos. The queer sex worker who cannot attend Pride because she’s in prison. The queer people of color who are afraid to attend Pride because of the large police presence.
I think it’s time we start celebrating queer failure again. A Pride parade that just looks like a rainbow-themed Fourth of July celebration is not doing our community any justice. It’s time we started loving the fabulous queer people who fail so spectacularly, blatantly and willfully that their failure moves us, challenges us, angers us, fascinates us, entertains us, sustains us and even offends us.
If Pride is to have any queer meaning, then it needs to celebrate both the queer people who succeed by society’s standards, and those who fail.
San José Spotlight columnist Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and a part-time professor at Santa Clara University Law School. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s committee on Business Law Education and serves on the executive board of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce. His columns appear every second Thursday of the month.