Part 3 in my series of questions Christians ask about gay people.
Gay pride parades/marches are popular for a number of reasons:
- They provide a sense of community to people who have sometimes been isolated and outcast, even from their own families.
- They bring attention to political or social causes that are important to many LGBT people.
- They give churches, community centers, and other organizations a chance to publicly show support for LGBT people and raise awareness of their work.
- Who doesn’t love a parade?
(Actually, I don’t… but judging from the crowds at Walt Disney World every afternoon and evening, I may be in the minority.)
But why are they “gay pride” parades?
In order to understand “gay pride,” you first have to understand something about shame. And that brings me to a story about race.
I grew up in the suburbs as a privileged white kid in the 1980s. I attended a school for gifted students, where most (but not all) of my classmates were also privileged white kids. Several of my best friends were non-white, though, and I firmly believed in a color-blind society where people would be seen for themselves, not for their race.
So perhaps you can understand why I was confused the first time I saw a black classmate wearing a t-shirt that said “Black is Beautiful.”
Wait a second, I thought. Aren’t we supposed to be color blind? After all, if a white student had worn a t-shirt that said, “White is Beautiful,” it would be considered racist and offensive. Why didn’t that go both ways?
It took a conversation with my black best friend to knock some sense into me.
Black kids in America today aren’t growing up in a world with separate drinking fountains, but they are growing up in a world where dark skin is still considered a liability. In numerous studies, even young children—black and white—identify white dolls as “good” and “beautiful” and black dolls as “bad” and “ugly.”
These cultural messages come from a variety of sources. They’re deeply ingrained, and those of us in the white majority may not notice them. But they’re there. No one likes to think of themselves as racist, but experiments continue to show that people treat others differently (and make different assumptions about them) based on their race.
Even in the African American community, it’s often true that men and women with lighter skin are considered more beautiful than those with darker skin. And this isn’t just an issue for black Americans; in Asia, for instance, cosmetic surgery has become extremely popular to try to look more Caucasian.
The implicit message, no doubt fed by American movies and television, is that white is beautiful and other races are not—that the less Caucasian you look, the less attractive, desirable, or trustworthy you are.
Those of us who are Caucasian can shake our heads sadly at this and wish things were different, then forget about it and move on to the next issue. But that dark-skinned little girl doesn’t get that opportunity. She wakes up every day knowing on some level that society considers her “less than” because of her skin and her nose and her hair:
So when that black classmate of mine wore a “Black is Beautiful” t-shirt to school, it was her way of fighting back against the societal pressures that only saw white as beautiful. She didn’t want to hide or ignore what made her different (so much for “color blind”), and she didn’t want to be ashamed of it either. Instead, she was making a conscious choice to celebrate the very things that others might use to bring her down. By contrast, if someone had come to school in a “White is Beautiful” t-shirt, it would have only added to the very societal pressures she was trying so hard to overcome.
Being gay in America isn’t the same as being black in America; they are very, very different experiences. But both groups have had to fight against a toxic kind of shame.
Some kinds of shame are good, of course. If you do something wrong, you should feel a sense of shame. But some kinds of shame are toxic. If a little girl thinks something is wrong with her because her hair isn’t straight and her skin is too dark, that is a toxic kind of shame. And when her mother encourages her to take pride in her race and her heritage, that’s a healthy, good kind of pride designed to combat that toxic shame.
Gay people in many cultures grow up with toxic shame, too, and because our parents usually are straight, we can feel especially alone. We think there’s something wrong with us because we’re not like the other little boys or little girls—because we don’t like the same things they do, don’t walk the same way, don’t talk the same way. We develop same-sex attractions at puberty and feel a deep, abiding sense of shame—not for anything we’ve done, but for feelings we didn’t want and can’t get rid of. And whether we ultimately choose to pursue a relationship, stay celibate, or even go through so-called “ex-gay” therapy (which inevitably doesn’t work), that toxic shame can be very hard to shake.
It is that—along with the painful messages we may hear from family, co-workers, politicians, and churches—that prompts many LGBT people to publicly and loudly proclaim their pride in who they are. They don’t mean the “arrogance” sort of pride that Christians ought to avoid, but rather the sense of taking joy in the things that make them different, as an antidote to the shame that threatens to drag them down.
So “pride parades” are, for many, a way to reject that shame, connect with others in the same boat, and find a sense of community and family that they may not otherwise have had.
And yes, maybe some people overdo it.
But then again, some people have had to overcome a lot of toxic shame just to get out of bed in the morning. If a rainbow flag and a tube of glitter helps, I’d say it’s worth it.