The Big Debate: The LGBTQ+ movement is now more about image than change
When I moved to Brighton last summer, one of the many things that excited me about my new home was the prospect of attending my first ever Pride. For a small town bisexual like myself, the concept of an entire weekend dedicated to celebrating and appreciating LGBT+ people – our lifestyles, our opinions, our ideas – was incredible, and knowing Brighton as a hub of culture and progressive ideas, I was sure I wouldn’t be disappointed. I was wrong.
Brighton Pride was nothing more than an elaborate party. To the best of my knowledge there were no speeches, no art or music or film pieces discussing LGBT+ issues, no free contraception or educational pamphlets, no commemorations or exhibits on inspirational LGBT+ people. Nothing aside from the overwhelming amount of colour and glitter indicated that it had anything to do with being LGBT+ whatsoever. And what exactly do rainbows have to do with being queer anyway? The existence of the LGBT+ community has been downgraded to a mere symbol; something that was once empowering has become a means of covering up anything real or individually expressive.
The most deplorable thing for me was that the procession that marched through the city was made up predominantly of corporate floats. Straight people were utilising the event as free advertising for their own capitalist endeavours – something that is hardly exceptional to Pride. You’ve likely seen the “He said yes” Lloyds Bank billboards, featuring a newly engaged same-sex couple embracing, with a hug that would not be out of place at the end of a successful business deal. Yes, in a way it is good to see representation of same-sex couples in the mainstream media, even if it is in a painfully heteronormative and conservative manner. But on the other hand, I can’t help but sense the hidden agenda. Championing LGBT+ rights has become like a badge of honour of late.
Ten or twenty years ago when being queer was something most people publicly turned their nose up at, there was a need for people to walk around wearing “Being gay is okay” t-shirts and hang up rainbow flags. But now that it has become so socially acceptable in urban and liberal areas of the UK such as our own, LGBT+ advocacy has become a fashion accessory.
Don’t get me wrong, if you associate with those images as part of embracing your own sexuality that is another thing entirely. But when a straight person, or an unaffiliated collective starts doing it, their motives ought to be called into question. One of the issues with such people joining on the bandwagon of LGBT+ advocacy – because it is the norm, because it is expected, because it is celebrated even – aren’t really very good advocates. How many girls who paint rainbows on their cheeks for one weekend a year know what pansexual or asexual means? How many of the men and women who write statuses and share articles stating that homophobic abuse is unacceptable, question the validity of transgender people over the dinner table, or announce to their work colleagues their belief that marriage really ought to just be between a man and a woman?
LGBT+ issues have come a long way in the past century and I do not for a moment intend to diminish the significance of that. It is fantastic that so many people now can freely express their gender and sexuality, and engage in relationships with people that not long ago they could not dream of doing openly – and all of this is thanks to the new era of LGBT+ public acceptance that we have entered. But to suggest that this public acceptance is without its problems is ignorant.
In order to be accepted LGBT+ people have painted palatable representations of themselves, be it by conforming to the norms of heterosexual society, adhering to stereotypes that depict us as an eccentric but harmless “other”, or masking the realities of queer lifestyles with images of rainbows and unicorns, which most people would rather discuss than anal sex and strap-ons. These people have been remarkably successful in making it socially acceptable to be queer. But it’s time we take off the armour and allow the world to see us for what we really are. It’s time for LGBT+ to stop being an accessory, and start being a reality.
The University lifestyle, particularly at a University like our own, is an open, liberating and accepting one. This campus is a space where most students feel free to really explore the depths of their own ideas, discovering passions they never knew were within them in an environment where they know they won’t be judged for it. For this reason, advocacy for the rights of many groups of marginalised and oppressed people can be taken as a given when it comes to the interests of most of our students: I would argue it would actually be far more surprising to discover that someone in your seminar was a Conservative, or a supporter of UKIP, than to find out they were a radical Socialist, feminist or anarchist.
It is easy to forget, for this reason, that this is not the state of mind in every area. There are many areas in our Country where your sexual preference does, still, dictate the level to which you are accepted. School playgrounds still echo with taunts about suspected homosexuality, an implicitly negative attribute in this context; ‘coming out’ remains a big deal, not something you can expect your bravery praised for; and community, above all, remains so important for those who feel alienated. Easy as it is to paint University life as the given experience of our entire populace, this kind of thinking- the kind that would lead you to believe that the LGBTQ+ movement has become distanced from making real change- is narrow and damaging. It is trendy, at Sussex, to advertise the fact that you support certain popular causes: this much can’t be denied. However, the fact that it can currently be seen as trendy is a testament to how far we’ve come for these movements.
The focus of the LGBTQ+ movement remains, to my knowledge, as strong as it has ever been: to change the world to be more accommodating and accepting of people of all identities- to allow anybody, no matter their gender, sexuality or identity, to feel comfortable in their own skin. The fact that the movement is no longer as much of a struggle against overwhelming odds does not indicate a lack of direction, or that it is now more about image: the fact is that the clear aims of the movement have been largely achieved, an incredible accomplishment that LGBTQ+ groups continue to expand upon.
Their work, unfortunately, may never be over. As long as discrimination against the few exists, the many need to mobilise in their support. Corporations, politicians and celebrities may backpack on the success and popularity of the LGBTQ+ movement- whether they believe authentically in what they’re promoting or not, though, is irrelevant. What matters is being heard. Just because something may be argued to be a ‘trendy’ ideology doesn’t mean it is no longer relevant.
It can be argued that Pride parades are an indicator that the movement has lost its way, being little more than huge parties. However, Pride events are a longstanding symbol of the LGBTQ+ movement’s resilience, self-belief and unabashed beauty. They are a celebration, not a militant act: they will perhaps not change any minds or convert any people- they are not supposed to. They are for those who support and empathise with the plight of the community, and a chance to publicly assert their self-belief, and to have a great time and a lot of fun while doing it. Not every event has to be a straight-faced, angry demonstration featuring placards and police confrontations in order to advance the plight of a movement. Pride parades show us that celebration can be just as much of a revolutionary act as protest.
It seems clear to me that the LGBTQ+ movement is not about image at all. Those outside of it may see it differently- they may have first-hand experience of someone hopping on the bandwagon of a popular cause to advance their own popularity, and that, while not an amazing thing to do, is not representative of the state of the movement itself. The movement is, and has always been, about enacting change. And to this day, regardless of image, this is what the LGBTQ+ movement strives to do.