Sydney WorldPride 2023 begins this weekend and I am not feeling it.
Late last year I was conscious of surfing right on the edge of burnout. We’d plunged straight back to work after two years of pandemic disruption without any real pause to stop and interrogate what it was we lived through. We tried to maintain the same level of productivity without acknowledging there was something a bit manic about the level of output we delivered during the pandemic. Everyone I know was battling burnout to some degree or another. We went through this mass-traumatising event and there’s been no collective reckoning with what that means and what it did to us.
And Pride comes with a degree of compulsory affect that is difficult to maintain when you’re on the verge of burning out. Pride is upbeat. If I had to assign Pride a texture, it would be shiny. Pride is inescapable, judging from the corporate ad campaigns emanating from Uber and Telstra and American Express across all the apps and websites and social media and public spaces I frequent. Pride is feature-length articles in broadsheet news media negotiated by PR companies promoting first-person narrative campaigns on tiktok. Pride celebrates human rights and a sense of inevitable social progress. Pride is fucking exhausting.
Forgive me, I’m a queer about to turn forty-two and I’m just not feeling it.
Style editor at Fairfax, Damien Woolnough, had a catastrophically bad go at articulating his own not-feeling-it. He lacked the range. I would express it differently. It’s not that there’s too many drag queens in the promotional materials. (I don’t even understand the concept ‘too many drag queens.’) But WorldPride isn’t queer enough.
And I realise this is a cliché — queer people are always going around saying what or whomst isn’t queer enough. And there’s often a lack of specificity about what they mean by ‘queer.’
I describe queer as a coalitional politics among sex and gender undesirables born of the recognition that we are all getting fucked by the Right. It is not an essentialised identity but a practice of community across differences in sexuality, gender identity, disability, embodiment, sex work, drug use, etc.
My problem with Pride is the way it strips out all the politics we are fighting, as queers, to bring into public conversation. It papers over them with its faith in the discourse and legal process of human rights, and its confident expectation that social acceptance of sex and gender diversity is inevitable in the end. It is liberal centrism in a nutshell and it frowns on the queer critique of the Right. Pride turned up after the really ugly battles had been fought and won and declared itself the victor, thanking liberal centrists and respectability politics.
I pored over the WorldPride calendar looking for events that had a queer vibe. I went to the Queer Sydney Reading Group at The PARTY exhibition at UNSW Galleries and — as always — it was great. I’m booked in for Blessed Union at the Belvoir and I am looking forward to seeing the Dyke Bar exhibition at the National Art School. I’ve registered to watch the Mardi Gras parade for the first time in my life, something made possible by a partnership between Club Cindy and People with Disability Australia. I’m attending Fair Day tomorrow in a gorgeous dress. I’m walking across the Harbour Bridge with two lesbian friends. So don’t get me wrong — I am making the most of WorldPride, and my journey through the WorldPride calendar is a celebration of queer coalition.
But amidst all the rainbows and corporate advertising, I fear an opportunity has been missed. First, I wish for something like the two-day Queer Thinking festival that Maeve Marsden and Nikki Stevens organised in 2018 and 2019. Not a conference with a ten minute slot for every visiting LGBT luminary working in the UN human rights system. Rather, a celebration of queer critique that provokes its participants to consider how we can live and protest in community with each other, celebrating our differences, in effective opposition to the Right.
Second, and this would have to be part of such an event, we need to be talking about how we protect trans communities from attack. It feels bizarre to me to be celebrating Pride, which sees progress on LGBT rights as inevitable, at a time when events in Australia, the United States and United Kingdom tell us that every single thing we’ve achieved can be undone in a matter of years, and simply because our putative liberal allies — the Guardian, the New York Times — can’t get their heads around the idea that trans people are just trying to live our lives. In the space of five years we’ve gone back to the Right calling gays ‘groomers’ — and the liberals are saying ‘but they’re giving hormones to kids.’
These are battles we thought we’d won and done with — Section 28, anyone? And they’ve come back around because the people whose support we thought we had in our pockets were easily swayed by liberal transphobia. We are discovering that court victories and legislative reforms are easily reversed if we don’t also win and keep winning the cultural battles. These are the battles that queer politics draw to our attention and demand we address — together.