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The Generational Clash at Pride Is Actually a Sign of Progress

The kink-at-Pride debate shows that the queer movement has grown in exactly the way it should.

A man in roller skates and an over-the-shoulder thong holding a sign that reads "LOVE"
Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty

This month, the memes related to LGBTQ Pride celebrations have had a striking theme: disgust. Some people have been sharing images of queer icons and homophobes alike wearing expressions of disapproval—RuPaul frowning on the phone, Little Edie ranting in Grey Gardens, Aunt Lydia scowling in The Handmaid’s Tale. The captions say something along the lines of “Gen Z calling the cops after seeing a jockstrap at Pride.”

Supposedly, there is a yet another generational war going on—among queer people, and about sex.

Over the past few weeks, a smattering of tweets, TikToks, and think pieces—many from teenagers and young adults—have complained that celebrations of LGBTQ Pride are too raunchy. At this month’s commemorations of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, some revelers will flaunt fetish wear, bare lots of flesh, or—and the frequency of this is very disputed—hook up in broad daylight. Open displays of sexuality always invite conservative disapproval, but what’s new is a sense that out-and-proud youths are offended. Bob the Drag Queen, a winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, recently tweeted that Gen Z’s rhetoric about kink at Pride was “giving Karen vibes.” A follower replied, “I was 12 when i got thrown condoms at my head … its uncomfortable.”

Zoomers appear to be a more openly queer generation than any other—are they really scandalized by skin and spandex? It’s best not to generalize too much. Some of the most discussed objections to the sexualization of Pride have come from respectability-minded Millennials. Pop culture’s new mascot of kink, Lil Nas X, is extremely Gen Z. Yet even if the backlash to the backlash is overblown, the discourse is a strange sign of progress. The queer movement is negotiating how to keep growing without sacrificing the things that define queer.

In recent decades, the most controversial thing about Pride parades has been how unthreatening they’ve become. Whereas demonstrations following the Stonewall uprising gathered people who took a serious risk by marching in a society hostile to them, the cultural image of Pride in the 2010s has centered on extravagant floats sponsored by banks, airlines, and liquor brands. In major cities, parades stretch for hours, with a wide array of identity groups participating or cheering from the sides. That crowd includes straight people and their children, and it includes cops—members of the profession that the Stonewall uprising protested. Many queer people are disturbed that a countercultural ritual has become a commercialized victory rally. If politicians, corporations, and police are okay with the gays, why march at all?

The answer is that there are lots of battles left to win. Many states still don’t ban discrimination against LGBTQ people. Trans people experience elevated rates of violence, suicide, and poverty. Queer people make up an outsize percentage of the unhoused youth population. LGBTQ people of color experience these problems most acutely. Many of the companies that drench themselves in rainbow branding for Pride—UPS, AT&T, and Comcast, for example—also donate to Republicans who are redoubling efforts to demonize the LGBTQ community, especially its trans members. (When asked about such donations, corporations point to their inclusivity initiatives and say their donations are driven by regulatory and financial concerns.)

There’s a long history of activists arguing that the glittering spectacle of Pride doesn’t solve such entrenched problems. Alternative demonstrations have thus become their own tradition, and the shocking events of 2020—the pandemic, the protests—only made their critiques more visible. In New York City, for example, COVID-19 precautions led to the official Pride parade’s cancellation—but the corporation-free Queer Liberation March, working with Black Lives Matter to call out police brutality, drew tens of thousands of people. For 2021, the organization behind New York City Pride banned cops from marching, a potential sign of recalibration after years of assimilationist tactics.

When I covered the Queer Liberation March last year, I wrote about how it retained much of the vibrant party energy of a typical Pride—and didn’t forgo raunch. You could glimpse, amid effigies of Marsha P. Johnson and middle fingers raised toward NYPD officers, thongs, pup gear, makeouts, and bare breasts. Someone waved a sign that said ‘PRODUCTIVE’ SEX SUCKS!—a tidy slogan showing how carnality is at the core of Pride. The LGBTQ community, in its many permutations, defies the traditionalist idea that sex exists for procreation and should happen only between married men and women. Gay desire, the expression of trans and fluid identities, and asexuality each suggests different ideas of what a “productive” life looks like. Kink, the pursuit of pleasures that other people find strange, fits in that group neatly.

It’s worth emphasizing that the link between queer politics and sex is not merely theoretical. The Stonewall uprising took place after cops invaded a bar where people cruised and sex workers congregated. Queer persecution worldwide has been enacted through anti-sodomy laws, anti-prostitution laws, and the use of “trans panic” legal defenses to excuse violence by the sex partners of queer people. The HIV/AIDS crisis was—and still is—worsened by stigmas against gay sex. Moreover, homophobia roots itself in a sense of revulsion—a notion that certain kinds of sex and bodies are weird, unnatural, and wrong. Celebrating that sex and those bodies in a parade helps normalize them, signals that social disapproval is not enough to erase someone’s existence, and exercises freedoms that can’t yet be taken for granted.

All of this context makes now an odd moment for a sex-adverse critique of Pride: While the mainstream festivities get criticized as tame and conciliatory, some in the younger generation want them tamer and more conciliatory. Certain social-media users have shared horror stories about being groped at Pride events—demonstrating that the ongoing reckoning over how to curb abuse in crowds, both queer and straight, is not finished. Other kink-at-Pride objectors strain the language of consent and safety to claim that glimpsing a dildo-shaped float amounts to assault. Some people are simply saying “yuck” to people wearing the same amount of clothes you’d expect to see at any beach—and “yuck,” of course, is exactly how homophobes react to gay folks.

Step back, though, and these objections become almost reassuring. Many of the complaints come from actual children—and it is fine and normal for children to feel uncomfortable with adult sexual behavior. What’s new is that so many young people openly say they’re not straight. In 2020, Gallup found that 15.9 percent of Americans ages 18 to 23 identify as queer or trans, compared with 9.1 percent of Millennials and 5.6 percent of the general adult population. Polls of minors tell a similar story: A 2019 CDC survey found that 15.7 percent of high-school students say they’re gay, bisexual, or not sure of their orientation. The voices of such teens are able to travel far and fast thanks to platforms like TikTok.

The canon of queer literature and art is filled with portrayals of discovering one’s identity as a kid, and many of those portrayals emphasize hesitation, isolation, and shame. Yet as more and more young people are able to express who they are and find fellowship online, they are going to approach existing queer institutions such as Pride not as curious interlopers but as fully vested community members—and offer critiques. For years, organizers in various cities have held youth-focused Pride gatherings that are separate from the larger festivities. Many kink-at-Pride complaints really amount to requests for there to be more and better versions of such events. Others simply ask for adults to remember the same commonsense boundaries that govern (and, in various ways, bedevil) public gatherings from Coachella to tailgates.

These back-and-forths are a natural consequence of the movement that Pride celebrates expanding in exactly the way that it should. Some of today’s young queer people may have begun exploring their identity when their parents brought them to a rainbow-strewn parade. Some may even have been encouraged by seeing a gay-themed T-shirt at Target, or a drag queen in a yogurt commercial. Many will go on to find a place in the activist movements that see Pride as insufficiently radical. All will enjoy the rights that have been won by the generations before them. Last year in The New York Times, the organizer Jonathan Danilowitz shared a memory from Tel Aviv’s first Pride march, in 1979. “How can they allow this nauseating spectacle?” a bystander screamed. “What will happen to our children?” Danilowitz said that the progress since then has made him proud—“especially since it seems that ‘our children’ survived very nicely, thank you.”