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Pride as Protest: Why Rainbow Flags are not Enough

June 25, 2021 by MJ Kaufman
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MJ Kaufman (Photo by Gralin Hughes)

I was eight years old when I attended my first Pride Parade. It was 1993 in Portland, Oregon. I wore a backwards baseball cap and stood next to my lesbian moms. I remember hand-painted signs, homemade buttons, shaved heads, jean jackets. We chanted “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, the OCA has got to go!” about a prominent Christian organization pushing LGBT discrimination. I understood viscerally that my family lacked many basic rights — fair access to housing, work, even the right to legally recognize each other as family. We were in the streets about it regularly. To be honest I don’t remember what was Pride, and what was protest.

I don’t remember floats, or bands, or partying. I remember a little parade weaving its way through downtown on a cloudy Sunday. I remember pulling my cap down over my face and trying to crouch, praying that no one I knew from school would see me. I felt anything but proud.

By my early 20s I developed a healthy sense of pride in my queer, trans self. I was embedded in radical queer organizing spaces marked by zines, patches, and direct action, calling for the abolition of both prisons and marriage. I was far too jaded to go to any Pride Parades. A space that had once felt defiant and counter-cultural had now become the terrain of corporate logos and mass-produced rainbow flags. One of the groups I organized with called themselves Gay Shame, a name that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the way Gay Pride had gone from being a space of protest and empowerment to an over-policed corporate playground.

In my play Wild Pride, part of Tectonic Theater Projects’ Seven Deadly Sins, a trans self-help influencer struggles to advise a closeted teen about pride over the internet. Both characters slowly learn that the shiny promise of the LGBT Pride movement may be a double-edged sword.

This year, 17 anti-LGBTQ bills have already been enacted in law by state legislatures, with 250 more bills and policies introduced across the country, making this year the worst for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history. These bills overwhelmingly target trans youth, prohibiting them from accessing healthcare, playing on sports teams, changing birth certificates, and punishing adults who support their transitions. This is a coordinated attack on trans rights, the largest one we’ve ever seen. This year we are also on track to surpass records for trans deaths. It is no coincidence that anti-trans hate has escalated as Pride got bigger. Trans people pay a high price for being out and proud.

This year, when I walk through streets ablaze with rainbow window displays, I think of trans youth around the country, and of my 8-year-old self, in the streets fighting discrimination and hate. I wrote Wild Pride to examine how mainstreaming Pride and stripping away its historic ties to protest movements has changed us. When Pride becomes something you can buy and sell, what is the effect on our identities, relationships and communities?

Get tickets to Seven Deadly Sins on TodayTix.

MJ Kaufman is a playwright and screenwriter from Portland, OR/Multnomah currently living in New York City/Lenapehoking. Their plays have been seen at the Public Theater, WP Theater, National Asian American Theater Company, Clubbed Thumb, Colt Coeur, Williamstown Theater Festival, InterAct Theater, Yale School of Drama and numerous other theaters and schools around the country as well as Russia and Australia. MJ has received the Helen Merrill Emerging Writers Award, the ASCAP Cole Porter Prize in Playwriting, the Global Age Project Prize, and the Jane Chambers Prize in Feminist Theatre. MJ has held residencies at the New Museum, MacDowell Colony, and SPACE on Ryder Farm and is currently a resident playwright at New Dramatists and a member of Colt Coeur. MJ curated the 2016 and 2017 seasons of Trans Theater Fest at The Brick and, along with Kit Yan and Cece Suazo-Harris, founded Trans Lab Fellowship, a program to support emerging transgender theater artists. MJ has also written for Netflix. An alum of Wesleyan University and Yale School of Drama. http://mjkaufman.com/