I’ve been thinking a lot about gender representation within the LGBTQ community, particularly regarding drag queens. I attended Belfast Pride this weekend, which was the 25th Belfast Pride parade, and it was colourful, and busy (estimate of 40,000 people attended). However, the vibe at Belfast Pride was quite different from the vibe at Trans Pride Brighton, which I attended the weekend previous.
Both pride events were a celebration of the queer community. But unlike Trans Pride Brighton, Belfast Pride has become commercialised beyond LGBTQ recognition. Furthermore, there was a distinct lack of transgender representation from the Belfast Pride organisers. Although there were trans groups who marched in the parade, the trans flag was barely visible elsewhere in the parade.
This was evidenced by the spectators, almost all of whom were waving rainbow flags and carrying placards that said “Gay Pride!” Very few people looking on were waving transgender flags, and much of the paraphernalia was based around equal marriage, an issue that has co-opted queer spaces and become the sole focus of the queer community.
It seems that “big pride” has veered very far from its roots. Everyone has heard the story of the Stonewall riots – started by trans women who were left out in the cold once the gay rights movement started making progress. The mainstream media keeps talking about the “transgender tipping point,” but really what they are referring to is the commercialisation of transgender people as products which can be sold to the general public as sob stories to give the impression of representing our “diverse” society.
Trans Pride Brighton was distinct from Belfast Pride in several ways. For starters, it was not dominated by muscular, semi-naked gay men and their drag queens. Rather than representing the garishness of gay male sexuality, it represented the diversity of gender representation, not as peacockery, but as lived in everyday life. It was not a show of extravagance, but of truth and of real lives lived.
Belfast Pride may be “bigger and better” than ever before, but at what cost? The Butterfly Club, a transgender peer-support group comprised mostly of trans women, refuse to walk in the Belfast Pride Parade. Why? Because the focus has shifted from real struggles to entertainment and laughter at the expense of a minority. I used to love drag queens in all their glory, until one day I realised that much of the drag queen community uses cheap jokes to poke fun at others around them, including trans women who, despite what bigots might think, are as far from drag queens as you could possible get.
Then, I suppose, there is the commercialisation of Belfast Pride. Many clubs that actively promote queer-friendly nights were present, but just as many companies with less-than-favourable LGBT policies were jumping on the bandwagon. A friend told me that it’s seen as necessary to show your face at Belfast Pride, to demonstrate acceptance of diversity. But the reality is that, for many companies, it’s just showing their face at an event that represents a community which they like to forget about for the rest of the year.
I’m not sure where I stand on drag queens. Part of me believes that each person should be allowed to represent their gender however they please. Whether drag queens or drag kings, there’s nothing criminal about expressing gender in a way that defies society’s expected representation of your sex assigned at birth. The harm comes when those who play dress-up take attention away from the real issues that affect our community. Trans women face incredible prejudice from society, and trans men are often completely invisible, while non-binary people simply do not exist. I’m not sure which is worse, but on a day where each member of the LGBTQ community should be represented, it seems unfair and greedy for drag queens to take to the stage and drown out all the other under-represented voices in our community.
I was asked if I thought that Trans Pride Brighton was necessary, and if so, why? I’ll answer this question now. Trans Pride Brighton is extremely necessary, not only because it represents the T, which is so often left out from LGBT events, but it also brings pride events back to what our community intended it to be – a politically-conscious, activist-driven event to raise awareness and to give support to one of the most marginalised communities in Western society.
Perhaps the mainstream media has accepted the transgender community as a popular topic of conversation, but the fact is that we aren’t a fad – we are real people, living real lives in which persecution, depression, suicide and self-harm are prevalent and everyday facts of many of our lives. Even the state discriminates against us – the process of trying to change name and gender-marker is costly, time-consuming, requires constant outing of the individual as transgender, and comes up against far too much resistance, particularly from large corporations such as banks.
Yes, Pride is a time to celebrate. Yes, it’s fantastic that our lives are so much better than they used to be. But we can’t stop fighting now. The key to equality is not assimilation but resistance to the norm. Some people can’t, and don’t want to, fit into heteronormative society. This is what Pride should be about. Celebrating the differences while ensuring that those most vulnerable in our community are not left out in the cold. You may have your rights, but that doesn’t mean that our community should stop fighting for mine. We fought alongside you at the start. Join us again.