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Toronto’s Pride Parade: From Stonewall to Billboard?

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Toronto just wrapped up its Pride Week, one of the largest in the world, with a grand parade. Thousands of people lined the streets to watch and cheer on the colourful (in both its literal and figurative senses) procession of dykes on bikes, queens on cars, fairies on stilts, groups of leather-men, nudists, drummers, and dancers, as well as elaborate floats and marching groups representing various associations, organizations, and support networks. As expected, the parade was a mixture of sexy eye-candy, commercial sponsorship, and activism. It was a carnival atmosphere and Toronto was in a mood to party!

My partner and I arrived early enough to grab a bite to eat before settling into a nice spot on the soon-to-be shadier side of Yonge and Bloor. I walked with my partner down Yonge St., proverbial pencil in hand, eyes and ears wide open, taking in the sights and sounds of the thickening crowds.

Toronto Pride Parade 2007 at Yonge & BloorOn the street corner, the day's front pages peeping out of newspaper boxes were revealing. The Toronto Sun, in typical tabloid style, aimed to titillate its typical reader — the working-class male — with an image of dykes getting it on. The Toronto Star, with a very different market, features an article on its front page about "Smart employers now fostering Pride networks". On the sidewalk someone has dropped a little rainbow flag, its border a detachable coupon for Rogers.

Looking out the window from our places in a small Thai restaurant, we watch the slowly gathering crowds. Lots of singles, young and old, couples – heterosexual and homosexual – and few families with children find their places along the barricades. A few women walk bravely hand in hand. We saw no men holding hands, at least not outside the parade. That's not to say there were none, but certainly not enough for us to see even a single couple. And we were looking. Before the crowds got too thick, about an hour before the start of the parade, we settled into a nice spot.

I wonder how many people gathered to watch the parade know of its origins. Do they know of the pivotal event at Stonewall that is largely credited with launching the gay liberation movement into public consciousness, certainly in North America? Of course there were prior people and events of significance to the movement, to the sub-/counterculture. There was the Society for Human Rights in Chicago (1924), Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), The Mattachine Society, and the Daughters of Bilitis (1951 and 1956, respectively) to list some of the more recognized names, before the Stonewall riots (1969) in New York's Greenwich Village where gays first dared to publicly stand up for themselves in the face of police raids and brutality.

The first pride parade was held in commemoration of that event one year later. And every year from then on, cities around the world have enacted their own parades not only to commemorate that event, but generally to struggle for acceptance and equal rights. In the face of oppression and repression — religious, social, legal, political, the pride parade served to protest and educate, to assert and celebrate.

What really struck me, as I watched the parade, was how much of that struggle has disappeared. Protest and struggle featured minimally in this year's parade. Has our society achieved equality? Perhaps we have achieved just enough to not feel the same urgency, particularly in large urban centers. Moral support was still present, as was education. We were happy to see the various organizations that took part in the parade, such as PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians) groups, senior associations, cultural groups, faith groups, a handful of university groups and school boards, and workers' unions.

We now live in a society that has made certain legal gains. In 1973, homosexuality was struck from the list of psychiatric ailments. Sexual orientation is now included in anti-discrimination laws when it comes to labour practices. In some parts same-sex partners can now join in civil unions, or even get married. But for all the prominence and legal gains we have made, I fear we have also begun to lose certain things. For one thing, commercialism has taken a strong foothold in the parades. And many gay men are now becoming slaves to fashion and product-based lifestyles much like women were traditionally. Movies, television shows, magazines, and billboards portray mainly the beautiful, slim, hairless, fashion-conscious gay male.

As I snapped away with my digital camera, I was amazed at just how much advertising featured in the event. On the way into the barricaded area, people were handing out men's body spray. Floats included product advertisements like vodka, beer, sunglasses, etc. Many groups in the parade handed out not only condoms, a product that makes some sense in this context given lifestyle issues in a marginalized community, but also hair products, perfumes and fragrances, etc. Even subway billboards, only in subway stations near the parade, mind you, featured homosexual couples.

The idea behind all this commercialism seems to be that there is a large new market to exploit. Who cares if equality or justice is achieved? If we (I'm speaking from the point of view of commercial interest, and political, for that matter) allow these people the freedom to express themselves and share certain rights, we stand to profit from a large new market. The last line of an article in today's Star perhaps sums it up: "The event brings in an estimated $80 million to the local economy."

Aside from the influx of commercial elements, I also noticed more other causes, not necessarily related, attempting to share the platform, such as medicinal marijuana (maybe there's a link to AIDS, I'm not sure–it certainly wasn't explicitly linked) and environmental issues. I'm not sure how to feel about other causes sharing the platform. Maybe it's a good thing. But it could also once again point to a loss of energy and focus.

We seem to have come a long way from the days of Stonewall, the historical backdrop to the parade. But all is not well. The urgency is gone and the void is rapidly being filled by consumerism. We began with Stonewall and have ended up with billboards.

 

To learn more about milestones in the struggle for gay rights, see The American Gay Rights Movement: a Timeline, A Brief History of Gay Rights, and Same Sex Rights: Canada Timeline.

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