Critic’s Notebook: Gay Pride Month, Juneteenth, and July 4th

What does it mean to be American? How can we overcome the terrors and oppression that comes along with patriarchy and the straight white male default? What happens when public opinion moves forward as the US government comes to represent everything backward, hateful, and stupid about American culture?

The global Coronavirus pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and the upcoming election have created a maelstrom of public discontent. Like a broken record, we hear the cliched phrases, “… more divisive than ever” and “… the need to have a conversation about race in America.” Structural racism, structural inequality, structural this, that, and the other. Does this structure really need to be preserved? Or can we, as a people, as a nation, burn this racist retrograde monster to the ground? Talk is cheap, direct action is necessary.

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But this essay isn’t all hyper-critical screed and empty agitprop catchphrases. The pandemic has made it challenging to celebrate the United States and the many struggles and triumphs associated with “We, the people.”

But … we who?

Pride Month and Juneteenth are both associated with groups that have been systematically tyrannized, tortured, and murdered by an evil system. But Pride Month and Juneteenth are, at the heart of the matter, about us. Often it has been a rhetorical strategy of the status quo to turn any demographic that doesn’t fit the white straight Christian (Evangelical Protestant, please) default as “them.” As the reasoning goes, Gay Pride Month is “for the gays” and Juneteenth is “a black holiday.”

That thinking should be abandoned.

It dawned on me as a white straight male that celebrating Pride Month and Juneteenth is also a means of “enlarging the tent.” I am certain I’m not the first one to realize this. Despite this, I felt I needed to write this essay. Less about me than the need to have these ideas expressed.

For centuries, whites have been co-opting black culture (see: popular music) and more recently seeing gay culture as an amusing sideshow (see: romcoms). Non-white, non-straight others reduced to one-dimensional characters spouting “sassy wisdom” to Jennifer Aniston or whoever.

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But celebrating Pride and Juneteenth is in how its celebrated and why. It shouldn’t be empty commodified celebrations a la the NFL “National Anthem” kneeling controversy. (The entire “National Anthem” spectacle at NFL games comes across as vulgar.) The celebration of Pride and Juneteenth is about welcoming the marginalized and oppressed into the Big Tent of America as free and equal citizens under the law. For too long, American laws have been explicitly designed to oppress gays, blacks, women, and so on. I’m not gay and I’m not black, but I can celebrate Pride and Juneteenth as an ally and an advocate. To steal the Joe Biden campaign line, “This isn’t about me. […] It’s about us.”

And what better holiday to “celebrate us” than July 4th. Independence Day. The history is complicated and blood-soaked, a nation fighting against monarchical tyranny yet fueled on Native American genocide and African slavery. But we can celebrate July 4th any way we want to. Too often the choice has been one of narcotized amnesia coupled with a near-pornographic hagiography of the Founding Fathers or an equally frothing-at-the-mouth critique of a rapacious American Empire. Left, Right, whatever. Either is too narrow and short-sighted. Better suited for talking points with empty headed pundits, addicted to their own self-importance and latest book they’re promoting.

SB

The challenge is how to celebrate Independence Day in an intelligent, mature way. Acknowledge the (many) faults and moral depravities in our nation’s history, yet not brush them under the carpet or downplay them in a swirl of mealy-mouthed euphemisms.

As Allen Ginsberg said, “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”

America is a multi-ethnic, multicultural, secular republic filled with citizens embracing a plethora of lifestyles, opinions, religions, and identities.

E pluribus unum.

Out of many, one.

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