Tales from the city
Jon Binnie wonders whether gays really should be glad to be global
All over Europe this summer thousands of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgendered people and even some straights have been marching and partying at pride events in Manchester, Copenhagen, Brighton and Reykjavik. Across the globe pride events now take place in cities as diverse as Bangkok, Auckland, Sao Paulo and Vancouver.
For some, the popularity, visibility and success of such events internationally would seem to point towards the development of a global gay consciousness. This visible public statement of solidarity could be seen as potentially very empowering for those participating in such events. It is a reflection and measure of growing confidence and assertiveness of the lesbian and gay communities. And also of the growing political and economic strength of these communities.
The staging of such events is also symbolic of a city's place on the global stage. Acceptance or promotion of lesbian and gay culture is increasingly a sign of cosmopolitan sophistication, not unconnected with the increasing influence of the gay pound in attracting investment and tourist revenues with Sydney's Mardi Gras, which is estimated to have generated up to US$ 55m in recent years for the Australian economy, being the prime example . Cities now are in intense international competition to attract potentially lucrative gay megaevents such as Europride and the Gay Games. In the case of the Gay Games the intensity of such competition was reflected in the considerable financial and other controversies which lead to Montreal being stripped of the 2006 Games by the Federation of Gay Games.
Such events are visible manifestations of a passing gay presence on the streets, but they are also connected to the development of successful gay quarters or villages within some cities, such as Manchester's gay village and Le Marais in Paris. The growing recognition of the economic value of the gay community is not merely associated with the community's wealth, but with the role of these cultures as active agents and entrepreneurs in urban regeneration, as Richard Florida points out in The Rise of the Creative Class. He argues that cities that embrace diversity, including sexuality, are more likely to be cities that are open to new ideas, creativity and entrepreneurial activity. In the UK, DEMOS produced a 'Boho Britain Creativity Index' which ranked cities in terms of their creativity using a similar methodology to Florida's.
These urban transformations clearly bring benefits. But what are the costs? It seems that these are borne by those whose presence in urban space is more fragile and tentative: the disadvantaged, the poor, or those who are unable or unwilling to conform to a certain standard not having the right kind of body and cultural capital for the new hip urban gay identity that is promoted on lifestyle programmes such as Queer Eye For the Straight Guy which has taken the US and the UK by storm this year.
The uniform model of a gay identity based on consumption and coupledom is not one that every gay or lesbian may aspire towards. Even Richard Florida's work only recognises gay couples. Thus those without the requisite cultural and economic capital are excluded. Only certain forms of gay culture are promoted the least threatening and most conspicuously consuming while others are pushed out or marginalised. The rhetoric of the pink economy that stresses the supposed greater disposable income of gay couples draws a veil over social exclusion and social polarisation, rendering invisible poverty among lesbians and gay men. Media portrayals of 'gay lifestyle' as affluent and decadent can also serve to reinforce homophobic sentiments.
The 'normalisation' of a certain kind of Will and Grace gay identity, generally based on consumption, can be alienating to those many gays who do not particularly want to belong to a gay community those, for example, whose sense of social and political solidarities is with members of their own class, or ethnic group.
So does the growth of pride events internationally really point towards a common gay identity across the globe based on a shared experience? Certainly the idea of a global gay consciousness can be very liberating and empowering. It is interesting to note that the website for the Sao Paulo pride event (which this year attracted over a million people) contains press coverage from across the globe, specifically from gay websites based in the UK, the Netherlands and the United States. This is itself a reflection of the desire by the organisers of this event to be recognised internationally.
However, there is a danger that an assumption of a common identity across such very different social, economic and political contexts merely reinforces ethnocentricity, ignoring the very different experiences and scales of oppression between different countries, cultures and income groups. Can a gay pride event take the same form, or have the same value, to its participants across the globe?
In Western Europe we have seen debates recently about whether such events have become depoliticised, and whether there is even a need for them given the progress in the area of law reform which, though geographically uneven, has been a major political transformation across Western Europe during the past decade. Yet we also witness extreme homophobia within parts of the Caribbean and large parts of the Middle East, where the idea of pride events would be unthinkable.
The presence of gay pride events and developments of gay movements across the globe may be empowering for some; for others, perhaps the majority, such displays merely disguise a harsher reality and deny that the procession towards equality is a lot longer and more winding than the Mardi Gras.