It has become something of an annual online tradition, usually beginning in May and extending through June, to debate the moral fabric of the yearly Pride celebrations that happen across the country to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
This tension sometimes gets reduced to a single question: Should Pride events be “family-friendly”? It is, in a sense, remarkable that this question can even be asked. It’s a special thing for riots against police harassment to be so widely celebrated that worrisome parents might ponder if they need to take their families to events specifically labeled as family-friendly, implying that anything that doesn’t take up this banner might be too PG-13 for the rug rats.
But we can only ask that question because modern Pride events have come so far from what the Stonewall uprising was; these events have been sanitized after decades of increasing advocacy, visibility, and acceptance. The differences between the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March, which marked the first anniversary of the uprising at Stonewall, and what happens at a modern municipal Pride parade are immense — and one of the biggest among them is which families these events are friendly to.
When I hear the term family-friendly, I immediately think of Disney movies and Chuck E. Cheese, goods and services specifically oriented to cater to customers who have young children. Family-friendly often operates in the following context: It’s a promise by a business that, as long as you’re patronizing the business, you won’t have to worry about your kids getting their little minds blown by something overtly sexual, graphic, or otherwise uncomfortably reality-expanding.
It’s not a promise that’s always easy to keep. Your mind can get blown by seeing another kid poop in a ball pit, watching how grown-ups treat underpaid teenagers, discovering a queer-coded Disney villain, or just staring wide-eyed at the surreal “Night on Bald Mountain” scene in Fantasia. So maybe, given the impossibility of full enforcement, family-friendly is really mostly just a marketing ploy, a concocted set of unwritten rules designed to put parents at ease because — let's be honest — parenting is incredibly hard work and every tough job needs to come with real breaks.
The reason Pride can never be family-friendly in this sense is because of the nature of the communities that originally gave us the reason for this prideful season. The queer experience of life in the United States was different before the patrons of Stonewall decided they’d had enough of police raids, and it has changed more during the decades of advocacy, mobilization, and organizing that have followed. Not that long ago, gay sex and wearing clothes designed for what society deemed the “opposite” gender were outlawed and criminalized. The law was specifically engineered to make queer lives impossible, similar to how more recent lawmakers have attempted to legislate away the rights of LGBTQ people to participate in basic functions of civil society, like getting married, using bathrooms, and playing sports.
The reason that gay worlds like the one around Stonewall existed was because members of different communities, sometimes rejected by their own biological families, created new definitions of what a family could be. These chosen families can be as vibrant and distinct as the people who comprise them, just like New York’s famous houses, the real-world inspiration for the families on Pose. They can be a lesbian motorcycle club or a gay men’s choir or a trans open-mic or a queer kitchen brigade. Sometimes they are happy families, and sometimes they are not. But part of the LGBTQ experience, historically and to this day, has been inventing new social relations that provide the collective mutual aid that every individual needs for survival — a concept it only feels natural to call family.
Importantly, these new concepts of familial relations were an alternative to contemporaneous definitions of what family meant in the middle of the 20th century, when the patriarchal-male- breadwinner-plus-female-housekeeper dynamic was starting to come under scrutiny. In a United States that had left it to Beaver to create idyllic standards even straight families might struggle to live up to, queer chosen families could be liberating, giving young people the space to be themselves and still feel loved and be materially supported.
Even if you could somehow accurately measure whether LGBTQ acceptance is increasing as assimilation marches on, it remains true that there are some things that can only be provided by queer chosen families. My parents and sister have been accepting and even supportive of me. But I might still be lost without the trans women who’ve been family to me, the mothers and big sisters who continue to watch out for me. I have been lucky to feel so much kinship with so many siblings and so many parents, with elders who have youthful spirits, and youth as wise as elders.
This leaves us with a paradox: Pride can’t be made family-friendly because it has always been friendly to this family. The acts of fighting for and celebrating LGBTQ life are inherently family-friendly for the vast social networks that stitch together all those LGBTQ lives we’re fighting for and celebrating. Pride is all around us every day; it is within us if we permit ourselves to feel what many of us have been told is a deadly sin.
But that’s all a bit idealistic. The reality is that many modern-day Pride celebrations can attract a dangerous social combination: people eager to party and people eager to fit in. That’s largely a result of the way Pride has shifted in the public consciousness. To many minds, it is a huge, well-sponsored festival. To others, it is a civic institution every queer person is entitled to.
Like any contemporary paradox, there is no easy way to talk about what Pride should be moving forward. But the reality is also that a lot of the people who have this annual conversation online have no material ability to determine what major municipal Pride parades look like. Those decisions are all made by governments, nonprofits, and corporate donors.
But that’s not to say we’re powerless. We have the power to control what our Pride looks like by organizing events ourselves. We can honor our chosen families and ourselves. As with any healthy family, we will be better served by having difficult conversations than by issuing moral prohibitions.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue