June was L.G.B.T.Q. Pride month. July is national pride month — at least on the Fourth. And, in New York City, the pivot from one to the other isn’t much of a pivot at all. One flag comes down and another goes up. The performance of a queer self doesn’t seem that far from the performance of an American one, especially if you just-canceled sneakers with the Betsy Ross flag. But this year, in queer land, the performance of pride was conducted with a flamboyance that rivals Independence Day.
Rainbows hanging in storefronts and as part of bank displays, undulating from fire escapes and car antennae. A Gilbert Baker’s pride flag. In the Flatiron district, the kitchenware shop Fishs Eddy instructed people to “post your pride” and affixed to its windows a zillion rainbowed stickies upon which people had written everything from “Yasss” in big block letters to a concise: “Came out! August 1982.”
Sometimes flag mania tugged at your heart. In the West Village, a Rockette kick away from the Stonewall Inn, a plain-old pedestrian crosswalk was painted red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple — not by activists but by theDepartment of Transportation!
Sometimes the performance tipped into farce. Somebody showed me a sandwich board that read, “We take pride in our cheese,” with “pride” in all-caps and rainbowing. Sometimes it was stranger than that. Sometimes it was Tinder’s “Pride slide” in the Flatiron: a giant toy whose colored, curving 30-foot slide you could actually sled down, maybe in tandem, maybe holding a pride flag. Sliders were urged to “ride the rainbow.” It was not a commercial for Tinder’s dating app. Like the company’s other superficially clever slogans (“Single is a terrible thing to waste”), this one was copped from other organizations. But the company said it would donate $10 from each ride to the Human Rights Campaign and urged everybody to support Senate passage of the Equality Act, which protects people against discrimination based on sexual orientation and
But the glut of performances could render you perplexed. Does this store’s tiny, odd, rainbow-colored thingamabob painted in the corner of an enormous window mean it’s less supportive than this other place, whose windows are so rainbowed that you can’t even see inside? And does a place with rainbow-nothing mean that nothing gay matters? And does having rainbow anything that O.K.? Oh, and does so much consumerist ubiquity mean that what the flag symbolizes is now less political or are those politics just more widely endorsed? Are we being “pink-washed?”
It’s a migraine-inducing quandary: Is there such a thing as proper pride? After decades of all kinds of neglect, here was a luxury: Could gay people now have too much support? It became a question so big that it had to be worked out in two separate parades — the enormous, high-energy, emotional, eternal official one (WorldPride NYC) and the rougher, rawer, entirely confrontational, sponsor-free (and not tiny!) Queer Liberation March, which is more fun to say and, among other things, objected to the presence of corporations and cops. Both were powerful. Both moved me. And, eventually, even though it didn’t seem like the massive official one really ever would, both ended.
Suddenly, you’re back in Kansas. And yet the show does go on. I was cursing a bleating ambulance on Monday (I know; and may God forgive me). I cursed it until its swerve onto 40th Street revealed a pair of rainbow flags whipping in the rear, like wings, like afterburn. So to be fair to New York, its Oz is always showing. (Even the emergencies can seem queer.)
The robust commercial performance of pride meets an inevitable conclusion. It becomes someone’s job to scrape, peel, erase, hose off, take down, Windex, dismantle and trash the rainbow. It must feel weird, scrubbing “pride” from your storefront, sending rivulets of it crying down into the sewer. Grand opening, grand closing. But, in commerce, this is the way of all things. There’s more to be sold than a show of support. Just like that: Making your way around New York can feel lonely, like you’ve been scraped and Windexed, too, and being over the rainbow can mean something altogether different. Then, you remember that there’s a difference between giving a performance and putting on an act. One’s a talent. The other is a charade.
These are impermanent times. Nothing is supposed to last. But should the emblems of gayness feel as cheap and disposable as they have this year? Flux and fluidity are very queer. Erasure is queerness’s enemy. And yet Pride season did offer a gay performance that deserves to last. It gave us “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels” by Todrick Hall. After your favorite business has moved on to Christmas, this song — and the
It’s one of those “you betta work!” numbers — a RuPaul-Beyoncé-Bob Fosse aerobics class. Hall wears a black bodysuit, with electric pink heels and matching belt, opera gloves and a Wilma Flintstone necklace. They accessorize nicely with the giant neon triangle behind him. He’s joined, in a warehouse space, by what must be three dozen male dancers in versions of the same outfit for some of the most committed group-choreography you’re going to see. The sashaying, spinning, and shimmying, the mini-vogueing, floor-sweeps and lascivious camera cruises: This is the performance you want for Pride. You want 30-plus dudes saying, with more than comedy, This isn’t a charade. We are one another’s support. We’re each other’s parade.
Lots of us probably spent too much time last month debating whether Taylor Swift’s embrace of L.G.B.T.Q. folks made her Liza Minnelli or Bank of America. It was as though she were the Equality Act. But Hall represents something essential about Pride that can’t be peeled off, tossed out or pink-washed, something with old-school bathhouse hours, something open 24/7. “Ride the rainbow?” Listen: the rainbow is riding him.
Wesley Morris is a critic-at-large. He was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at the Boston Globe. He has also worked at Grantland, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. @wesley_morris
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