Things will look a little different this weekend at the 16th annual North Carolina Gay Pride festival. Leading the parade, ahead of the rainbow-colored float sporting this year's theme, "Embrace Diversity," will be a float commemorating gay and lesbian military veterans. Created originally for a Fourth of July parade, the float will remain mostly red, white and blue, with a garland-covered stars-and-stripes shield rising 26 feet into the air at the back of the float. Pride coordinators say moving the float to the front of the parade was part of a conscious effort to shift the parade's focus to become more patriotic--in response to the terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C. and New York.
"At this moment, the parade needs to express national feelings, not just gay feelings," says parade organizer Keith Hayes. "We need to sound this national note." So, instead of the rendition of "Macho Man" that the N.C. Pride Marching Band has been playing for the event the last couple of years, the band has been asked to play only patriotic songs during the parade. The march will begin with the National Anthem, and you may see as many American flags as rainbows and pink triangles.
"We intend for this year's parade to celebrate individual freedoms, not just for gay people, but for Americans as a whole," organizers explained in a recent press release. "We're doing all we can so that participants come away viewing the parade--and the entire Pride movement--as an expression of certain core American values that make us strong."
But there is inescapable irony in patriotic images leading a parade that began as criticism of America's stance on gay-rights issues and from a movement that demands visibility for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the face of "don't ask don't tell," the absence of hate crime legislation and the fear of coming out. And inevitably, there will be a diversity of opinions at Pride. Paula Austin, director of the North Carolina Lambda Youth Network, a group that provides mentoring and leadership training to queer youth, is concerned with, in her words, "the push to mainstream and assimilate, led by some queer organizations that are primarily white and middle class."
"I think the gay rights movement currently is very much about trying to get the country to understand how we are the same as everyone else," says Austin, "and how that will gain us acceptance."
Members of NCLYN will be at the festival, conducting workshops and networking with other organizations. They will also have on hand their position paper on the attacks, which calls for time to mourn, reflect and above all, ask questions: What will an American war on terrorism look like? How will civil rights be affected? What will happen to our government's stance on racial profiling? How critical are we about messages we're getting from the media and government?
NCLYN is raising valuable questions. And with the queer community still fighting for civil rights and acceptance, you can't help but wonder what's sacrificed in compromising a celebration of diversity and a demand for recognition in order to stand with mainstream America.