Welcome to Pride Month, a celebration of LGBT culture and activism across the world!
Unless you live in a cave, you probably already know this. That the general public knows it’s Pride Month is itself a massive marker of huge culture shifts in public attitudes about LGBT people. Just a decade or so ago, most Americans only knew it was Pride Month from news coverage of local parades.
Back in my college days, I would march in those parades. It feels like more than a lifetime ago, though in reality it’s only been 25 years. I was in the parade representing a very small college LGBT organization that I had founded myself. When I marched on the streets of St. Louis, there was no legal recognition of gay marriage, the military banned service by anybody discovered to be gay or transgender, and AIDS was still a life-threatening virus. Missouri had sodomy laws on the books.
There were corporate supporters of Pride activities, even then—primarily alcohol companies. Absolut Vodka was famous for marketing to LGBT people, and their full-page magazine ads are well-remembered by many LGBT boomers and Gen Xers.
There was little by way of ad marketing directed toward the general audience that was developed with LGBT people in mind, or inclusive of them at all. That has certainly changed. Now, almost all major brands commemorate Pride Month, putting rainbow colors on their products. If anybody really, really wants a rainbow-colored sonic toothbrush with a “yaaas” setting (for teeth whitening), it’s out there.
One of the last big barriers to LGBT equality in America tumbled last year—during Pride Month, actually—when the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected gay and trans people from workplace discrimination. This Pride Month, we’re waiting for a ruling from the Supreme Court on whether church-sponsored foster care agencies can reject gay couples as potential caretakers.
But had the court ruled against LGBT employees, and even if they ultimately rule against LGBT foster parents, our culture has shifted so much that the impact of these rulings is much more limited than it would’ve been just a few decades ago. Employers these days jockey to be on lists of “best workplaces for LGBT people” (and my inbox is flooded with press releases about them every June). The rejection of a Catholic foster agency, for example, does not actually stand in the way of a same-sex couple becoming caretakers for needy children; there are alternatives. For every Christian baker who refuses to make a gay wedding cake, there are hundreds of bakeries who are happy to oblige.
The market was adjusting to these cultural shifts way before government, as it always does.
We’re in the midst of a culture war over trans acceptance, a bit of a backlash to this advancement that has resulted in some bad state-level legislation based on bathroom panics. Some of it is a terribly blatant attempt by trans skeptics to interfere with medical treatment decisions that should be made by trans teens and their guardians in consultation with medical professionals and should not involve the government.
The backlash is real, significant, and shouldn’t be ignored. It’s also worth noting, though, that even the nature of this fight represents how far we’ve advanced culturally. At the exact same time I was coming out as gay in 1990, a friend of mine was coming out as trans (back then the term was transsexual), after becoming an adult and graduating high school. Most LGBT people didn’t come out until adulthood, even though many of us had known for years before then that we were gay or trans. Transitioning was generally something a trans person did as an adult, not a teen.
So this culture war battle we’re having now isn’t fundamentally about whether people are really trans but about when and how to recognize it. Obviously, though, there’s a big chunk of opposition still motivated by a belief that there really isn’t such a thing as a trans person and that these people are mentally ill or liars, regardless of what science says.
Those anti-trans folks may be able to pass legislation in some states, but polling shows them as cultural dead-enders. A majority of Americans oppose laws targeting trans people for discriminatory treatment. Politics remains a lagging indicator.
Further evidence of the LGBT movement’s overall successes comes from the increasingly petty fight over who gets to take credit for its successes and pettier gatekeeping over who gets to celebrate it. It seems as though every June brings with it a debate over who was actually “responsible” for the Stonewall riots, as though that was where the gay rights battle began. (Activists had been protesting for better treatment under the law for years prior.) Some people seem to want to argue the opinions or desires of those who look most like those early organizers should carry additional weight 50 years later. It’s a silly and wholly unnecessary fight. The riots were the handiwork of a diverse crew of LGBT folks drawn together at Stonewall by virtue of having few other options available at a time where police were targeting gay and trans people—of all ethnicities and backgrounds—for cruelty.
Pride Month’s transformation from a political organizing tool to a celebration to what it’s becoming now—an entrenched, marketable institution—is a marvelous accomplishment of cultural accommodation. As a former newspaper editor who was in California for the passage of Proposition 8, which temporarily blocked same-sex marriage recognition in the Golden State, fighting over who gets credit for the gay rights movement’s successes is certainly preferable to bickering over failures.
But better than either of those is actually celebrating this success and taking time to enjoy a life that was impossible in 1969. It was impossible in ’79, ’89, and ’99 as well. After Pride Month ends, I’ll be turning 50. The world for an LGBT person in 2021 is wholly unrecognizable from what I grew up through in the ’70s and ’80s in the best possible way.
I’ll be blunt: I thought I would be dead decades ago, from getting AIDS or from despair-driven suicide. I had no concept of my own future beyond day-to-day living for most of my teens and early adulthood. It was unfathomable to my teenage self that someday I’d be, legally and culturally, treated pretty much the same as heterosexual people.
Though there’s still work to be done, we should reject anybody who wants to sell the idea that life is still very, very bad for LGBT folks in America. Perfect? Of course not. The targeting of trans people through state legislation is a cynical manipulation often pushed by people who have opposed LGBT rights all along.
To throw a common anti-gay refrain right back in their faces: It’s just a phase. It is a backlash that has come with the enormous success of LGBT people in changing the dominant culture.
I am not going to buy a stupid rainbow toothbrush. It even fails at virtue signaling—who is going to see the thing besides you and those you live with? But a world where there’s a market for something as silly as that is a world I’m very happy to live in.
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