The Fall of Pride | Matthew Schmitz (2024)

On June 2, 2024, protestors temporarily halted the Philly Pride Parade. They were not congregants of the Westboro Baptist Church or representatives of the Proud Boys but members of a group called Queers 4 Palestine. They held up a sign saying “No Pride in Genocide.” As they explained in a statement on Instagram, they viewed the city’s Pride parade as a symbol of oppression, not liberation: a “public-relations instrument used by the corporate arm of the state to divert public attention away from the configuration of violent, repressive policies and practices inflicted upon Queer people worldwide.”

The interruption was the latest sign of the challenges facing Pride, a monthlong holiday that has united corporations and activist groups, political leaders and self-styled dissidents in celebration not only of gay liberation but of queerness generally. After decades of increasing buy-in, Pride appears to be losing public legitimacy. The change is reflected in a corporate retreat from Pride-themed marketing, shifts in public opinion, and conflicts among progressive groups about the meaning of Pride.

Inspired by the 1969 Stonewall Riots, the first Pride parades took place in 1970 in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles. As decades passed, Pride came to symbolize not only the increasing acceptance of sexual minorities, but the rising fortunes of an educated, urban professional class that valued self-expression, equality, and diversity. Marketers recognized this, and sought to exploit, in the words of Katherine Sender, a professor of communications at Cornell, the association between “same-sex eroticism and young, urban trendiness.” Alcohol companies, having little reason to fear alienating religious consumers, led the way.

In 2023, the backlash came. On April 1, the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted a picture on Instagram featuring a personalized can of Bud Light. The conservative commentator Matt Walsh called for a boycott. Kid Rock posted a video of himself shooting a case of the beer. Megyn Kelly compared drinking the beer to giving “a middle finger to women.” Bud Light’s sales declined by approximately 25 percent in a matter of weeks. Two executives associated with the Mulvaney promotion were placed on leave. Anheuser-Busch’s chief marketing officer stepped aside. Bud Light, the top-selling beer in the U.S. for twenty-two years, was dethroned by Modelo Especial.

Target faced similar criticism after social media accounts claimed that a size XS swimsuit advertised as having “light binding” in the chest and a “tuck-friendly” crotch was available for purchase in the children’s section. (Target officials responded that the suits were offered only in adult sizing and not intended for children.) Sales fell by 5 percent in the April-to-June period, the first such drop in six years.

Corporations took note. After years of increasing prominence, Pride commemorations were more subdued in 2024. Nike, which has offered Pride collections since 1999, declined to offer one this year. Target dropped Pride-themed childrenswear and offered Pride merchandise in only half its stores. Bud Light refrained from any Pride-themed advertising, instead highlighting its partnership with Dustin Poirier, a UFC fighter.

Due in part to these decisions by retailers, Pride was less prominent this year in the public spaces of American cities—as if Manhattan department stores had suddenly stopped doing Christmas displays. “I certainly haven’t seen a significant amount of pride items or flags outside, which kind of threw me because I live in a fairly progressive area,” lamented one commenter on the r/lgbt subreddit. “I’ve noticed this too,” wrote another. “Even when I was in the city I only saw a few.”

One reason Pride is less prominent in cities this year is that cities have other things to worry about. Despite its origins in rioting, Pride greatly benefited from the historic reduction in crime that American cities underwent in the 1990s. Cities suddenly became safe for the educated professionals whose values generally accorded with Pride, whether or not they happened to be LGBTQ. Areas that once had been known for crime and disorder gradually gentrified, a process often marked by the emergence of shops adorned with rainbow banners.

Having long profited from the stability of America’s hip urban centers, Pride must now reckon with some of the problems they face. Rising public disorder and falling numbers of police have reshaped American cities and are now having an effect on commemorations of the holiday. Citing a shortage of police officers and concerns about public safety, Chicago capped this year’s Pride parade at 150 entries (down from 199 in 2023) and shortened its route. The move has nothing to do with ideological opposition and everything to do with an inescapable fact: If America’s urban centers decline, so will their signal festivals. When progressive governance fails, even progressive celebrations feel the pinch.

Gay marriage has never been more secure, having been recognized as a constitutional right by the Supreme Court and enshrined in law by the 2022 Respect for Marriage Act. The priorities of LGBTQ groups—up to and including gender transitions for children—continue to enjoy the backing of the White House and leading medical societies. Yet public support of LGBTQ causes shows signs of weakening. In 1996, Gallup found that 27 percent of respondents supported same-sex marriage. By 2022, that number had surged to 71 percent. In recent years, however, as the political scientist Ryan Burge has noted, this rapid change in public attitudes “has stalled out. Maybe even reversed itself a bit.” In Gallup’s latest poll, 69 percent supported same-sex marriage.

More troubling for supporters of Pride are polls showing that support for same-sex marriage is declining among young Americans. A 2021 survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that 80 percent of Gen Z adults favored same-sex marriage, compared to 72 percent of Millennials, 64 percent of Gen Xers, and 59 percent of Baby Boomers. In a follow-up surveylast year, it was clear that something had changed. Support for same-sex marriage had marginally increased in every generational cohort—except Gen Z, where it had fallen to 69 percent. Gen Z Americans are now less supportive of same-sex marriage than their Millennial elders.

These results may reflect a broader rightward turn among Gen Z men, who are much more opposed to feminism than their Millennial counterparts. Whatever the case, the data strike at the self-understanding of Pride supporters as opposition from older Americans never could. A cause long associated with youth and vitality now appears to be losing favor with the young. A similar problem is posed by progressive criticisms of Pride, which have become common since the outbreak of the conflict in Gaza. When the boot company UGG announced its 2024 Pride collaboration with Alok Vaid-Menon, a queer influencer, social media users denounced Vaid-Menon—because UGG’s parent company does business in Israel. “Alok, this is deeply upsetting,” wrote one Instagram user. “UGG is a known Zionist brand and is whipping out the pinkwashing playbook to divert attention from their complicity in genocide.”

Intersectional theorists insist that advancing gay rights requires advancing a broader agenda of anti-racism and decolonization. It requires tearing down border walls and abolishing prisons, defunding the police and denouncing white supremacy. One can see this in the evolution of the movement’s symbology. The rainbow Pride flag, designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker, has been superseded by the Progress Pride Flag, which features not only pale pink and blue to represent transgender causes, but black and brown to symbolize the inextricable connection between LGBTQ rights and racial justice.

The association of LGBTQ causes with anti-racist and decolonial rhetoric is likely to upset certain political alignments. On October 8, one day after Hamas’s attack on Israel, hundreds of protestors gathered in New York’s Times Square to support the Palestinian cause. A small group of counterprotestors waved Israeli flags, including one that showed a Star of David superimposed on the rainbow stripes of the original Pride flag. The flag evoked a longstanding boast that Israel is by far the most LGBTQ-friendly country in the Middle East. It is impossible to imagine a similar banner that shows the Star of David superimposed on the Progress Pride Flag, for the simple reason that the Progress Pride Flag represents a political ideology inimical to the existence of Israel. It is similarly hostile to even conventional liberal visions of the United States. Among other things, queerness now means (in the words of those protestors) “from Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go.”

An equally sharp conflict has emerged as the latter letters of the LGBTQ initialism have gained salience. Several prominent writers, along with lobby groups like the LGB Alliance, have sought to defend legal protections for lesbians and gay men, while rejecting things like gender transitions for minors. But their arguments have not persuaded the LGBTQ movement more generally. Queerness—which rejects not only heteronormativity, but any stable sexual identity—appears to be the controlling term. It may embrace hom*osexuality or lesbianism insofar as those are opposed to heterosexuality, but it turns against them when they begin to insist on biological sex.

If Pride were being challenged only by a diminished, if persistent, religious right, then its recent setbacks could be dismissed as temporary. But in fact the challenges are more wide-ranging. Pride is now criticized not only by conservative Christians, but by progressive activists who make a claim on its deepest meaning. Long associated with youth and the future, it is bleeding support among young Americans. It must overcome not only external opposition but its own internal contradictions, as it is invoked in thenameof a global imperial project, and of decolonial revolution—of rights for gay men,andofthe denial of all sexual distinctions. The Pride flag, like the flag of the United States, no longer unifies those who once marched behind it.

Matthew Schmitzis a founder and editor ofCompact.

Image by Julius Weidenauer, public domain. Image cropped.

The Fall of Pride | Matthew Schmitz (2024)

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