MEMBER OPINION : Fetish & Pride: Love = Love, but what’s kink to got to do with it?
11 September 2023
Pride messaging tells us that love equals love, but for many, this message is not one of hope and celebration but one that has forgotten its roots of protest and viability by mainstreaming Pride into a festival for all. In creating this festival for all, queer people - especially those who visibly express their gender and sexuality, such as kinksters - can end up having their presence eroded and ultimately excluded. Consequently, we in the kink and fetish community now face the same question every Pride month – should Pride include kink?
Given that I am writing this for Recon and as a lover of kink myself, it will come as no surprise that my answer to this question is a resounding YES; kink and fetish should be included in Pride. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean the question disappears. Instead, the question crops up every year and ultimately distracts from more pertinent issues with Pride, such as transphobia from TERFs, rainbow-washing corporations and the participation of cops and the military. Nevertheless, in this article, I will explore why this question exists and what we can do as a community to address and challenge fetish being eroded from Pride.
At the outset, it must be said that fetish is as intrinsic to Pride as dykes on bikes, drag queens, glitter, and rainbow capitalism - although not quite as problematic as the latter. To understand why fetish at Pride challenges the heteronormative and accepted sexual norms, we must also understand more of our queer history. In the 1970s, the movement which birthed Pride – Gay Liberation – had sexual liberation at its core, given that the act of sex is intrinsic to sexuality despite not defining it. Consequently, using the spirit of the Stonewall Riots, queer people left the bars and went onto the streets. In doing so, these early Pride pioneers challenged the heteronormative, affronted morality which only tolerated homosexuality on the basis that the sex was done between two men, in private, behind a closed door. Thus, the transgression of established norms around sex, sexual orientation and gender is at the very heart of Pride. Shortly after the first Prides, Sylvia Rivera, an instigator of the Stonewall Riots, in her, Y'all Better Quiet Down Speech, reminds us of this transgression when she called out Pride for becoming middle class and white at the expense of sex workers, trans people, and marginalised queer people. Rivera was booed off stage for saying this, but she was (and still is) right in that Pride and queerness are more than just a protest or a celebration but rather a transgressive disruption to the accepted norms in society. This is precisely why fetish should be at Pride, as it destroys and challenges the accepted sexual standards both within and outside the LGBTQIA+ communities. To put it another way, as said by Robin Dembroff, a Yale professor of LGBTQ philosophy, "Queerness isn't just about who you want to fuck, you know? Being queer is still fundamentally rooted in having a political resistance to hegemonic ideas of how humans ought to be… and it's about whether or not you're an 'acceptable' human."
However, with the advent of growing political and social conservatism alongside the HIV Epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, a move away from gay liberation happened. This change caused Gay Liberation to be replaced with the Gay and Lesbian Movement, which sought to gain equal rights for gay and lesbian people, ultimately amounting to assimilation into the heteronormative. The Gay and Lesbian Movement was ultimately successful, as demonstrated by the increasing recognition of same-sex marriage worldwide, but in achieving this, certain compromises had to be made.
One such compromise was to sanitise the movement and make it respectable by distancing itself from the act of queer sex thought to be an affront to many cis-gendered heterosexuals (cishets) within the heteronormative. To put it bluntly, as the pseudo-morality of the heteronormative that cannot deal with the thought of gay anal sex, let alone pleasure from bondage, fisting, or puppy play; it was glossed over and ignored. By jettisoning fetish (and even 'vanilla' queer sex), the movement could lobby decision-makers for legislative change without reminding them of what queers got up to in the sack - even if those decision-makers enjoyed BDSM. This move towards assimilation also coincides with Pride becoming mainstream and more family oriented as Pride recast LGBTQIA+ participants as acceptable now that we don't talk about all that unacceptable sex stuff. As a result, we see a desire to strip fetish's visibility from Pride, even though it is debatable if this tactic worked given current attempts by conservatives to ban drag story time for (allegedly) sexually indoctrinating children.
The movement to create a more mainstream and acceptable Pride is not just limited to being acceptable to the heteronormative, as even our own LGBTQIA+ communities are calling for fetish to no longer have a place at Pride. Some suggest this is because younger generations do not historically understand fetish's role in Pride, but this is an oversimplification. Rather, now that assimilation into the heteronormative, a relatively new narrative has been created around what is acceptable for queer people (marriage, children, and rainbows) and what is not (promiscuity, gender diversity, sexual expression and buttfucking). We see this homonormative narrative displayed across many areas of queer culture, but we also see this homonormative delegitimising fetish, casting them as bad gays who have no place at Pride. This is because fetish has become relegated to a separate expression of a fixed sexuality rather than being seen as part and parcel of a more fluid expression of gender or sexual identity, which may also include cishet people. Furthermore, it is reductive to have such a fixed normative idea of sexual expression and gender because it ignores the broad church of queer identity in favour of assimilation and retrospectively attempts to change the gay liberation narrative to exclude fetish and sexual liberation.
A further argument on why kink should not be at Pride is that attendees do not consent to participate as unwilling voyeurs in someone else fetish. Now, I accept that for modest people, those with ethical or philosophical objections (as many feminists do), or people with children may find the sight of leather chaps or a gimp challenging. However, we are not talking about the hedonism of Folsom San Francisco or Darklands in Antwerp here but rather a diverse Pride parade which is largely PG (to use the film classification guidance) save for some heavy petting by cishet huns after dragging their boyfriends along). So, what is really happening here is that our LGBTQIA+ community, by attempting to exclude fetish, reinforces the inherent shame created by the heteronormative and creates a problematic form of internal queer gatekeeping. By reinforcing division through queer gatekeeping, the homonormative favours a more tolerable, festival-like celebration of assimilation rather than celebrating queer liberation, which disrupts the hegemonic patriarchy and gender roles.
With Pride becoming increasingly mainstreamed and moving away from protest towards a sanitised celebration of the bland statement Love = Love, it would be fair to ask why even go? This is a fair question given that other communities within the LGBTQIA+ grouping have created their own Pride to celebrate gender diversity, black excellence, queerness and even fetish. While these spaces provide opportunities for those communities to experience queer joy in a welcoming environment, I would argue that it is still crucial for the fetish community to participate in mainstream Pride. By showing up and participating in mainstream Pride, we continue the tradition of Pride being about visibility and a community coming together. By fostering an inclusive community beyond that of the mainstream, we can truly celebrate our diversity and use the spirit of those early Pride activists to continue to demand liberation, including sexual liberation, for all. By being visible in this way, we can reinforce fetish's counter-culture status as it continues breaking down the stigma and shame created from outside and within the LGBTQIA+ communities. This visibility also allows fetish to reach new audiences and develop new connections for people wishing to explore kink or each other – after all, isn't this what community is all about, connection? Finally, and most importantly, attending Pride as a kinkster allows you to express your fetish and kinks, be an activist, celebrate sexual liberation and have fun. After all, queer joy is an act of resistance.
So let us continue to turn up to our local prides and present a happier and kinkier pride!
Neal (lemonmerinugepie) ***If you'd like to share a fetish or kink experience in a member article, send your ideas or a first draft to: email@example.com