Their press release was full of the kind of womyn-goddess-sister-spirit rhetoric that usually makes eyes roll–the Women’s Action Coalition and the Lesbian Avengers have decided to “Girlcott” this year’s Lesbian & Gay Pride Parade over allegations of past sexual harassment. While both groups will participate in Saturday’s “Dyke March,” they’ll stand on the sidelines during Sunday’s Pride Parade, passing out leaflets and armbands instead of joining in.
Despite their affectations–the WAC acronym, the precious use of “girl” for “boy,” and the hypersensitive outrage over the “men who struck our drums”–in person protest organizers Nicole Garneau and Katherine Klein turn out to be articulate and not without a sense of humor. When Garneau’s asked what she expects the Girlcott to accomplish, she replies, “The end of patriarchal oppression,” then bursts out laughing.
They say their purpose is to call attention to sexism in the gay community. Though many within the community would prefer they keep quiet on the one day dedicated to showing a united front, Klein says, “It’s worth going out on a limb if it brings about a dialogue.” Last year WAC members blew whistles at verbal harassers, and it attracted a lot of negative publicity. “The response we got was, ‘You sour, screaming, feminist lesbians,'” Klein says. “But that’s not the point we were trying to make. We wanted to show the crowd that this happens and it’s not fun and it’s not enjoyable.”
WAC videotaped portions of last year’s parade to prove that harassment takes place. The tape shows two columns of women, many topless, marching in single file on either side of a woman holding a placard that says “Woman Marching Safely.” When anyone in the contingent feels harassed, the group blows whistles, surrounds the offending party, and chants, “Shame, shame, shame.” They draw a chalk arrow and the word “harassed” in front of each offender. The reactions of the men–and they are all men–range from chagrin to cluelessness to outrage over the outrage. One particularly offended queen responds, “Oh you big ole Amazons leave me alone!” As the women continue to chant–“What do we want? A safe march! When do we want it? Now!”–someone asks the man what he shouted to earn his mark of shame. He replies, “They’s saying ‘What do we want?’ And I said, ‘A big dick!’ That’s all I said. She looked like a big ole man!” His animated friend cuts in with several comments about the aggressive nature of the women’s underarms. “You could cornrow that hair!”
The men on the tape look gay and are for the most part drunk–two assumptions on my part, but I’ve been gay for years and drunk on numerous occasions so I feel safe in calling them as I see them. As with most hurtful things that leave only emotional scars, verbal harassment is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Where WAC saw attacks and “a sputtering drunken display,” I saw a couple of drunks, a few guys who probably learned something, and some garden-variety jerks. But I’ve lived in Indianapolis, where the official motto of the Indy 500 is “Show me your tits!” Differentiating between life-threatening harassment and drunken idiots is a matter of common sense. The guy shouting “You used too much tape” to a topless woman wearing tape pasties is probably not going to jump her in a dark alley later on.
WAC is interested in the politics of the parade. My gay friends are not. Almost to a person they reacted to the Girlcott with, “They’re marching topless in the Gay Pride Parade and they’re pissed off because men are yelling things? Yeah. Right.”
It is, after all, a parade, and parades don’t operate by the rules of rational behavior–they combine complete and total abandon with the most innocent of trust. Strangers stand shoulder to shoulder, three deep, yet no one thinks of it as a dangerous place. Contemplate Saint Patrick’s Day: the river is dyed an inexplicable color of green, men your father’s age are stumbling drunk, and women with big hair throw hard candy directly at the faces of beaming children. All of this attracts huge crowds on a day when the temperature usually tops out at 36 degrees.
The Lesbian & Gay Pride Parade’s planning committee addresses the harassment issue every year, according to Rich Pfeiffer, the parade’s coordinator and a 27-year veteran of the event. He says organizers have done everything the law will allow to ensure a safe gathering. Complaints of physical harassment–touching, pinching, fondling–from people in the parade have been countered with more barriers lining the route, the use of parade monitors working with police, and an effort to let gays know it’s perfectly all right to tell the person next to them to stop being such a jerk. Verbal harassment can’t be countered, however, because it’s free speech. That’s why fundamentalists can shout “Die faggot!” from the sidelines. And that’s why the parade committee can’t stop verbal harassment coming from gays. “Unfortunately it’s endemic to society,” Pfeiffer says. “As gays we’ve all been called things, and I’d hope we as a group are more sensitive to how much that can hurt. But whether it’s Taste of Chicago, a Cubs game, or Gay Pride, you’re going to have a small portion of people who misbehave.”
But WAC members say they want to change the nature of the parade. “The parade should be a model of where we want to be culturally,” Garneau says. “Harassment and misogyny should not be a part of where we want to be.”
The very first Gay Pride Parade was held on the first anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York. The queerest of the queers–drag queens and butch dykes–decided they’d had enough police harassment and humiliation, and they rioted for two full days after a raid on the Stonewall bar. The gay community’s most obvious had long taken the brunt of harassment, and those same people were the first to fight back. Gay Pride was founded by sissies and bulldaggers, and to this day the parade remains a celebration of our most outrageous and courageous. But the political bent has largely disappeared from the current homo free-for-all. Klein complains the parade “has lost all political meaning,” and she’s right. So has the Fourth of July. We don’t want to remember the ugly part; we want to celebrate the part where we win.
Garneau and Klein have made their point, and maybe they’ll change the tenor of this year’s parade. Their Girlcott has attracted attention from the mainstream press, and other groups have called to ask for more information. Yet WAC’s protest still has its incongruities. At the beginning of the harassment tape, the women are chanting, “Ten percent is not enough! Recruit! Recruit! Recruit!” The chant is the kind of silly, campy thing commonly shouted at the Pride Parade–“We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going shopping!” It makes fun of the mindless rage-filled rhetoric that chews its way out of op-ed pages. But if you’re a breeder with children, it might sound like the kind of teasing that could make you feel, well, highly uncomfortable. And harassed. My friend Kathryn says, “The whole point of the Pride Parade is that we’re bigger than the harassment. This is the one day when the Right, the KKKers, any idiot who wants to can shout at us, try to make us feel bad, insult us–and on this one day it doesn’t hurt us. We just don’t care.”
The Dyke March starts at Broadway and Melrose at 7 PM on Saturday. The Lesbian & Gay Pride Parade takes off from the corner of Halsted and Belmont at 2 PM the next day. Its route runs north on Halsted to Broadway, south on Broadway to Diversey, and then east into Lincoln Park. The Lesbian Avengers will be sponsoring an alternative to the parade on Sunday called “Wake Up and Smell the Sexism.” They are planning a barbecue at Foster Avenue Beach and hope to have a few bands playing. It’s free; call 312-409-3705 for more information. To reach WAC, call 773-918-9161. –Mary Dugger
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): video stills/ Nicole Garneau, Katherine Klein photo by Steven Arazmus.