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For a group of people long labeled sinners–and understandably sensitive to a charge that’s still made–it’s more than a little ironic that gays and lesbians should select a sin as our annual rallying cry. And not just any sin, but the sin Pope Gregory the Great called “the queen of them all.”

An early Christian monk, Evagrius of Pontus, made a list of “wicked human passions,” of which he determined there were eight, and listed them in ascending order of all-around wickedness: gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, anger, sloth, vainglory, and pride. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great took Evagrius’s list and cut it down to seven, combining some (sloth and sadness, vainglory and pride), and adding a brand-new sin, envy. Gregory’s revised list–pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust–were known to his contemporaries as the Seven Capital Vices; we know them as the Seven Deadly Sins. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas piled on, observing that before a person could lust like a weasel or go green with envy, he first had to commit the sin of pride. This made pride not only the deadliest of sins “but the beginning of all sin.”

Gays and lesbians embraced the sin of pride 30 years ago to combat something that was, at the time, a much deadlier problem for queers than any of Evagrius’s wicked passions or Greg’s capital vices–shame. Webster’s defines shame as a “condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute,” and until the late 60s shame was a poison killing queers. Not only did straights view homosexuality as disgraceful, but most gays and lesbians did too. Shame kept us closeted and fearful, made our oppression possible, and led some of us to write very bad plays and wear too-tight trousers. Clearly, strong medicine was needed. We searched for an antidote that would purge us of this poison and found it in pride.

If it took a deadly sin to undo the damage done by shame–a condition imposed on us, not something we did to ourselves–surely Eva, Greg, and Thom would understand. Webster’s defines pride as “inordinate self-esteem,” or “a reasonable and justifiable self-respect.” Whether inordinate or justifiable, pride was an effective antidote: As more gays and lesbians committed the sin of pride, fewer were victimized by shame. We became less closeted and less fearful, making it increasingly more difficult to oppress us, and we started writing better plays and wearing more comfortable clothing.

But 30 years after the antidote arrived–in the form of a riot and an annual parade to commemorate that riot–gays and lesbians stand in renewed danger of being poisoned. The poison threatening us now isn’t shame, however; it’s pride. In medical terms, once the antidote cures you, you’re supposed to stop taking it. Why? The funny thing about antidotes is that they’re often poisons themselves. Many of the antidotes for snakebites and scorpion stings are toxic, and even Tylenol will kill you if you take too much.

Pride isn’t killing anyone–not yet, anyway–but the fwap of rainbow wind socks is definitely making us dull and slow, leading to a resurgence of bad plays and tight pants. Surrounding oneself with constant reminders to feel prideful–rainbow flags, freedom rings, “family” bumper stickers, pink triangle tattoos, “freedom tumblers,” rainbow-striped dog collars (!)–is to constantly be reminded of shame. The only way to be truly and finally free of stultifying shame is to break free of equally stultifying (if better-accessorized) pride. American gays and lesbians act like cancer patients who, having been cured, remind themselves that they aren’t sick anymore by dropping by the hospital every once in a while for a little chemotherapy.

Of course, all gay or lesbian people have to struggle with shame prior to and during their coming out. Simple pride in being gay or lesbian–simpleminded pride, I should say–is useful, but should be thought of as a stage young queers must pass through, like puberty, and not an ecstatic state all queers must live in, like Ohio. (When I say “young and gay” I’m using an expansive definition of youth. Gays and lesbians don’t mature socially until after they come out; someone can be a very young 45-year-old fag or a very old 22-year-old dyke.) Being gay or lesbian is not–repeat, not–an accomplishment, and it’s nothing anyone really has a right to take pride in. What matters is how a person is gay, not that a person is gay–a distinction absent from the banal, smug “Gay is Good” rhetoric emanating from gay pride pimps and gay pride parades.

Struggling through shame, that poison still in their bodies, young queers have to indulge themselves in some prideful posturing. While they do, older and wiser queers should do what we can to protect them from the naive certainties pride rhetoric often inspires. All gays and lesbians do not agree with each other, do not like each other, and do not look out for each other. We shouldn’t allow baby queers to assume gay people are their allies and straight people their enemies, because, as older queers know, the opposite is often the case. Gay isn’t good–and it isn’t bad. Gay just is.

Presenting a false picture of community to just-out gays and lesbians, allowing them to fall for the “brothers and sisters in pride” rhetoric I heard at my first pride rally, is dangerous. Is there a more wounded expression than that on the face of a baby dyke who’s just realized she’s been viciously fucked over by one of her “own”? Or an out & proud dyke whose out & proud junkie roommate took off with her TV and VCR? Or a gay boy whose scumbag boyfriend swore he was negative and told him they didn’t need to use a condom because they were in love? Or the customer who realizes that immediately after hanging up the rainbow flags the business owners jacked up the prices?

Patriotism, as the saying goes, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But in the last 30 years, pride has become a sort of gay patriotism and the first refuge of gay scoundrels–and certainly the first marketing ploy of countless beer and vodka companies.

The more someone believes that gay is good, the ruder the shock when they discover they’ve been manipulated or exploited by one of their “brothers and sisters.” The sudden realization that pride is a line of crap can result in a disillusionment every bit as poisonous as the shame gay “pride” is supposed to cure. To prevent disillusionment, we must prevent illusions from taking root in the first place. Ultimately we’ll never be truly whole until gay people are neither crippled by shame nor addicted to pride. Only when our homosexuality, to others and to ourselves, means absolutely nothing will we be free.

Until then, pride flags and rainbow wind socks should come with little Mr. Yuck stickers and a copy of Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts on pride. That way, unsuspecting baby dykes and fags will know that pride carries some risk. Like shame, it can be poisonous. Overdone, pride is still the queen of sin.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.