When World Pride Becomes Just Another Gay Party

Kareem, a policeman of Palestinian descent, keeps an eye on 2006 World Pride protestors during a rally against Jerusalem’s Separation Wall. | MICHAEL LUONGO

It’s London’s special summer.

The world’s attention is on Britain’s capital city in a way it hasn’t been since the Empire’s glory days. Beginning in April of last year, in fact, from a royal wedding to Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee to the Olympics, it’s just been one big party after another.

Among the celebrations was the third edition of World Pride, held the weekend of July 7, commemorating the 40th anniversary of London’s first gay rights march in 1972. Rain, money trouble, and scheduling changes were the main hiccups. London’s Tory Mayor Boris Johnson was also a thorn in the side of Peter Tatchell, arguably the United Kingdom’s most important LGBT activist and the main driver behind the event. The two volleyed harsh words in the days before World Pride.

Still, World Pride was a success. The march and rally went on; glittery drag queens and nearly naked men parading through the streets were the rainbow under England’s gray skies.

I would argue that, of course, a World Pride similar to the massive celebrations we’ve come to expect in major US cities would turn out to be a success. After all, the UK is one of the world’s most advanced nations when it comes to LGBT rights.

This is a complete contrast from the two prior World Prides — Rome in 2000 and Jerusalem in 2006. Those were real World Prides, endowed by political and religious circumstances with gravitas. Rain and verbal parries pale in comparison to the challenges those events faced.

World Pride was launched a dozen years ago with an ambitious agenda — to challenge organized religious dogma, the most deadly and dangerous obstacle LGBT people around the world face. From revolt against religion, World Pride has devolved into a circuit party.

And after London, where does World Pride head for its 2014 iteration? Toronto, Canada, probably the world’s most advanced country in its embrace of LGBT equality.

London? Toronto? Why bother?

Planning a global event aimed to change hearts, minds, social attitudes, and political realities in either city is a waste of resources when there are so many alternatives where tens of thousands of activists and the gatherings connected to World Pride — human rights and business conferences — could create true LGBT progress in places that rarely see such activism.

Rome’s World Pride was held during the Vatican’s Jubilee celebrations commemorating two millennia of worshipping Christ. The timing for World Pride in Rome could not have been better. Or worse. Which was the whole point.

As in the early Christian era, all roads would lead to Rome again. Millions of pilgrims, among them some of the world’s most conservative, religiously hateful people, would descend on the Eternal City.

This was the backdrop as Interpride, the organization behind World Pride, and Rome’s LGBT organization, Mario Mieli, and other groups strategized. As a journalist covering World Pride, each day was a drama-filled, passionate unknown — an opera worthy of Giuseppe Verdi. The challenges were manifold — a flip-flopping mayor who would whimsically offer and then rescind support; police and government officials who would swarm to events in an attempt to shut them down; and strident condemnations from Pope John Paul II. Throw in Italy’s everyday disorganization and bureaucracy, and it was hard to imagine the first World Pride could

ever happen.

And yet it did.

Rome’s World Pride created a dialogue that was missing in Italy. The temporary Gay Village created for the event helped give birth to new LGBT-owned businesses throughout Rome, enhancing the community’s visibility in the city. Queer political power increased, leading eventually to the election of transgender activist and singer Vladimir Luxuria to Italy's Parliament.

Most importantly, LGBT activists proved the Vatican could be defeated in its own hometown and in a year when it sought renewed glory.

But Rome was child’s play compared to Jerusalem. There, the fight was against all three major Abrahamic faiths — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If Rome’s challenge went back 2,000 years, this one had its roots almost 6,000 years ago.

World Pride had already been postponed from 2005, because of the tensions occasioned by Israel’s military pullout from Gaza. Then, in that year’s Jerusalem Pride, a knife-wielding Orthodox Jewish maniac rampaged through the crowd, stabbing participant Adam Russo and creating the fear violence would be repeated on a grand scale in 2006.

When, shortly after that, war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, some religious and political leaders stepped up their criticism of Jerusalem Open House and its director Hagai El-Ad, World Pride’s local organizers, for going forward with what they viewed as a party while the nation’s soldiers were dying.

Meanwhile, Israel’s policies regarding the entry of LGBT Arabs for World Pride spurred international criticism that become a principle focus of media coverage. The Lebanese LGBT rights group HELEM and other Arab organizations called for a boycott and pressed for Western participation, an effort that had significant success in Europe.

In Jerusalem, it’s rare to find Jews, Muslims, and Christians agreeing on anything, but condemnation of gays became a strong unifying factor among leaders of all three groups. Many demanded that World Pride relocate to secular Tel Aviv.

Organizers held their ground. Moving to Tel Aviv would make World Pride a meaningless beach party. It would have meant that the LGBT movement had lost to religious hatred.

In spite of the obstacles inside Israel and boycotts organized by Arabs, World Pride organizers brought international LGBT participants to the West Bank Separation Wall and to Palestinian homes demolished by the Israeli Defense Forces. Some activists today call the contradiction between Israel’s progress on LGBT rights and its occupation Pinkwashing.

Even as LGBT Arabs denounced World Pride, the controversy surrounding it brought attention to their cause. The visibility of HELEM and other Middle East LGBT groups — as well as Arab and Palestinian groups within Israel, such as Rauda Morcos of the lesbian-focused ASWAT and Haneen Maikey, director of Palestinian programming at the Jerusalem Open House — increased dramatically.

And it is clear that World Pride influenced the Israeli government to see gay tourism and the promotion of LGBT rights as positives — in terms of both business and public relations.

Serious stuff.

And now for something completely different: London.

It’s true that Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, has flip-flopped over the years on his posture toward homosexuality as controversy has gripped the worldwide Church. Still, the UK is a nation where gays serve in the military and same-sex couples nationwide enjoy civil partnership rights — and perhaps soon, fully marriage equality.

If Anglicanism is the target, Africa is a place to challenge its bigotry. Anti-gay conservative adherents in Britain and the US have limited success at home, but have supported deadly homophobic initiatives in Anglophone African countries.

When I covered Rome and Jerusalem, some activists suggested holding World Pride in a Muslim-majority country, with Turkey’s Istanbul the likely candidate, logical for many reasons. Turkey is officially secular, with some LGBT rights advances based on its desire to enter the European Union. And, symbolically, as the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul is the last Muslim caliphate.

Lebanon is a long way off from full LGBT equality, but it also has potential for hosting World Pride. The capital, Beirut, rivals Tel Aviv as a gay tourism destination. It has also held its own Gay Pride rallies. World Pride in Beirut would reify the city’s position as a relatively safe space for LGBT Arabs, sparking regional dialogue. Arab Spring Cairo, where LGBT rights briefly seemed to flourish during the past year, might also be an interesting choice.

But if Interpride still wanted Europe, I’d nominate Russia, where LGBT rights are under attack by the government and fascist groups. Poland would also be a bold choice. Getting approval to move forward in either country, of course, is no slam-dunk.

Some activist knowledgeable about developing nations challenge a fundamental precept of World Pride, arguing that it aims to force Western European and North American models of LGBT rights onto countries where progress is made in different ways. Certainly, no World Pride event could or should be attempted without local groups playing the lead role. There are many places where that sort of freedom to organize in such a visible way is simply not possible.

Given all these challenges, choosing a place where money, rain, and what essentially amounted to petty turf wars with local officials are your worst enemies becomes an attractive alternative.

But that expediency ignores the original purpose World Pride strove for — creating a visible challenge to religious and political hatred of gays and lesbians.

There are more than enough gay parties in Western countries. World Pride must regain its original focus, using the power of mass mobilization to challenge anti-LGBT sentiment in the developing world and strengthen the movements there. If Interpride continues to hold World Pride in cities where progress was won long ago, it will simply confirm that religious resistance — and not the global LGBT movement — has won the argument.

That would make World Pride a wasted effort.