Sunday , 26 January 2020

Opinion: Glasgow Free Pride – a terrible muddle?

“Free Pride” have gotten themselves into a terrible muddle and attracted a lot of negative publicity both in Scotland and internationally for a wrong-headed and unnecessary decision to ban drag acts from their activities around Glasgow Pride.  It is a true muddle as their position has not been properly thought through and was meant to be secret so it has emerged in a partial and confused manner.

Free Pride presented itself as a progressive alternative to what they describe (rightly, in my view) as an over-commercialised Pride movement. They said they wanted to be inclusive. Instead they have acted in a secretive way to marginalise a section of the community, that is those who express their sexuality and gender non conformity through drag.

No doubt most of the people involved in Free Pride are decent people trying their best but their decision was wrong (which is fair enough, things happen) and more importantly their handling of the issue has been inept.

Basically a small subgroup of Free Pride, made up of some trans and gender non-binary members, decided as a matter of principle not to allow drag acts to perform on the day. The reason was not that any of those performers who might realistically be invited to Price were actually anti-trans but simply that some trans people might feel uncomfortable with the very concept of other people performing drag, regardless of the content of the performance.

Of course if a drag act, or any other performance, is known to include anti-trans or racist or sexist or other oppressive material then not including those acts is the right thing to do but that was not the justification given, rather there would be an undisclosed blanket ban just in case someone might feel uncomfortable with the very idea of someone expressing their sexuality and gender identity through drag. As might be imagined, such an oppressive decision was not well thought through and questions were immediately raised about why all trans drag acts were to be banned along with all cis drag acts and why those who express their sexuality and gender nonconformity as drag kings were not even deemed important enough to be banned (shades of lesbian exclusion from the gaze of the criminal law).

This view that blanket bans should apply to sections of a community just in case someone else might feel uncomfortable is dangerous. It is exactly the same argument that some feminists have used to justify banning trans people from women’s events. The most high-profile example is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival but other examples are Janice Raymond’s transphobic feminist “classic” The Transsexual Empire. Fortunately many feminists now reject the exclusion of trans women just because someone might feel uncomfortable with their presence. This has come about through years of hard work on the part of trans people and their allies to challenge the validity of the “some women do/might find the presence of trans people makes them uncomfortable” supposed justification and so it is tragically ironic that blanket bans are now being called for by a few trans people associated with Free Pride.

Some individuals on social media asserted that the decision of this small group of individuals must not be questioned because as trans and non-gender-binary people they had a right to hold any view, no matter how discriminatory, without being questioned by other trans people or any cis individual. There was a slightly different line of “argument” that only trans people were allowed to comment (and one charming defender of the decision, a “Kim Thompson”, even took the view that my arguments must be wrong because, in her view, I am a “fat ugly guy” which rather shows the level of sophistication one gets with defenders of exclusionary decisions!). This leads us into the dangerous territory of “everyone in my group is more oppressed than anyone in your group”.

I am strongly of the view that bigotry towards trans and non binary people in Scotland is more widespread and often more violent than homophobic or biphobic bigotry but to say that trans people are the most oppressed so their decisions cannot be challenged is to close off discussion of difficult questions about what we want our communities to be.

If “I’m more oppressed than you” is the basis for decisions that then must not even be discussed then what do we do if someone who has experienced oppression on multiple grounds (say a working class, black, gay male drag queen) says that they may feel uncomfortable with the presence economically privileged people (say a university educated, white, upper middle class lesbian)? This is not to make fun of the reality of multiple oppressions (intersectionality) but to highlight the fact that rather than assert “our decisions to exclude others must not even be discussed because we are trans (or gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or intersex) and our special oppression exempts us from criticism”, the decisions affecting our communities must be made openly and rationally. The “you are not allowed in case I feel uncomfortable” is not a reasonable argument – after all, many people could say they are not comfortable with Christians coming along to Pride, others may say the same about socialist, or leather queens or lgbti people in military uniforms or even dykes on bikes (though I do worry about the environmental pollution).

Some cis drag performers are, no doubt, objectionable, just as may be the case with some trans drag performers and some gay men and some lesbians and some bisexual men or women who get up on stage but to impose a blanket ban is simply reactionary and contrary to the stated aims of Free Pride itself. The lgbti movement would not have made the gains that it has made if it was not for trans people, and cis people, and gender-fuckers and, yes, drag queens.


About Brian Dempsey

Brian Dempsey
Brian Dempsey has been an activist for over 30 years including with the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group, ACTUP London, Outright Scotland, the Equality Network and the Scottish Legal Action Group.

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One comment

  1. Please ask a range of trans people before you say their decision was wrong.

    It has been interesting to see the way that the gay community has been so keen to put entertainers' rights before trans rights. That's all that's happening, no one is excluded from attending or presenting whichever way they desire, just that certain entertainers cannot perform on stage this year. That's it.

    Given that this is the first year of this particular festival, with limited resources, limited time and limited experience in organisation, should they have to vet every single act to pick out which ones are safely free from misogyny and transphobia?

    It's not as if there aren't a million other venues (and another, larger, Pride festival in the same city) where drag acts can perform.

    Equally, you cannot fairly compare situations where a majority has chosen to completely exclude a minority, with a situation where a minority has chosen to exclude a more prominent group from performing on stage, when the content of those acts could upset some of that minority.

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