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  • Writer's pictureDamian Kerlin

The future of queer celebration

Many a Sunday morning I've spent in bed nursing a hangover from the night before. A time spent scrolling through my phone at pictures of what happened, stories on social I've hoped others are yet to see and messages to people which should never have been sent. For many, from the outside looking in this is no different to any other pub, bar or nightclub, but for the LGBTQ+ community queer gatherings are a rejection of queer isolation: of hiding in the closet, of believing oneself to be alone in one’s identity, of fearing that embracing one’s truth would result in physical harm.

Historically, this defiance has been secretive, via underground drag balls, code-named coffee klatches, or darkened cruising spots. In recent decades, it’s often been more out and proud. Either way, what’s resulted for many of our community is a way of life in which physical closeness is sacred. When you’re alienated from the families or communities you grew up with, when society hasn’t given you a road map for what your adult life should look like, or when the fulfilment of your desires has been stigmatised, the pursuit of pleasure and connection often becomes more important.

Last week Brighton Pride cancelled for the second consecutive year due to ‘uncertainties’ around mass gatherings and as Pride season unfolds many are expected to follow suit. As someone who grew up in an area with no LGBTQ+ representation, these events were crucial to my understanding of the LGBTQ+ community and the acceptance of my identity.

In a normal year, Pride means crowds. Parades make for colourful, moving pageants that can go for miles. Spectators swarm streets in rainbow or glitter-coated clothes or a distinct lack of clothing. Orbiting the main festivities are brunches, rallies, concerts, panel discussions, and film screenings thrumming at capacity. Huge outdoor concerts sell out months in advance.

Pride is, in other words, not made for social distancing.

Then again, neither are most of the enjoyable expressions of queer life year-round: the dance nights and book clubs and holiday spots at which people out of step with straight society suddenly fit in. In this way, modern Pride joyfully embraces what happened at the Stonewall Inn 52 years ago, when bar-goers fought against police attempts to keep them apart. Both before and after that event, the LGBTQ+ community has often been defined by exactly what is now squelched by the coronavirus: the pleasure of assembly.

Gina Tonic in her article Losing queer spaces is affecting my self-esteem for The Independent said,

“Queer spaces, however, have always championed those who choose to stand out, including those of bigger frames. From Divine to Latrice Royale, there’s a lot of body positivity to be found on the gay party scene.

But, once quarantine hit, those like me lost their safe spaces. Instead, we were left with our own thoughts and weight gain warnings in the form of memes and government guidelines.

While finding our self-worth from outside sources might not be the best route for our self-esteem, allowing ourselves to be supported by our communities should never be seen as a negative.”

In many ways, queer spaces are akin to church: a place to regularly gather and find meaning. A space to look forward to every week and a way to feel connected. For most of our history, we couldn’t build community and form relationships that were out in the open, so the way that the queer community created spaces for themselves were to carve them out in bars and places in the underground.

Queer identity was partly forged on the dance floor. Many historians trace modern notions of homosexual identity back to cabarets and speakeasies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Drag took root in dives and dance halls. Stonewall was a bar before it was a synecdoche for gay liberation. AIDS activists funded themselves with fabulous dance galas.

Whatever nightlife does come back, it likely will not look the way it did before. COVID-19-era restrictions may sound incompatible with the let-loose-and-connect ethos of queer gathering but in fundamental ways, the challenge of reconciling safety and pleasure is a familiar one for the LGBT+ community and one, we will once again overcome.

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