Every year, as the clock strikes June, the same things happen, almost like it's orchestrated. Brands release their rainbow merchandise and LGBT sandwiches, even though most of the queers I know are vegans who wear black. Bank adverts start espousing vague platitudes such as “love is love” (yes and the sky is the sky). And someone always recycles that since-deleted viral tweet about there being no place for kink at Pride “because of minors”. And then people get mad about it for four to five days. Every June, I am once again a tired, tired lesbian.
This year, the kink at Pride discourse started early, which is fine: It's good to get these things out of the way. My favourite moment was when someone wrote a piece for the Independent that included the line: “A man holding hands with his husband is not the same as a man holding his ‘pup’s’ leash as he leads him around on all fours, clad in leather and wearing a gimp mask.” I would argue it's not that different (connection comes in plenty of shapes!), but that's beside the point. The kink at Pride discourse is tired and needs to retire.
As a brief overview, BDSM, kink, leather and fetish have been embraced at Pride since its inception in the 60s, both in the US post-Stonewall and here in the UK, too. One of the core tenants of Pride is that it is a protest against cultural hegemonies and a celebration of alternative sexualities. That's why it's called “Pride”. These ideas aren't new, and they're not hard to get your head around today. Kink – as an overarching practice that differs for different people – has enjoyed a long history within the LGBTQ rights movement because of what it stands for: another way of doing things.
“Pride commemorates a violent explosion of anger against unjust laws that were used to keep queer people in their place, and which justified repeated acts of police and social brutality,” Jamie Lawson, queer anthropologist and author of Rainbow Revolutions, explains. “People seeking to understand Pride should ask themselves first, why did those laws exist? What social norms were being upheld every time the police raided the Stonewall Inn, or Compton’s Cafeteria? It’s because, fundamentally, queer people offer a different view of what sex is from what mainstream, capitalist, Western society wants it to be – reproductive.”
Kink, Lawson underlines, can be viewed as an exploration of sexuality outside of mainstream structures and “respectable” norms. “The BDSM or kinky communities recentre sex around pleasure, not reproduction. It’s no coincidence that the leather scene is so closely associated with radical, transgressive queerness – the gay leather aesthetic emerges post-World War II in America and it’s been part of queer culture ever since. That kinky, leather aesthetic has been part of queer politics and queer protest since the 1960s – you see it in pictures of early Prides and in the radical protests of the ACT UP movement.”
Lawson is right. If Pride is a protest, it makes sense to include kink within that. In 2021 though, it can also feel like we have more pressing issues to push front and centre – the “kink at Pride” chat feels like a distraction, at best. Over the past few years, transphobia in Britain has reached fever pitch. In 2018, Pride in London got disrupted by anti-trans campaigners demanding to “get the L out of Pride”, with campaigners handing out anti-trans leaflets and marching uninterrupted at the front of the parade until reaching Trafalgar Square.
In 2020, there was no Pride because of COVID. This was the same year that the UK government backtracked on plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act, meaning that trans people are still required to prove who they are by presenting evidence to a panel of doctors and lawyers. This was also the same year that LGBT charities reported a sharp uptick in LGBT youth homelessness as many faced hostile and abusive situations in their family homes over lockdown. Meanwhile, trans-related healthcare effectively ground to a halt across the country. Issues that persisted before the pandemic have become more urgent than ever.
Pride in 2021 will be the first time in two years that LGBTQ people are able to come together to celebrate, but also protest for the rights that we are still so far from reaching. Whether you do or don't want to see someone dressed in assless leather chaps is really besides the point. And regardless, kink will have a place within queer scenes for as long as people continue to have sex and express themselves in different ways.
“LGBTQ+ people who advocate for kink-less, sexless prides need to think about the fact that they are adopting the same position as the people who want the entire community to retreat into the shadows,” says Lawson.
“Always remember that the cishet world wants us to disappear – to vanish. Stonewall taught us that our survival depends on being collectively visible, on being loud and proud and fabulous and free. Not just one subset of the community: all of us.”