PHOTO BY Raimond Spekking

Kink at Pride: Unravelling the Perpetual Debate

Op-ed

Pride is a riot. Or rather, pride used to be a riot, back when the community boundaries of to be or not to be were at once more rigid and loose. While the continuous, repressive expectations of violent police crackdowns in the 20th century helped bond the community against a common enemy, internalized homophobia and social boundaries still ran rampant, causing severe stigma and isolation.

However, with Pride now legal and accepted in most developed high-income countries, the barrier of entry for the queer label has been opened, now encompassing a complex network of sexualities and gender expressions that were once ostracized inside the community. For instance, the number of adults in the US who know a transgender individual has increased from 37% in 2017 to 42% in 2021. Evidently, this barrier is still continuously being pushed.

However, new accessibility has given way to an onslaught of discourse about a phenomenon known as "kink at Pride," a catch-all term for groups and individuals who show their support for the event in erotic and often fetishistic attire. Because of the rapid and global expansion of Pride, new discourse regarding whether this behavior should be allowed or even endorsed has acquired prominence on social media platforms, especially Twitter, and resurfaces every passing June.

Among the endless platitudes and "hot-takes," however, the central question remains the same: Is Pride meant to be family-friendly? To be sanitized, clean, perfect? Is kink an inherent threat to this legitimacy? Clearly, there is a reason the debate is referred to as perpetual: the constantly-shifting perspectives have produced a melting pot for disagreements that bite their own tail. This article will aim to unravel the conversation and provide the perspective of a queer teenager as simplistically as this topic allows.

Courtesy of W. Carter under CC Attribution Share-Alike Licence.

Red Pill, Blue Pill

As a talking point, kink at Pride tends to be politicized regardless of context. Because queer discourse does not exist in a bubble, the political position of Pride relative to conservatives, homophobes and transphobes has placed the community in a precarious position, making kink polarizing and often stigmatized as a precaution. How did this come to happen?

The debate around kink at Pride can be divided into two principal points of discussion, both diametrically opposed. The radical viewpoint argues that kink should not only be welcome but necessary at Pride to nurture diversity and acceptance. Conversely, the moderate viewpoint declares that kink is a danger to the community, responsible for polluting and sexualizing Pride through fetishists and sexual maniacs. The division between these groups is more practical than ideological, by which moderates see themselves as pragmatic realists whereas radicals believe they are the inheritors chosen to carry the torch of rebellion.

Nonetheless, both carry the same ultimate goal of recruiting as many people in and outside of the community to this side. Unfortunately, as has been proven in Twitter discourse, this can only result in a recipe for disaster: the conflict of interest causes moderates to see radicals as ruining the reputation of the community, while radicals see moderates as self-degrading and pandering. As a result, to discuss the issue of kink at Pride, one must evaluate (or perhaps re-evaluate) the role and function of pride as an event, which proves particularly challenging given that if a concise solution were possible, it would have already been given.

Think of the Children!

Invariably, "but think of the children!" is one of the first arguments to emerge with even the barest mention of kink at Pride, which is why the phrase itself has become something of a post-ironic tagline. By weaponizing this argument, the moderate viewpoint argues that kink decreases the accessibility of Pride by rendering the queer community offputting to outside observers and especially to children, by representing it through sexualization and fetishism. This is particularly important to take note of, as youth appeals tend to sell effectively in convincing large masses of people to antagonize a particular group.

A famous example of the argument as applied to kinks is an image that circulated on Twitter of a young girl at an American Pride parade petting two grown men wearing dog play costumes, inspiring backlash as a "horror beyond comprehension." Primarily, the girl embodied the fear that kinks at Pride will corrupt queer youth by exploiting their innocence to spread their fetishism invasively.

It is for this reason that moderates express concern: because kink gives conservatives more fuel to degrade the queer community in the public eye. Because of this fear, "think of the children!" has given moderates the power to depict individuals who engage in kink as monstrous and invasive, becoming a precautionary tool to perpetuate the image of Pride that is most inoffensive and, thus, most likely to be accepted.

Taking "but think of the children!" as a basis, the moderate argument claims that the community has a responsibility to safeguard Pride because it serves not only as a means of celebration but as an avenue for representation, due to the high media buzz that inevitably follows it. Being the "most visible manifestation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movements and politics", and one of the few events which unite the community in a concentrated space, the image projected by the event is often one of the most important in feeding public opinion on the community, which places leftists in the vulnerable position of being privy to right-wing scrutiny.

For example, Fox News criticized NYC Pride in 2021 for littering while refusing to comment on similar destruction caused by Trump rallies in the same year, showing that bias from the right is still a concern for Pride to alleviate. Thus, it is understandable that many feel a responsibility to curate its optics in such a way as to avoid attracting unwanted attention - in this way, the moderate viewpoint is a pragmatic one.

While the situation in which the photo of the girl was taken is not known, problematizing kink at Pride also has the side effect of inciting backlash. Specifically, because moderates are largely focused on the optics of kink at Pride as a visualization strategy for the community, they are often criticized by radicals as being spineless pushovers who would rather assimilate into the cis-tem by sanitizing the community than perpetuate "true resistance". As a result, the constant back-and-fourths on community optics tend to overshadow the real and practical question of how to make a space for young people at Pride.

Nudity and the Gen Z Question

As a queer teenager myself, I am largely indifferent to kink, although the looming concern of seeing something I don't want to see accompanies me to every Pride parade. To me, this indicates that kink not only affects the perception of the community from the outside but from the inside as well, as queer people at Pride have the right to feel scandalized or disturbed.

I myself remember very vividly that in Madrid of 2022, I was left with no other option but to leave early, due to the number of people that had amassed - later, the friend I had gone with would tell me that she had felt uncomfortable seeing the group of nudists passing through the street in full view of both us and other teens standing nearby.

Further, she went on to complain that an event as "accepting" as Pride was suspiciously effective at alienating asexual people, simply due to the volume of sexual costumes and attire present. In the simplest terms, this shows that the queer teenage experience is generalizable - while I was practically unphased, she was rightfully taken aback, despite both of us being exposed to the same kink in the same context.

This is why perspectives such as that of the Atlantic, which points out that "zoomers appear to be a more openly queer generation than any other—are they really scandalized by skin and spandex?" are incomplete and dangerous: they fail to recognize that everyone who attends Pride has personal limits, some of which are transgressed by kink, which does confirm that kink as rendering Pride inaccessible for certain demographics, is not entirely untrue. As a result, the question that arises is: can it be acknowledged that kink cannot be tolerated by all queer individuals while avoiding the tendency to antagonize it? If we are to do so, it must be acknowledged that we face several challenges.

Madrid Europride 2007, one of the largest Pride events in Europe. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons under CC CC0 Licence. No changes were made.

Pride as Universal

The owner of a now-deleted Instagram account on queer lifestyle once said in a live video that they "can, in fact, confirm that when you go to Pride people do not have it hanging out." They failed to specify which Pride they attended and where - instead, they assumed their entire audience would understand from context.

This highlights one of the main problems with the discourse currently - many of us overlook the fact that Pride is not a standardized, consistent unit, but instead is contingent on local restrictions and organizations. While many of them may share numerous common denominators, such as heated protest signs, dancers, music, and chants, not all Prides are created equal.

Some may involve the police, others may feature stands or drinks, others may not allow alcohol and, most importantly, not all parades are mixed spaces for adults and minors. While this means that nobody has truly seen it all when it comes to Pride, it also means that not all criticisms are applicable to every type of event.

This renders much of the discourse essentially theoretical - many will criticize Pride as a concept while not doing their research on the events in which kink is allowed. If they actually did, they would realize that kink is not always allowed, or at least not around children. In other words, it would be disingenuous for me to assume that every Pride parade features shameless nudity on the level that Madrid Pride did, and to argue that people "should not have it hanging out" at Pride, one would have to first assume that there are people who have it "hanging out" in the first place.

Evidently, it should first be considered where arguments are originating and what context they are indirectly referencing before jumping to conclusions about kink at Pride. For some Pride parades, Kink discourse is attempting to find a solution to a problem that has already been solved. Thus, we can identify that the debate is flawed from the very beginning by approaching kink as a universal constant that can be solved simply.

However, another popular argument is the question of principle. In the last few years, it has become increasingly popular to ostracize kink as a violation of the objectives of Pride, which are, according to conservatives, to celebrate the community and showcase its diversity. Undeniably, the issue with this definition is that it begs the question: is not kink also an example of diversity, and a queer expression to be celebrated? This has been the reasoning behind many radical counterpoints, which claim that kink benefits from the same historical roots as the queer liberation movement and that, ultimately, Pride is not only a festivity but a riot. As a result, this cycle of opposing values continues and is dictated by both sides' unwillingness to compromise on the other's merits.

Gay bar on Castro St. in San Francisco, 2012. Courtesy of Francisco Folini under CC Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. No changes were made.

Rainbow-Washing and Performance

On some level, both perspectives have value. To advertise Pride as a celebration renders queer culture susceptible to corporatism, diluting its message as a symbol of remembrance for the queer people who have fought for our rights. On the other, to celebrate it as an opportunity to defy the system reinforces the vilification and demonization of the community. Specifically, radicals are concerned about the phenomenon of "rainbow-washing," in which companies advertise themselves as queer-friendly by using flags and rainbows in their marketing during Pride month, without substantially giving back to the community.

For example, this year Budweiser launched a London Pride advertising campaign in which it displayed its cups tinted in a variety of LGBTQ+ flags under the logo "Fly the Flag." They were celebrated for helping organize the London parade, with board members stating: "It’s great to see Budweiser really 'flying the flag' for inclusion, diversity, and freedom of expression. We’re excited to be collaborating with a brand that champions equality as much as we do."

From such positive feedback, it would be almost impossible to tell that the company has donated over $45,000 to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians, including the anti-trans bills of the 2020 and 2022 US election cycles. It is not, then, unrealistic to understand the suspicion behind Pride becoming sanitized.

Because Pride has always been considered a counterculture, many fear that its incorporation into mainstream advertising will create the illusion that "the struggle is over," and that Pride is no longer fighting but rather celebrating the equality that has been so kindly afforded to them by multinationals and corporate giants.

Thus, erasing the struggle of Pride through performativity can create even more difficulty for communities that are still hardly accepted, especially trans and gender-non-conforming individuals. They argue that we cannot pretend that equality has been achieved with flamboyant costumes and party music. This is why many radicals in the debate tend to be non-cis, creating yet another divide that separates the two perspectives.

Kink as History: Heritage in Leather Culture

Because kink is inextricably linked to the history of the community, in many cases through literal connection to the fabric, especially leather, the discussion on Pride is made more complex by raising the question of how to celebrate community history while evolving to suit the current context. Leather bars, meeting places for young queer men during the 1950s and 60s, were instrumental to the "institutional elaboration" of queer culture by offering a safe space for queer youth to come together. This was one of the subcultures that helped unite the community in solidarity.

As a result, leather culture - a loos subculture of individuals with "unorthodox" sexual practices, including kink, helped build and strengthen the community throughout the 20th century. Because both queer culture and kink have traditionally faced similar discrimination, such as being termed impure and predatory, the two are historically inextricable and have nurtured one another's growth. This is the argument commonly made by radicals: if kink has helped to make Pride possible, how could it possibly be separated from its identity?

However, the counterpoint has been brought up that globalization has created a new level of attention on Pride. Thus, the event is once more accessible to queer people whose interests were never tied to leather and kink culture, and more vulnerable to scrutiny by being opened to the public eye and media.

As a result, differing perspectives view the redefinition of Pride as either an opportunity to project a clean and marketable image of the community to gain favorable treatment or to spread the radical message of queer liberation elsewhere. Is Pride cursed to remain forever attached to its roots? Or rather, should we ask whether this is a bad thing at all?

Leatherman wearing BDSM gear and clothing at Rome Pride 2010. Courtesy of "Blackcat" on Wikipedia Commons under CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Licence. No changes were made.

The "Hot Take"

My personal contribution to the discourse, as ambiguous and divided as it is, is that while kink must be legitimized as a valuable component of queer culture, the same holds true that it is no longer the only means for queer people to find liberation in their lived experiences, especially with the rise of new cultural landmarks like the internet and its associated subcultures.

Aesthetics, music, and social media, for example, have become just as powerful a medium to unite the community as kink was for queer people in the 60s: both serve the purpose of fostering solidarity, and so neither should be overlooked as more significant in the current era. Simply put: history moves on, but it doesn't forget.

Having said this, kink is not without its dangers. First and foremost, because it encourages the liberation of repressed sexuality and sexual expression, we should also disavow the radical tendency to base all queer culture on living on extremes. This is because to consider kink and Pride inseparable is to inherently sexualize the community, creating the impression that queer culture is erotic by default. Does this not threaten to alienate groups in the community already lacking visibility? Distancing them from one of the few events that celebrate queer bodies and identities, kink can serve as either a bridge or a dead limb.

Two men engaging in "pony play" by pulling a cart, simulating horses - a popular kink performed at San Francisco Pride, 2009. Courtesy of Javier Kohen under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Licence. No changes were made.

Thus, while kink is deserving of our respect, this should be done conditionally. From my perspective, when a kink becomes a burden, it is when it starts to be taken as culture rather than a subculture. In other words, when it is inflated beyond its proportions. This can be potentially detrimental to young queer people.

To grow up and be formed by the belief that queer culture is necessarily erotic, whether or not this eroticism is stigmatized, creates expectations that openly queer culture is necessarily flamboyant and parading, which leads to the internalization of homophobic arguments. "Don't act like them, or you'll be a freak, or you'll be ostracized." This is why kink is precarious: because the liberation that it affords ironically holds the power to restrict our liberty.

For instance, young queer people who may not yet be out to themselves may take the wrong idea that openly queer people deserve to be shamed and berated for exposing their identities in public, which reinforces a dangerous cycle in which very real emancipation is seen as performativism. While this does not mean that kink at pride is intrinsically wrong, it does mean that, for better or for worse, it facilitates the antagonization and demonization of queer people in the media, which contributes to the reduction of the number of spaces in which it can be performed.

Principle and Theory

Whether the community in itself should care about kink as a principle is another discussion entirely. Let's be real, many queer people simply can't afford to be openly berated, and so will likely have a hard time understanding the "pride as a riot" line of reasoning. Regardless, the same can be said about the opposite solution: to completely erase kink from the community is to obscure a real and present branch of the queer identity by diluting the queer label into a sanitized and unrepresentative sample of what it is to be "queer".

In reality, no representation of queer people at Pride will avoid reinforcing internalized homophobia in some way, simply because everything is vulnerable to being weaponized by the right (or, for that matter, by the left) to perpetuate homophobic and transphobic agendas, whether intentionally or unintentionally: even positive representation can trigger negative responses as suppressed homophobia manifests in polarizing hostilities for the different ways to deal with oppression. Assimilate? Rebel? Apologize? Shame? Stay quiet? Speak up? Reject it all?

While feuds are necessarily inevitable, the discussion about kink at Pride is flawed and stagnant because it still revolves around arguments made decades ago, during which time new demographics and political movements have changed the landscape of Pride to a more multivocal lens, if it already wasn't before.

Martino Fabbri
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Marti is a junior in high school currently studying in the UAE. They are involved in journalism and debate circles both locally and virtually, with particular interest in the political sphere and international relations. They enjoy playing various instruments, reading, drawing, writing and listening to music.