Kate Brennan Harding reflects on Pride, pink-washing and the meaning of allyship.
It has been 22 years since my first Pride March in Dublin. I can remember the rush of nerves coursing through my body making every fibre of my being jitter and jangle. Filled with the energy of excitement, rebellion, empowerment, and fear. I was 18. ‘Queer as Folk’ and ‘Ellen’ had been my gateway moments to stepping into my queer lesbian dyke self. Some people still flinch when I use the word dyke. I love it, the discomfort of it. The strength of reclaiming words meant to hurt me.[restrict]
Pride in 1999 was a protest march; homosexuality had only been decriminalised in 1993. We were in our infancy, and sure, I was only a baby dyke standing on the shoulders of those who had marched before. I didn’t know very many people; it was as if some force inside of me propelled my legs into the Georges St Arcade at the age of 17, knowing there was a person in a shop that I needed to look at, to catch a glimpse of.
That person was Izzy Kamikaze.
Like a stray puppy at the door of her gallery, I would stand outside pretending to look at magazines, rooted to the spot. Thankfully Izzy understood. I don’t quite remember how we first started talking, but somehow I ended up having tea and so a part of the puzzle of my identity was put in place.
Izzy told me the story of being queer in Ireland, she passed on her living history of pride and activism in Ireland for the LGBTQ+ community. I felt the significance of everything. I was a hormone-filled teenager who was stepping into my skin.
I stood at the Garden of Remembrance, which was covered in colour, witnessing people displaying their true selves.
People stood on footpaths, pointing, laughing, mocking; embarrassed by our pride. I remember a milk carton being thrown, and still, we marched. Back then the parade took over one lane of the street. Buses pulled up beside us, women stared, children in buggies smiled at the rainbows, whistles, and the cacophony of us. I will never forget the feeling when rounding the bend at Christ Church, we had made it. Gathering at the amphitheatre in Wood Quay, queers spilling out smiling, together in power.
I marched every year after that. Our community grew and Dublin opened her streets. I would attend Pride in various locations around the country too. Cork, Galway, and North West Pride were firm fixtures for flirting.
Because Pride is so much. Of course, it is about celebrating our LGBTQ+ community and culture. It is about feeling safe knowing you can look someone in the eye and admire them. It is about being visible and claiming our space in the world. It is a march, it is a protest. It is about standing up for those in our community who are marginalised and oppressed, it is about shining bright so our queer family in other parts of the world can see us and know they are not alone. It’s about taking actions to help make a change, and also, of course, sometimes it’s about getting the shift.
I have understood and welcomed some companies throwing support behind the queer community. Especially smaller enterprises who are genuine in their support. But for several years now I have found myself growing tired of the mass commercialism attached to Pride, sticking rainbows on logos, homogenised heteronormative images of aesthetically pleasing men, zero visibility of dykes like me or trans folks.
I was DJing at Stephen’s Green at the last Dublin Pride I was a part of in 2018. Amongst a sea of Google, Facebook, and Linkedin floats, I could not find our community groups, and that’s because the most important people, the activists who work daily for our community, were at the back of the parade.
Their voices were drowned out by the purchasing power of multinational groups which were using Pride as a social marketing strategy. I was shocked. I know people who work for these companies will say that it is important to them to have a company that celebrates diversity. I agree, it is.
It is also important that the same companies know their place, which is NOT at the head of our march. It is not dominating our stories, it is not slapping pink everywhere and expecting that makes them inclusive. Multinationals are welcome to listen to us, to support us, but not to own us. Capitalism is eating our pride. When it truly matters, do the multinational corporations plastering rainbows all over their socials actually stand with the LGBTQ+ community globally? Or do these companies operate a territory-sensitive, gay-for-the-day marketing campaign? I have to ask, where are these same companies making a difference to people like me in countries where being LGBTQ+ runs the very real danger of being assaulted, abused, imprisoned, or murdered?
In my view, our straight allies must speak up when they see pinkwashing. Please ask questions of companies that say they are proud, ask them do they actively contribute, and help LGBTQ+ organisations? Do they tackle homophobia in the workplace? If they are a multinational company, do they stand with the LGBTQ+ community in countries that need it most?
So now I want to talk about shame and how I battle it. I want to shine a light on something that for over twenty years has and still can be anxiety-inducing. This is so basic, so normalised that I struggle to understand why it is a thing, but it is, and straight people, this is where you can make a difference daily.
I have very short hair; I go to a barbershop. I wear masculine clothes and wear masculine scents. I am a larger-bodied woman. I am a proud soft butch lesbian. I don’t look like everyone else – apart from all the other dykes with frosted tips and occasional swagger. When it comes to using public bathrooms, I have to brace myself for ‘the look’ internally. Women will often take a step back, stare, give a knowing glance at a friend in the mirror. In nightclubs – remember them?! – I have received looks of disgust; my very existence repulsive, or joke-worthy.
For twenty years I have learned to keep my head down, not to make eye contact, wash my hands, and exit. This is exhausting. When I speak about this with my cis straight pals, they cannot believe it, but it is an everyday occurrence for me and I know I am not alone.
This pride month I am asking allies of the LGBTQ+ community to look past the rainbows plastered everywhere, to see beyond the pinkwashing. To take a stand for us nationally and internationally, and when those of us who don’t conform to gender norms need to have a pee, treat us with pride. Queers are not just for June, we are for life.