The 2020 coronavirus lockdowns have dramatically interrupted public life throughout the United States. Easter and Passover celebrations were shunted online or cancelled outright. So, too, the central public liturgy of the contemporary cosmopolis, the Pride parade. For our leading cities and their elites, this is of far greater consequence than suppressing any traditional holy day.
In June 1970, America’s first gay pride parades hit the streets. Four U.S. cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco—hosted crowds ranging from several hundred to a few thousand marching with homemade signs declaring “pride,” “power,” and “liberation.” Like the 1969 Stonewall riots that inspired them, early parades began as intentional acts of disruption, combining political protest with cultural defiance. Fifty annual marches later, Pride parades are backed by our most powerful individuals and institutions. Fortune 500 corporations bankroll them. Senators, governors, and mayors campaign through them. Major league sports teams, churches, hospitals, government bureaucracies, protective services, universities, and K–12 schools march in them. In the largest American cities, over a million spectators line the streets to wish and be wished “Happy Pride.”
The 2020 coronavirus lockdowns have dramatically interrupted public life throughout the United States. Easter and Passover celebrations were shunted online or cancelled outright. So, too, the central public liturgy of the contemporary cosmopolis, the Pride parade. For our leading cities and their elites, this is of far greater consequence than suppressing any traditional holy day. While cities will certainly miss the economic benefits, the greater consequence is an interruption of the cultural work of expressing our society’s core dogmas and reenacting our society’s central myth.
In normal years, Pride parades punctuate an entire month dedicated to the celebration of “diversity.” In June 1999, President Bill Clinton declared the first national Pride Month. Twenty years later, June is as teeming with rainbows as December is with reindeer. The Pride flag flies above embassies, state capitols, and stadiums. Rainbow stripes adorn city crosswalks. Corporate logos take on multicolored forms across social media. Even consumer brands primarily associated with children—Oreo, Chips Ahoy!, Lucky Charms, Honey Maid, Goldfish—use June to display their acceptance of every sexual identity.
Why and wherefore this annual national carnival of queerness? Mainstream society’s enthusiasm for Pride is no doubt motivated in part by marketing and virtue signaling. Some have argued that corporate America’s “performative wokeness” is a legitimation strategy aimed at culturally left elites who might otherwise support the breakup of tech giants or the taxation of Wall Street. Others have noted that rich consumers with ample disposable income tend to be cultural progressives, and therefore it simply makes commercial sense—especially for luxury brands and high-end consumer services firms—to embody the progressive values of their most desirable clientele. These arguments aren’t wrong, but they say nothing about what attracts elites to progressive causes in the first place. They are silent, in particular, on what makes an association with queerness so alluring. After all, Americans are not turning out in the millions for annual civic celebrations of abortion rights, slavery reparations, or gun control. In the annals of performative wokeness, Pride holds pride of place.
Queerness has conquered America because it is the distilled essence of the country’s post-1960s therapeutic culture. The therapeutic originates with Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. From its beginning, the goal of psychoanalysis has been the salvation of the suffering self. Therapeutic practices of introspection seek to reveal the unacknowledged sources of psychic suffering. Sexual desire plays an especially prominent role in therapeutic narratives. For Freud, sexual drive was the engine of the personality. He believed both men and women are bisexual in nature and direct their sexual drives toward diverse objects. In this way, the therapeutic not only obscures gender differences and grants wide berth to atypical sexual expressions, it also blurs the distinction between normality and pathology, making every self a neurotic one on an eternal quest for “mental health.”
Freud himself has largely fallen out of favor. Yet Freud’s therapeutic mission continues unabated, even heightened in the coronavirus era when no less an authority than the World Health Organization urges “self-care” practices as we face new stresses of work, home, and everyday life. Therapeutic discourse organizes our lives around emotional experience and a narrative of emotional suffering and healing. The therapeutic ethos holds up the authentic and liberated self as the ideal of character. Therapeutic politics instructs us to overcome both internal repression and external oppression by creating a society in which not simply the pursuit of happiness but happiness itself is a right owed to all. The long-running popularity of American psychotherapeutic or “mind-cure” movements including transcendentalism, New Thought, Christian Science, Scientology, and New Age spirituality has made the United States unusually fertile soil for the therapeutic. Its influence overflows the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and counseling to fill schools, churches, corporations, and the state. It stands today as our national collective moral philosophy.
Queerness owes its privileged status to its relationship to the therapeutic. It epitomizes three central therapeutic values: individuality, authenticity, and liberation. Individual rights, of course, have long been the beating heart of the American creed. Yet the therapeutic turns traditional American individualism into individuality, wedding the former to a romantic sensibility of the self as a unique and creative spirit whose reason for existence is its own expression. None have summarized such individuality better than America’s philosopher-king, former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in 1992 famously defended “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Although Kennedy wrote these words in defense of the right to abortion, he quoted them when ending the last of America’s sodomy laws in 2003 and echoed them as he constitutionalized same-sex marriage in 2015 as an expression of the right “to define and express [one’s] identity.”
The therapeutic presents queerness as the exemplar of individuality. Barack Obama declared eight LGBT Pride months during his eight years in the White House and through each of them urged everyone “to celebrate the great diversity of the American people.” New York Pride advertised its 2018 festival under the slogan “Defiantly Different,” speaking to the “tenacious individuality” of LGBT persons and celebrating “the next wave of creative thinkers prepared to score their own trails, and each distinctive individual in between.” The Madison Avenue trade magazine Adweek observed that “embracing the rainbow . . . is about embracing [one’s] unique individuality,” a cultural fact demonstrated by the hundreds of brands doing exactly that through Pride Month. Thus T-Mobile makes a “commitment to supporting individuality and equality” when celebrating “#UnlimitedPride,” and General Mills promotes “a culture of belonging that embraces and celebrates employees’ differences” under the Pride flag. Budweiser is “creating a world where everyone can live the life they love” with rainbow Pride bottles. As an official sponsor of WorldPride 2019, L’Oréal informs consumers, “We celebrate individuality and champion self-expression.” DKNY gets right to the point selling its “pride tee” blazoned with the message “100% Me.”