The debate over 'kink at Pride' divides the internet, but the kink community has been part of queer protest and celebration since Stonewall

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The debate over 'kink at Pride' divides the internet, but the kink community has been part of queer protest and celebration since Stonewall
Germany, Munich: participants of the traditional parade Christopher Street Day take to the streets of the inner city under the motto "colourful is the new white and blue".picture alliance / Getty Images
  • "Kink at Pride" discourse is a widely bemoaned, annual online debate around Pride Month.
  • It involves discussions about whether or not kink and fetish items should be allowed at LGBTQ Pride.
  • The discourse also plays into tensions in LGBTQ history between assimilation and liberation.

Like clockwork, the weeks ahead of this year's Pride Month saw another online debate over whether kink - in this sense, meaning people wearing leather, harnesses, puppy hoods, leashes, and fetish items - has a place at events meant to celebrate LGBTQ people and identity.

The discourse itself revolves around whether kink apparel and paraphernalia render the space unsafe for minors or nonconsensually involve observers. But it's also rooted in respectability politics - and a push for LGBTQ people to be seen as "acceptable," or even "normal," in a heteronormative society.

Kink is an umbrella term referring to specific sexual desires people have, which can encompass a range of preferences from dirty talk and spanking to BDSM, pup play, and more. Kink communities are very visible at Pride, though people of all sexualities can be into kink.

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The controversy over whether kink should be allowed at Pride is merely the latest in a line of questions about who is considered a part of the queer community and who gets to participate in ostensibly queer spaces.

The eruption online, which has occurred repeatedly in the past, ignores the fact that kink has historically been a part of Pride and the LGBTQ rights movement as a whole.

People began to challenge the presence of kink at Pride in major online discussions in the late 2010s

Discussions around the presence of kink, BDSM, and leather at Pride have been emerging online and in media coverage and blogs across the past decade, with increasing intensity across the latter half of the 2010s.

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The online discussions reached a fever pitch leading up to Pride in 2019 when a tweet asking people to not "bring your k*nks/fet*shes to pride" because "there are minors @ pride & this can sexualize the event" went viral, as HuffPost Canada reported. And in 2020, PinkNews reported that the discourse continued, even though many Pride events were canceled worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2021, after a year of quarantine and few in-person Pride celebrations, the discussion erupted once again on social media in late May.

Many social media users recycled years-old arguments that kink at Pride stands to harm children or forces passersby to nonconsensually participate in sexual activity. Of course, those claims also prompted backlash and rebuttals.

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This kind of LGBTQ-focused inclusion discourse is far from new

Tumblr, in particular, has a reputation for being a breeding ground for queer discourse, and online discourse in general - there's a modern social-media adage that all discourse already happened on Tumblr.

"We've absolutely seen discussion on Tumblr about people having this debate 'yet again,'" Cates Holderness, Tumblr's Trend and Community Expert, told Insider, adding that kink at Pride has been a topic of discussion on the platform for many years.

"Many users have expressed both amusement and frustration about seeing the 'kink at Pride' debate happening elsewhere," Holderness said.

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Charli Clement reported for Vice in 2021 that much of the discourse around queer identity and community on TikTok, an app famously linked to Gen Z - the queerest generation ever, according to one Gallup poll - is reminiscent of discussions that happened earlier in the 2010s on Tumblr.

Part of that can likely be attributed to the fact that many queer people, specifically young ones, populate platforms like TikTok and Tumblr, which says that one out of four of its users are LGBTQIA+, and 48% of its users are Gen Z.

The debate over 'kink at Pride' divides the internet, but the kink community has been part of queer protest and celebration since Stonewall
Three men wearing dog leather costumes during the Antwerp Pride parade in 2019.Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Holderness also raised ace-inclusionary discourse - discussions around whether or not asexual and aromantic people fall under the LGBTQ community - as an example of a similar discussion that she's observed on the platform, as well as debates around the bisexual and pansexual identifiers.

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All of these discussions have one thing in common: litigation of who gets to be queer and how they get to be queer.

Kink has historically been a part of Pride

Kink has been a part of Pride since its inception in 1969.

While drag isn't considered kink in 2021, it was considered sexually deviant in the 20th century. In 1969, New York City still had laws that prohibited "cross-dressing."

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Many of the leaders of the queer liberation movement, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, had cross-dressing charges on their records and were considered "kinky" by the definition of the time.

The debate over 'kink at Pride' divides the internet, but the kink community has been part of queer protest and celebration since Stonewall
LGBT pioneer Sylvia Rivera leads an ACT-UP march past New York's Union Square Park on June 26, 1994.Justin Sutcliffe/ AP

The leather community, which is under the umbrella of kink, also has deep historic roots in queer spaces, dating back to the 1940s. Leather bars became safe spaces for queer people in the 1950s and 1960s, creating a chosen family and community for queer youth estranged from unaccepting families, according to "Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice" by Caroll Truscott.

The famous Stonewall Uprising, a rebellion by queer people against the police that took place in 1969 and is considered the catalyst behind the queer liberation movement, also has connections to kink.

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On that fateful June night in 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, one of the largest private gay clubs in the US at the time. The patrons of the bar - trans women of color, homeless queer teens, drag queens, lesbians, and leather daddies - fought back.

The debate over 'kink at Pride' divides the internet, but the kink community has been part of queer protest and celebration since Stonewall
UNITED STATES - JUNE 28: Stonewall Inn nightclub raid. Crowd attempts to impede police arrests outside the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Those who fought hand in hand at the Stonewall uprisings against the police - and those who later fought against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and continue to do so today - included many leather daddies, people who engage in BDSM, and drag queens and kings.

Marriage equality has become a flashpoint in debates around Pride

Though the tension between the goals of queer liberation and assimilation into a straight society has existed since the first stone was thrown during the Stonewall Uprising, marriage equality consistently emerges as a prominent flashpoint in contemporary conversations about whom Pride is for.

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Michael Bronski, a professor of the Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University, told Insider that in the past, many LGBTQ people viewed marriage equality as a step towards that assimilation, rather than liberation.

"Many people wanted to frame marriage as a form of heteronormativity, as a marker of acceptance," Bronski said. "I think it's a false designation because the way you look at it as it's simply a legal contract equality under the law."

According to Bronski, what made marriage equality a question of assimilation "is so much about the symbol of what gay marriage means to people."

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With marriage equality came the idea that the only respectable queer person is one who wanted 2.5 kids, a white picket fence, and "the American Dream."

The debate over 'kink at Pride' divides the internet, but the kink community has been part of queer protest and celebration since Stonewall
Stuart Gaffney (L) and John Lewis, plaintiffs in the 2008 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case, celebrate while traveling along Market Street during the annual Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, California on June 28, 2015, two days after the US Supreme Court's landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

While queer folks who had the access and privilege to fit this mold were pushed to the front of the movement, those on the margins who made the queer liberation movement possible - like trans folks, addicts, people of color, working-class people, houseless folks, sex workers, and kinksters - were left behind.

Resistance to outliers at Pride is nothing new

The question of assimilation versus liberation has been a source of dissonance in the queer rights movement since its birth.

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Only four years after the Stonewall Uprising, Sylvia Rivera addressed a large crowd of white cisgender gay men at NYC Pride 1973. The crowd booed, jeered, and told Rivera, one of the mothers of the queer liberation movement, to shut up.

In her iconic "Y'all better quiet down" speech, Rivera spoke about being beaten and thrown in jail in the name of gay liberation, and how the privileged members of the crowd were leaving behind queer people who were transgender, sex workers, or in jail - those on the margins of queer society who didn't fit into a "respectable" paradigm.

But despite these revolutionary roots, Pride has ballooned into a corporate-backed effusion of rainbows that leads some to question whether it, as Vox's Alex Abad-Santos wrote, has any political impact anymore.

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Though Pride has become more sanitized over the years, alternatives that are more inclusive to those on the margins do exist. The Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, for example, is a BDSM and leather festival that has been put on for 38 years and allows kinksters to show up in their best attire. While leather folks in similar outfits still have a place at Pride, the growing conversation shines a shaky light on their future at mainstream Pride events.

"Kink at pride" discourse is part of a Pride identity crisis

Ultimately, this discussion underscores the reality that the LGBTQ+ umbrella is home to different identities and politics, all of which have different goals.

There is a "banner that we're all one big community, and that's just not true," Bronski told Insider. "We have different interests. We have different positionalities. We have different political goals. We have different political aims. We have different political strategies."

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There are also concerns as to whether Pride, in its current celebratory state, reckons with issues in the community like police brutality and the fact that, as Insider reported, 2020 was the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States. That theme also emerges in discussions about whether or not police, particularly after a year of reckoning over police brutality and the killings of Black Americans, should be allowed at Pride.

Still, as this tension continues, it speaks to a volume of historical dissonance in the LGBTQ rights movement between acceptance and liberation.

And if the pattern follows in the future, we'll all be talking about it again next year.

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