Consumerism, Pride, and How We Fight Back: The history of the Gay Shame movement and its relevance today

So reads a hand-written flyer produced by the Gay Shame movement in San Francisco in the 2000s, according to author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on FoundSF.org, a San Francisco digital history archive I consulted as a primary source from that period of the movement.

One early site of the Gay Shame movement was Gay Shame ’98, held at the collective arts space DUMBA in Brooklyn. The event was held as an alternative event to Pride, one that was critical of gay mainstreaming efforts and the commercialization of Pride. Bernstein Sycamore was at that first Gay Shame event at DUMBA, along with activists Dean Spade and Amber Hollibaugh, that featured performances by Penny Arcade, Eileen Myles, Emmanuel Xavier, and Three Dollar Bill.

In his dissertation on the Gay Shame movement of the 1990s and 2000s in relation to political theater, writer and activist Jonah A. Winn-Lenetsky introduces the context of Gay Shame’s counterculture by citing the increasing representation of “‘normal’ and ‘everyday’ gay and lesbian characters on television and film,” as well as the push for marriage equality.

He writes: “This shift reflects the movement of gays and lesbians from the margins to the mainstream, at least in the neoliberal West. Such mainstream status means, among other small acceptances, full inclusion in the consumer marketplace, where individuals have their identities and desires confirmed and performed in advertising and the media. To be mainstream is to participate fully in the bourgeois culture of consumption, where national consumer citizenship takes place.”

Pride in the US began as an uprising at Stonewall and has devolved into corporations and national banks handing out rainbow merch in booths, an observation that has been made so many times in queer leftist circles that it had almost lost meaning for me. But the shift remains a shocking and salient case study in the homogenizing effects of American culture. What began as a protest has morphed into rampant consumerism — which we are supposed to approximate to agency, safety, and fairness.

The liberation of queer people is tied up in all other forms of oppression, including classism, racism, and transphobia. There is no liberation for one until there is liberation for all. Bernstein Sycamore continues her documentation of the organizing she did as part of the Gay Shame movement in San Francisco in 2002, specifically reflecting on the Gay Shame Awards held in Harvey Milk Plaza “at the center of the white-washed gayborhood of the Castro, and bestowed awards in eight categories, including ‘Best Target Marketing’ and ‘Making More Queers Homeless.’”

Digital poster via Gay Shame.

At the time, San Francisco’s mayor was Gavin Newsom, who posed himself as a socially liberal, fiscally conservative Democrat. Bernstein Sycamore describes Newsom as “your average straight, white ruling-class city council member busy criminalizing homeless people for getting in the way of tourist dollars,” even as he “…held a lavish fund-raiser for the LGBT Center, a blatant (and successful) attempt to pander to San Francisco’s gay elite in order to bolster his looming mayoral campaign against several gay candidates.”

When I google the search terms gay shame movement rhode island, the first hit is a link to an Instagram post by the account @radicalgraffiti. The picture shows a sticker posted onto a pole in Providence. The sticker is bright yellow with bold magenta text that reads, in all caps: STREET SWEEPS KILL QUEERS. Upon further inspection, the sticker’s background is covered in the repeating text that associates it with the Gay Shame movement.

Gay Shame lists “Street Sweeps Kill Queers” as one of its ongoing actions on its website, saying that in San Francisco, “Thousands are houseless, while 60,000+ units sit empty. Yet London Breed not only refuses to house people but threatens the lives of San Franciscans by increasing street sweeps, police presence, and utilizing conservatorship to lock up poor people.”

“Street Sweeps Kill Queers” sticker in PVD via @radicalgraffiti.

As I researched the context of the Gay Shame movement in SF during the 2000s, I noticed parallels to PVD now in the politics of Newsom then, as San Francisco became increasingly gentrified, prohibiting affordable living and pushing out people who couldn’t afford soaring housing costs.

The post from @radicalgraffiti was made about half a year ago at the time of reporting and it is no longer there, from what I can infer. The background appears to be in the College Hill area near the RISD academic buildings. I visited the area and the poles had been stripped of most stickers and flyers, no doubt a sanitation effort made in preparation for recent commencements and reunions at Brown and RISD, if not earlier.

The sticker may have been removed, but resentment for Mayor Smiley’s policy decisions since taking office is palpable. Independent journalist and Motif contributor Steve Ahlquist interviewed Mayor Smiley in early May regarding the mayor’s decision to sweep three encampments in Providence where unhoused people were residing in lieu of full shelters.

During the interview, in response to a question about where the most appropriate place was for unhoused members of the encampment to go, Smiley admitted that “It’s not clear to us where they go,” and “In our experience over the last year, there will be individuals, it’s usually single-digit individuals, who will find a different better solution. Then, many will not.”

Seen on Fed Hill.

In Federal Hill, where the average rent cost is around $1,800, there’s a sticker on a pole that reads “Brett Smiley is a raggedy bitch.” The yellow and pink Gay Shame sticker about street sweeps may have been removed, but it seems as though the people of Providence are not easily forgetting the policies that are displacing unhoused community members.

So this Pride month, as we celebrate, dance, dream, rage, disagree, and yes, love, I wonder what would happen if we as an LGBTQ+ community were to hold a Gay Shame Awards, what might we award Mayor Smiley? The Best Husband of a Real Estate Developer Award?

The political ethos of Gay Shame is as relevant as ever, even as the actions may adapt to better approach the current landscape within Rhode Island. Individuals are not at fault for the “vomit” of technicolor plastics overflowing the shelves that the early flyer in SF referenced or even for partaking in more mainstream Pride celebrations; however, individuals can forge a new imagination for what our world looks like, together. And maybe with a healthy dose of Gay Shame antics to radicalize our imaginations.

Keep an eye out for Providence’s fifth annual Dyke & Trans People of Color (DTPOC) March on Friday June 14. For more information about organizing around pinkwashing and queer activism for Palestinians, check out @stonewall_liberation_org and @liberatebostonpride4ever on Instagram.