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Staging LGBTQ Protest in the United States: Exploring the Politics of Theatricality

Mises en scène des protestations LGBTQ aux États-Unis. Politique de la théâtralité
Escenificación de las protestas LGBTQ en los Estados Unidos. Política de la teatralidad
Guillaume Marche


Cet article étudie les modalités physiques, discursives et visuelles selon lesquelles, aux États-Unis, le mouvement LGBTQ met en scène ses revendications et sa rébellion. L’article demande si la « mise en scène » doit s’entendre de façon littérale ou figurée et examine les interactions entre performeur∙ses et auditoire, que la performance soit explicite ou implicite, voire involontaire. L’auditoire et la scène sont un angle heuristique car, si la mise en scène diffère selon que l’auditoire est interne ou externe à la communauté LGBTQ, ce caractère interne ou externe n’est ni fixe ni inhérent et la frontière peut fluctuer. Les scènes elles-mêmes ne sont pas des données fixes, mais des contingences tributaires de facteurs sociaux, politiques, culturels et économiques. L’article analyse des exemples qui révèlent la forme particulièrement théâtrale que peut prendre la rébellion LGBTQ et montrent que la mise en scène peut politiser des pratiques qui ne sont pas a priori politiques.

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  • 1 Among the various forms of the inclusive acronym, I use here LGBTQ rather than LGBTQ+, which usuall (...)
  • 2 I thank the anonymous peer-reviewers for their attentive reading and perceptive, thought-provoking (...)

1Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ)1 mobilizations, in the United States as elsewhere, are especially propitious to the study of how protest is staged, not simply because they often resort to theatrical forms of action, but also because of the sheer variety of these forms.2 From annual Pride marches to diverse theatrical practices including drag performances, street festivals, and political theater, LGBTQ movements and communities have embraced a broad repertoire of staging LGBTQ identity claims. In order to get a better grasp of what the staging of LGBTQ protest implies, this paper considers the physical, verbal, and visual aspects of how protest is and has been staged since the inception of the contemporary LGBTQ movement in the United States at the turn of the 1970s.

2Beyond literal “staging,” when movement participants actually put up a theatrical performance, it is worth examining forms of action where protest is staged in a more figurative manner. That is why this paper also explores the complex interactions between performers and audiences, whether the performance is explicit or more subtle, possibly involuntary. Examining these issues in relation to the LGBTQ movement invites a discussion in terms of the performativity of gender and sexuality, as we perform gender and sexual orientation in ways that may or may not fall neatly within the normative, binary divides of female vs. male and homosexual vs. heterosexual (Butler). The staging of LGBTQ identities, protest, and rebellion also evokes the tension between the disclosing or concealing, the veiling or unveiling of non-conforming sexual orientations and gender identities (Sedgwick).

3In order to unwind this rather thick spool of issues, a heuristic angle is that of audiences and stages. Performances may indeed be staged for a specific intended or likely audience, or the contours of the actual audience may in fact lie beyond the control of the performer(s). Of particular interest in the case of a minority-based identity and movement, is whether the audience is internal or external to the community, or somewhere in between, since the staging of LGBTQ protest may vary accordingly. By the same token, audiences are not inherently internal or external, but that boundary may fluctuate. Likewise, the stages on which LGBTQ protest is performed are not given or fixed, but contingent on larger social, political, as well as cultural and economic factors, such as national or local political cultures and environments, the rise or decline of the movement’s popularity, or the demographic and economic condition of urban LGBTQ neighborhoods.

  • 3 Most of the examples and discussions presented in this contribution are taken from my book, Sexuali (...)

4The following pages explore these issues by examining a variety of examples that reveal the ways in which protest and rebellion may take on a theatrical form, or the staging itself may endow some practices with a degree of politicity. Politicity may be defined as the character that makes an individual or collective action, statement, performance, or artistic work somehow political. Of particular interest is whether politicity is intrinsic to certain forms of action or expression –as Jacques Rancière, for example, insists is the case of literature–, or contingent on the causes, circumstances, or goals of their implementation. As LGBTQ mobilizations since the turn of the 1970s, and more particularly since the 1980s and the challenges of AIDS, have resorted to a wide array of forms of action that range from the most institutional (e. g., electoral politics and litigation) to the most informal or infrapolitical (e. g., cultural expressivism, festivals), the politicity of LGBTQ identity expression should indeed not be taken for granted. Instead, it is important to question whether and how the theatrical dimension that is intrinsic to the staging of protest makes it more or less political. This exploration begins with Pride marches, a prime example of how LGBTQ identity and protest are staged in the United States. Then the paper discusses how the staging of LGBTQ protest at Pride marches is challenged with more rebellious counter-staging initiatives. In order to more directly address the issues of politicity in the staging of LGBTQ protest, I then consider what may be regarded as a paradigmatic example, namely the queer theatricality of ACT UP. This leads me to finally present more problematic forms of staging in LGBTQ subcultures.3

I/ Staging LGBTQ Pride at Marches

5One of the forms of collective action that most emblematically illustrate how LGBTQ protest is staged is Pride marches. The latter were conceived of, from the early 1970s, as strategic commemorations of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, and hence as collective coming out demonstrations that materialized the early gay liberation movement’s urge to “come out of the closets into the streets” (Young 11-12; D’Emilio 237-238; Armstrong and Crage 739-744). Pride marches involve using both collective visibility as an empowering force to be out individually, and a festive appropriation of space in order to make visible various facets of a fundamentally diverse community and movement (Johnston and Waitt 108-112). Their degree of politicity, however, has increasingly been subject to caution, which calls into question the effectiveness of staging in advancing political causes.

6The form of Pride celebrations in the United States has always differed, depending on the time period and location (Armstrong and Crage). Their meanings vary from that of protests, festivals, parades to street parties–or all of the above. As homosexuality and transidentity have become more and more accepted or acceptable, less discredited or discreditable (Goffman), Pride marches have lost some of their rebellious edge, they are increasingly perceived and promoted as festive celebrations, so that it is sometimes difficult for attendees, and sometimes participants, be they LGBTQ people themselves or straight allies, to realize, or indeed accept, that they are both festive and political events. Arguably, the two are not in contradiction with each other, and Pride marches can indeed be considered all the more political as they are festive. Yet, external –and sometimes internal– audiences may fail to consider the two as complementary. Pride march attendees and participants may thus value the festiveness more than the politics, leading to situations where different audiences have diverging, sometimes conflicting perceptions and expectations.

  • 4 Interestingly, this famous quote was difficult to ascertain. It is often cited as quoted by Michael (...)

7In other words, for anyone who is not attentive or wise to their more or less implicit historic or political significance, Pride marches can always seem on the verge of being trivial, especially when the agenda that they stand for is not taken seriously. On the contrary, in situations where people risk life and limb for taking part in a Pride march, as in Turkey or several eastern European countries like Russia or Serbia, the political import of Pride marches cannot be evaded. But in liberal democracies where a large measure of equal rights, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, has been achieved, attendees who are not attuned to the seriousness of other issues–like the urgent agenda of trans people’s rights and access to assisted reproductive technology (ART) for all women–may erroneously feel that “gay rights” have been achieved and there is no real need for political protest anymore. That was the conservative gay journalist and political commentator Andrew Sullivan’s prediction in a 1996 interview in the LGBTQ magazine Out: “Following the legalization of same-sex marriage ‘and a couple of other things,’ he [said], ‘I think we should have a party and close down the gay rights movement for good’” (Schwartz 90).4 If this is the assessment of a renowned, albeit controversial, gay commentator like Sullivan, the significance of claiming LGBTQ rights is all the more likely to be lost on audiences that are not directly concerned by the cause.

8So, what is left of LGBTQ rebellion, protest, or even just politics in the Pride marches of major United States cities in the early twenty-first century, particularly in the eyes of external audiences? Are they not indeed just a very unrebellious carnival? Of course, a carnival is always more than just a temporary, more or less harmless release of social norms, constraints, and hierarchies (Godet; Hammond). Additionally, even the social movements that are considered most serious have always resorted to very unserious, sometimes ostensibly trivial modes of protest –from anti-Vietnam war protest theater to Bread and Puppet (Martin 86-124), to more recent examples like Billionaires for Bush or Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir (Lechaux). But aside from that, what is left of politics in Pride marches is that they place sheer pleasure at the heart of what is probably the most visible, best-known expression of the LGBTQ movement. And that is far from irrelevant for a movement dedicated to the rights of a minority that are hampered in the pursuit of their sexual happiness. So if the measure of the relevance of a strategy, or a repertoire of contention (Tilly 42), is how well the movement’s means are tailored to the movement’s ends, it is indeed no wonder that annual Pride marches have endured for more than fifty years and that they have spread worldwide.

II/ Challenging LGBTQ Pride Marches

9But rebellion often works in rather indirect, sometimes unexpected, or even paradoxical ways. Thus, while Pride marches are often perceived as the most visible, if not the ultimate form of collective LGBTQ political expression, they are also contested spaces of protest within the LGBTQ movement and communities: “Stonewall was not a party” is a slogan that has spread considerably in the past two decades to challenge the institutionalization and commodification of Pride marches, in reference to the 1969 riots that they were initially meant to commemorate. In many cities in the United States, the event has become more of a show than a protest –a parade or festival, instead of an actual march or political demonstration. In their early years, Pride marches were literally intended to demonstrate the presence of queer individuals willing to appear in broad daylight. Part of their original raison d’être was indeed to make visible a minority that otherwise could remain invisible, both in the interest of legitimizing and despecificating nonconforming sexualities and gender expressions (Armstrong and Crage; Bernstein; Young).

  • 5 These remarks focus specifically on Pride marches, which are the part of Pride celebrations that st (...)

10Yet, what has become increasingly challenged within LGBTQ communities since the 1990s is their unrebellious character: Pride marches have often become more like Disneyland parades than demonstrations. In many US cities, you either march or watch; to march, you must be part of an official contingent; if not, you only get to stand on the sides and watch; and there are barriers to separate the two spaces. A net instrumental advantage, on the one hand, is that it enhances the visual quality of the show. By contrast, in Pride marches where there is no separation between performers and audience, every attendee is also potentially a participant, many participants march in order to party rather than demonstrate, and participation is not a manifestation of a personal, more or less political identity claim.5

11On the other hand, enhancing the visual entertainment quality of Pride marches optimizes sponsors’ visibility, and hence makes sponsor visibility even more critical. That, in turn, is a de facto incentive to water down radical or provocative political message, making the selection of who is in the contingents all the more sensitive. A notorious example is when Chelsea Manning was scheduled to be one of the grand marshals of the San Francisco Pride march in 2013. Manning was indicted for leaking sensitive military information about the occupation of Iraq to WikiLeaks in 2010 and she was invited to be a grand marshal just when her trial was about to start. But the invitation raised such a controversy that the Pride march organizing committee decided to cancel her participation. That decision raised a huge uproar in San Francisco’s LGBTQ community, especially its most radical segment, who cried out this amounted to political whitewashing (Greenwald).

  • 6 Manning was later invited to represent the ACLU at the 2017 New York Pride march, i.e. after she wa (...)

12Of course, Pride marches do have a history of whitewashing, quite literally, from the start. While the Stonewall riots of 1969 that annual Pride marches commemorate were mostly due to Black and Puerto Rican trans activists, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the memorial construction of the event from the early 1970s largely invisibilized their role. That was why Rivera protested against being barred from speaking publicly at Pride commemorations and had to dispute her way onto the 1973 New York Pride march platform. Shouting over a booing crowd, she spoke on behalf of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to call attention to the condition of imprisoned trans prostitutes and denounced the indifference of most Pride participants, whom she decried as “men and women who belong to a white, middle-class white [sic] club” (“Sylvia Rivera”). In the following decades, however, commemorations falsely constructed Stonewall as an essentially white, cisgender gay uprising, Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall being just the most blatant example of this whitewashing. Paradoxically, in a sense, the Chelsea Manning controversy shows the extent of the San Francisco LGBTQ community’s political vitality. But it also means that the very existence of an uproar was contingent on that political vitality. Additionally, the San Francisco Pride committee eventually did cancel Manning for fear of diverting the march from its message of integration and jeopardizing corporate sponsorship (Greenwald).6

13This example is also a reminder of the political plurality within the LGBTQ community and movement–not just between the various letters of the acronym–and the strong divisions about the propriety of what is being staged, leading to confrontations, political tensions, if not internal divisions, about who is legitimate to speak for the community and movement, and what are legitimate ways of representing them (Gamson 1997). This can be demonstrated with an older example, the “bed” controversy –also known as “Bedgate”– that shook East Coast Pride marches in the 1990s. At the 1992 New York Pride march, the Lesbian Avengers, a radical lesbian activist organization, pushed a bed on wheels throughout the Pride march. Their slogan, “Lesbians lust for power,” was packed with double entendre, humor, and irony that affirmed lesbian empowerment and sexuality, a rather rebellious gesture in itself, considering that lesbian sexualities are consistently exposed to symbolic erasure. The performance’s provocative, if not incendiary character received sharp criticism. That is also why it inspired the Lesbian Avengers’ Boston chapter to do the same in 1996, which produced an even bigger controversy. They paraded through politically liberal, yet rather socially uptight Boston on a float with a bed on it, on which naked or near-naked women were simulating sex acts –or were they just simulating? That ambiguity triggered a commotion about how much nudity and sexual explicitness there should be in the Pride march (Leung). As it concerns a sexual minority, this example consequently begs the question of how the politics of the movement –i. e., not just its strategy or style, but its very agenda– should be determined, and by whom.

14As Pride marches are criticized, counter marches are organized in various cities in the United States as elsewhere, such as the Dyke March in San Francisco, where there is no separation between participants and audience, and everyone can freely join in, as well as the Drag March and the Queer Liberation March in New York. These initiatives are alternatives to the more institutionalized commemorations of Stonewall, which have gradually left aside the radical spirit of rebellion that inspired the original event and, more generally, the Leftist, feminist-inspired gay liberation movement of which Stonewall was an expression (Armstrong and Crage; Bernstein; Kissack). Of particular interest is the Queer Liberation March, whose sponsors, Reclaim Pride, disown both the commodification and policing of Pride marches and, in 2020, renamed the event Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality (Reclaim Pride). Since the creation of Black Lives Matter in 2013, controversies over the participation of uniformed police officers in Pride marches have indeed intensified, from San Francisco to Vancouver, to Toronto (Holmes; Greey), to name but North American locations. The Queer Liberation March’s embracing of Black Lives Matter is both a reminder that Stonewall was a moment of resistance against police brutality and a clear challenge to the mainstreaming and whitewashing of Pride marches.

15Further, far from being symbolic forms of quasi-tokenism or appropriation, these initiatives reflect a deep-seated commitment to intersectional coalition-building. For example, some of the Queer Liberation March founders also participate in the Church Ladies for Choice, a pro-choice group of (mostly, yet not exclusively male) queer activists who dress up as old-fashioned church ladies and go in front of abortion clinics where they sing humorous, often somewhat sexually explicit pro-choice slogans to the tune of religious hymns (Carroll 167-169; Cohen-Cruz; Shepard). Their goal is to counter the demoralizing effect of the very aggressive propaganda of anti-abortion activists who try and deter women from getting abortions. An apparently trivial form of queer theatricality in the interest of a very serious political agenda, the Church Ladies for Choice illustrate how challenges to the depoliticization and whitewashing of Pride marches can, and sometimes do, translate into concrete innovations in LGBTQ collective action.

16Nevertheless, the fact that in many cities in the United States and elsewhere, Pride marches have become somewhat harmless, inoffensive events is a positive sign of growing acceptance. But form matters: the ways in which Pride marches are planned, staged, and performed is both a measure and an instrument of how political they are –both in a quantitative sense (what level of politicity) and in a qualitative sense (what kind of politics).

III/ The Inherent Politicity of ACT UP’s Queer Theatricality

  • 7 This is not exclusive to the United States. Broqua notes similar chronological paradoxes and strate (...)

17In order to better grasp how the relationship between form and substance can be a measure of LGBTQ protest’s politicity, a pertinent example is the theatricality of ACT UP’s repertoire of contention. The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power was created in 1987, from within the LGBTQ community. That was a paradoxical time to launch a group intended to be both an AIDS activist organization and a queer activist organization, since the heterosexual transmission of HIV had just been established, so that it was now proven that AIDS was indeed not a gay disease. Yet, that was by no means a coincidence, much less a strategic faux pas (Gamson 1989, 354-357). Instead, ACT UP ambitioned to have the LGBTQ community “own” the epidemic at a time when HIV/AIDS prevention policies, combined with the growing trend of lesbian and gay assimilationism, had led movement and community organizations to desexualize homosexuality and “degay” AIDS (Kobasa 287-291; Altman 309‑311).7

18To do that, ACT UP resorted to rebelliousness and theatricality, which are written in its very name –acting up, misbehaving. Its repertoire combines, on the one hand, provocative posters and protests that dramatize the urgency of HIV/AIDS, and, on the other hand, much more derisive forms of communication. The former element owes to the fact that the late 1980s were still a time when arch conservative Reaganism virulently targeted homosexuality and when the lethality of AIDS was extremely high, as protease inhibitors and combination therapies did not appear until the late 1990s. The latter element was intended both to put a very sarcastic spin on the pandemic and to affirm homosexuality by resorting to the age-old gay tradition of camp, which is discussed at further length below. It has long been established by social science that–contrary to notions ranging from Gustave Le Bon’s view of protesting crowds as unthinking, if not pathological masses to the storytelling of anti-segregation civil disobedience as a spontaneous manifestation of Black fatigue (Polletta 32-52) –protest is not necessarily a spontaneous popular upheaval; and even though rebellion conveys stronger connotations of a knee-jerk response to injustice, it is not always popular and more often than not it is not spontaneous. Instead, just like most protest and rebellion, ACT UP’s actions in the 1980s and 1990s were carefully prepared, planned, and crafted theatrical actions.

  • 8 I thank Deb Schwartz for pointing out the event was co-organized by ACT UP and WHAM!, a fact that t (...)

19Probably the most famous one was “Stop the Church,” co-organized by ACT UP and Women’s Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!), a radical feminist, mostly lesbian direct-action group created in 1989 that focused both on reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS (Potter 225; Carroll 153-154).8 On December 10, 1989, activists disrupted St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York during Sunday mass. Activists chained themselves to pews, fake blood was spurted around the nave, onto the congregation, and the action ended with a die-in. Fake blood was said to have touched the Holy Host, which outraged many people, in and out of the cathedral, including many LGBTQ people who supported ACT UP’s goals but not its tactics. The theatrical know-how that went into putting on such a show–and pulling it off so successfully–was even more crucial for this particular action than for other famous ones. For the no less successful, spectacular, and controversial disruption of opening night of the San Francisco Opera on September 9, 1989, what was needed was being there and being vocal. The act itself was less complex, less diversified, and required less careful orchestrating than “Stop the Church.” But even the San Francisco opera zap did take a lot of coordination skills and insider’s knowledge about schedule, access, and timing. The same is true of the October 11, 1988 action when ACT UP took control of the Food and Drug Administration Headquarters in Maryland.

20As a matter of fact, many ACT UP activists were educated professionals, including communication, advertising, entertainment, and show-business professionals, especially in ACT UP/New York–often white gay men with a lot of economic, but also social and cultural capital. That is perceptible, for instance, in the outstanding graphic design skills required to produce the visuals for which ACT UP was famous (Crimp and Rolson). ACT UP was often criticized from within the LGBTQ community–especially among queer people of color–for its more or less built-in gender, race, and class-based exclusions (Escoffier 138-140; Marche 2002, 194-198). That begs the question of whether there can be something intrinsically elitist to protest that is so carefully crafted. For example, in any social movement, litigation is more exclusionary than street protests or boycotts. Even just participating in litigation requires some legal skills and may involve direct costs, like legal fees, or indirect ones, like the consequences of public exposure on one’s employment; public exposure may also jeopardize other means of material subsistence, such as one’s personal support networks. Street protests or boycotts, on the contrary, do involve the risks of arrest, whose seriousness varies depending on one’s race, immigration status, or gender, for instance. However, for rank-and-file participants, they require no specific skills other than numbers and endurance, they involve no additional economic cost, and they provide the benefits of anonymity.

21Taking the previous question from the reverse perspective, however, we may wonder if queer theatricality achieves something that other forms of LGBTQ protest do not; and if there is anything specific to the staging of queer protest. In other words, is queer theatricality inherently defiant and insubordinate? In a famous 1993 article in The New Republic, Andrew Sullivan aptly noted that ACT UP was founded by a playwright, Larry Kramer, and criticized the organization for being no more than “a fantastic display of rhetorical pique and visual brilliance” that only temporarily caught public attention until it was replaced by another, newer show. Sullivan thus opposed (superficial) “performance” with (profound) “persuasion” (32). Contrary to these claims, however, ACT UP’s modes of action had the merit of being carefully tailored to the movement’s goals. Specifically, whereas the gay AIDS movement since the early 1980s had become rather desexualized, the repertoire of ACT UP’s response was in remarkable agreement with its goal of “regaying” AIDS and resexualizing homosexuality.

22One of the main vehicles of this strategy was “camp” (Broqua 181-185). Camp is a notoriously hard notion to define. Moe Meyer defines it as “the total body of performative practices and strategies used to enact a queer identity, with enactment defined as the production of social visibility,” emphasizing that “all queer identity performative expressions are circulated within the signifying system that is Camp” (5). Meyer writes in reaction to Susan Sontag’s 1964 characterization of camp as a mere aesthetic sensibility that is both apolitical and not specifically queer. While Sontag clearly emphasizes style over content, Meyer views camp as a means to an end, a vehicle for queer affirmation, hence clearly highlighting content over style, or rather function over practice, and outcome over experience. As Ann Pellegrini notes, other authors –in particular, Esther Newton in her seminal 1972 Mother Camp– have responded to Sontag’s degaying of camp by viewing it as a pre-Stonewall expression of revolt and affirmation of identity –a proto-political, makeshift form of cultural impertinence and insubordination (170). These conflicting, complementary conceptualizations nevertheless miss part of the political import of camp, which lies in its very intermeshing of sarcastic cultural style and daring political content.

  • 9 In the butch/femme mode of lesbian seduction that was typical of lesbian bar culture until the 1960 (...)
  • 10 As Benita Roth notes, however, camp humor in ACT UP/Los Angeles was the subject of disputes about “ (...)

23A more pragmatic, if not prosaic, way of describing camp is indeed that it is to queer subcultures what swing is to jazz: a style that is hard to define, a feel that is all but impossible to circumscribe, but once you have a sense of it, you do know when it is there or not there. From an empirical –i. e., cultural and historical– standpoint, camp is a constant, enduring thread of queer sensibility, running from Oscar Wilde to Stephan Elliott’s 1994 comedy The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, or even from the Mollies of eighteenth-century England to today’s out gay African American rapper Lil Nas X. It is a taste for a mix of scathing irony and self-deprecation, which involves the playful transgression of gender barriers and a form of verbal humor that ranges from subtle innuendo to completely unapologetic raunchy language. The above-mentioned Church Ladies for Choice are a very good example, as are a lot of drag queen performances –to the point where camp is sometimes mistakenly considered an exclusive character of drag. On the contrary, camp is by no means restricted to gay male cultures. As Elly-Jean Nielsen insists, given the enduring history of lesbian cultural and political invisibilization, if camp is “conceptualized as a queer reading strategy deployed to construct pleasures and meaning overseen by dominant, heterosexual culture” (119), “it should come as no surprise that camp –a clever act of subterfuge– would be an essential mode of expression for lesbian women” (118). In pre-Stonewall lesbian bar culture, for example, butch/femme role-playing was a standard mode of lesbian seduction, and hence identity construction, community building, and collective affirmation (Nestle 100-109; Case).9 This lesbian form of camp was significantly revived from the turn of the 1990s, in the context of the feminist “sex wars” over prostitution, pornography, and sadomasochism, by prosex radical lesbians (Duggan and Hunter; Marche 2019, 68-69; Stein; Vance).10

24Akin to ACT UP’s use of camp as a strategic identity resource in its staging of queer protest are many cases of HIV/AIDS prevention initiatives that address an acutely serious issue of life and death with self-deprecating humor, involving the crossing of gender-defined boundaries. One such example is the Theater Offensive, a queer theatrical troupe based in Boston. In the early 1990s, epidemiologists identified a massive relapse of HIV infections among men having sex with men. The finding was a surprise since, by all estimates, community-based HIV/AIDS prevention among gay men had been particularly successful early on and new infections among gay men had declined rapidly. Two combined factors account for this relapse. First, HIV/AIDS prevention methods that successfully reached gay men failed to resonate with other, non-gay-identified men having sex with men, especially men of color, precisely because they were so specifically targeted toward gay-identified men. Second, infection rates among gay men had declined so much that, in the new generation of gay men that were coming of age sexually ten years into the epidemic, many felt, if not immune, at least less directly exposed to the still deadly virus, and hence less concerned with safer sex and less alert to the risk of infection. It was this second demographic that the Theater Offensive addressed in the prevention skits it performed in gay cruising spots, like parks and beaches (Marche 2019, 145‑147).

25One of them was entitled “Grand Old Fag,” an obvious pun on the famous patriotic song that honors the United States flag. By replacing “flag” with a derogatory term that no-one in the gay community was reclaiming at the time, the troupe achieved two seemingly contradictory outcomes at once. First, they performed a campy skit that was full of witty sarcasm, which struck a chord with their audience’s sensibility. In the sociological terms of framing theory, the strategy was successful in that it achieved frame resonance, that is to say it aligned its discourse with its target audience’s preexisting cultural expectations and cognitive representations (Snow et al. 477). Second, the skit honored the idea of growing old as a gay man. Given the relative ageism of gay male sexual culture, which intersects with other–gender, race, class, and ability-based–forms of stereotyping and stigmatization (Conner; Simpson; Suen), glorifying old age was quite a reversal of their target audience’s preexisting values. In framing theory, resonance is considered a strategic strength and dissonance a strategic weakness. On the contrary, far from a strategic failure, the Theater Offensive’s cognitive hybrid aimed precisely to convey a dissonant prevention content by relying on the discursive asset of the message form’s resonance. The Theater Offensive thus used camp to invite gay men to question their preconceived ideas in the interest of HIV/AIDS prevention.

26In short, camp is both a staple of queer cultures and a powerful vehicle of empowerment. More: because it is such a constant of queer sensibility, it can be strategically tapped into in order to perpetuate queer cultures and, ultimately, queer lives. Doing that is an important part of the enduring legacy of ACT UP’s use of theatricality in the 1980s and 1990s. While ACT UP did not initiate the mobilization of camp for strategic political purposes, its revival of the gay liberationist repertoire bridged a strategic gap between cultural expressivism and political activism. Its audience was both external –because it was an activist organization with a political agenda that sought to change policies designed outside of the LGBTQ community– and its audience was also internal –because it was essential for both HIV/AIDS prevention and the fight against homophobia, which was considerably strengthened by AIDS, to re-empower the LGBTQ community, to re-assure and re-legitimize them in their own eyes. The legacy of this form of political performance far exceeds the period when ACT UP was at the forefront of LGBTQ mobilization in the United States. Yet, and that is also part of its political significance, ACT UP was always controversial, partly due to the provocative actions it staged.

IV/ Problematic Forms of Staging in LGBTQ Subcultures

  • 11 In this case, as in many others, the LGBTQ movement is indebted to radical feminism, here for examp (...)

27The forms of LGBTQ protest and identity that queer collective action stages can indeed be problematic, either because they fail to be perceived as political or politically relevant, or because they convey meaning that is politically unpalatable to segments of the LGBTQ community. A prime example of campy forms of queer theatricality that raise the first type of issue is the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The group was created as a joke, in San Francisco in 1978, by three friends who were bored on the day before Easter, but it rapidly developed into a state-of-the-art order of queer nuns, before disseminating nationwide, then internationally (Welzer-Lang et al.). Their mission is to “promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt,” as well as “community service” (Prior; Crawford). For example, they have been involved in HIV/AIDS prevention from the beginning: the Sisters pioneered peer-to-peer prevention methods that are now the norm, especially with their 1982 manual Play Fair, which was written in deliberately simple and sexually explicit terms, and favored vernacular language over medical terminology to refer to sexual organs and practices.11 The Sisters went on to present it in bars, in the street, and in open-air cruising spots and sex clubs (Welzer-Lang et al. 56‑57).

28The Sisters’ social agenda is large, as it includes support to homeless youth and refugees –whether LGBTQ or not. But they also serve a genuine spiritual mission to the queer community. For example, they hold exorcisms on the sites of hate crimes, they bless emblematic figures of the LGBTQ cause. On September 17, 1987, they even canonized Harvey Milk during a public rally in protest against Pope John-Paul II’s visit in San Francisco. The Sisters also give their blessing to gay men on the street, or in bars and clubs. Their routine benediction is “Go forth and sin some more,” an obvious reversal of the standard Christian phrase. Of course that is facetious and absurd, it is a joke, and it is campy. It is also a very provocative symbolical validation of queer sexualities, which, sill today, are often condemned, looked down upon, or even silenced. When living with the enduring shame of one’s nonstandard sexuality, having a nun in habit tell you it is fine and you should keep going can be an extremely relieving and empowering experience. Hence, what the Sisters mean by the phrase “expiate stigmatic guilt” is indeed a potent form of sexual recalcitrance to the sexual normativity that persists despite the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people, homosexuality, and transidentity.

29What is debatable is whether the Sisters’ meaningfulness contrasts with their clownishness. Among the scanty, yet growing body of academic publications entirely dedicated to the Sisters, Cathy B. Glenn emphasizes the discrepancy between the apparent harmlessness of a group that is primarily made up of gay men dressed as nuns raising money for good causes, on the one hand, and, on the other, the transformation of the body politic that their performativity achieves. Far from being innocuous, she argues, the Sisters provide “an intriguing and important example of the material political force of ludic discursivity and the playful ways that a wicked wit can work in political activism” (§ 5). However, in seeking to redeem the Sisters by countering the erroneous notion that they are merely playful and hence insignificant, Glenn seems to lose sight of the fact that, instead, the Sisters’ effectiveness and meaningfulness reside precisely in their lack of seriousness (Marche 2019, 165‑166).

30Camp, nevertheless, can be a double-edged sword, because it makes queer cultures look so fashionable, fun, and colorful that it opens them up for cooptation or appropriation. For example, the antics of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence may seem so playful and harmless to outsiders that they can easily be mistaken for simple clowns or entertainers –which they are, but their clownishness is also the very foundation of the empowerment they generate, a prime example of what Maurice Blanchot calls “unserious seriousness” (Blanchot and Hanson 16). It is also a form of political discretion or unobtrusiveness that makes the Sisters’ facetiousness deeply infrapolitical, in the sense that their politicity can escape viewers’ notice, which makes it both discreet and all the more meaningful to those who grasp it (Scott 183). Thus, while theatricality is by no means inherently trivial, when audiences are either not wise to this unserious seriousness or unwilling to look beyond the lively playfulness, theatricality can get trivialized. That is very similar to the above-studied commodification of Pride marches, which tends to deprecate the political meaningfulness of LGBTQ festiveness.

31More unexpectedly, similar issues also affect forms of queer sexual subculture whose very kinkiness would seem likely to preclude trivialization. For example, the Folsom Street Fair is an annual street festival in the South of Market (SoMa) district of San Francisco that has been taking place since 1984. An emblem of the neighborhood’s history of BDSM and leather fetish subcultures, it is not specifically an LGBTQ event, but many participants are queer, especially queer men, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence raise donations for charity at the entrance gates. The event has gained recognition from the San Francisco municipal government as one of the city’s many street festivals. It has got its own official lamppost banner, which is part of San Francisco and other cities’ more general merchandising strategy of promoting an image of tolerance through the institutional cooptation of minority cultures (Collins 1799-1803; Gervais 40-42), and even attracts corporate sponsors (Marinucci). The fair has altogether become an increasingly popular attraction, so that onlookers can actually outnumber participants (Weiss).

32As with Pride marches, this is an indirect sign of rising acceptance of LGBTQ identities, cultures, and sexualities. It is also due, in part, to an increasing public interest in kinky sex and a growing market for it. So, here again, trivialization is linked with both acceptance and commodification. Even more so than in Pride marches, however, the specificity here is the tangible, visible gap between participants and tourists. Whereas many Pride marches are in fact parades where you either participate or watch, a street fair is indeed akin to a festival, which is premised on minimal discontinuity between attendance and participation (Eleftheriadis). What this example shows is that, in the staging of queer subcultures, too deep a divide between performers and audiences can adulterate the meaning of the performance, and too strong a presence of non-group members among the audience can jeopardize the interaction between group member performers and audiences.

  • 12 Nudity in demonstrations and protests is not exclusive to the LGBTQ community, as anti-sweatshop de (...)

33But nudity and sexual explicitness in public also raise the second type of problem mentioned above, that of conveying politically unpalatable meaning.12 Even in Pride marches, the presence of bare-breasted women and shirtless trans men, who proudly bare their post-op torsos as a way to affirm their male transidentities, is divisive within LGBTQ communities. What is at stake is the possible normalization of queer subcultures, as LGBTQ publics are split between rejecting normalization and aspiring to normality–a deep cultural, political, and ideological rift about whether or not rebellion is legitimate and necessary within LGBTQ communities, cultures, and mobilizations. What is also at stake is the contestation of urban spaces and territories in a context where urban gay enclaves, the so-called “gayborhoods,” are waning, sometimes in correlation with gentrification and the “smart cities” movement (Ghaziani; Bell and Binnie). The place of nudity, sexual explicitness, and public sex in urban environments is a particularly critical aspect of this contestation. Witness, the so-called “revitalization” of New York in the 1990s, when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor, that resulted in a wholesale “clean-up” of the sex industry from Times Square and other disreputable, seedy neighborhoods (Delany). As far as queer subcultures are concerned, this meant for example the transformation of the Christopher Street Pier into a riverside park, which is an objective urbanistic improvement, except it wiped out an age-old history of gay cruising and queer sociability (Bahr; “Greenwich Village Waterfront”).

  • 13 “Stage” here is understood metaphorically, but nudity on actual theater stages, including in LGBTQ- (...)

34A similar evolution is perceptible in the Castro district of San Francisco, which was long the vibrant heart of the city’s LGBTQ culture, sociability, and politics. In the past 10 to 15 years, the Castro has gradually become more and more of a non-specifically LGBTQ, family-oriented neighborhood. One of the emblems of the contention that results from this is the dispute about the so-called “naked guys.” The controversy was especially strong in the early 2010s, when Jane Warner Plaza, at the intersection of Castro and Market Streets, regularly hosted an informal group of mostly men who considered that, in the absence of applicable laws forbidding nudity on the street, it was their right to go about in the buff. An ordinance was passed in November 2012 that made public nudity illegal as of February 1st, 2013, except in special events like the Folsom Street Fair. The contemporaneity between the relative degaying of the Castro and the public nudity controversy leads us to wonder what becomes of the staging of queer subcultures when the stage itself is escaping because the “gayborhoods” are receding, so that the visible presence of queerness is basically vanishing.13

35What is both ironic and particularly significant in this case is that, as in the aforementioned feminist sex wars, it was largely an internal dispute within the LGBTQ community. The feminist sex wars had drawn a wedge between radical defenders of women’s physical and emotional integrity, and radical proponents of women’s right to sexual self-determination and gratification (Duggan and Hunter). By contrast, the San Francisco public nudity dispute drew a wedge between proponents of integration–which has been achieved in San Francisco for much longer and to a much greater extent than probably anywhere else in the United States–and opponents of normalization–which is often the cultural flip side of political assimilation and jeopardizes the very persistence of an LGBTQ collective identity and community (Warner). That is a particularly exacerbated instance of what Aidan McGarry and James M. Jasper term the “identity dilemma” of social movements, when a movement’s goal is the elimination of differential treatment based on said identity, but the cost may be the actual disappearance of collective identities that have long been crafted as loci and instruments of affirmation, resistance, and legitimation.

36Major LGBTQ public figures were thus drawn into the fray of San Francisco’s public nudity debate. For example, longtime LGBTQ and AIDS activists Cleve Jones –a widely respected figure of the community, both locally and nationally– was quoted in an explicitly anti-nudity San Francisco Chronicle article entitled “Castro Naked Guys Have Gone Too Far” as claiming: “I would say the overwhelming majority of my neighbors are fed up with it” (Nevius). More importantly, the elected official who was the most vocal against the Castro naked guys was Scott Wiener, then-Supervisor for District 8, which includes the Castro as well as other in part historically LGBTQ neighborhoods, such as Twin Peaks, Noe Valley, and Buena Vista. Wiener, who prided himself in being a gay official representing an LGBTQ constituency and did not shy away from appearing and posing shirtless, in very tight jeans and a black leather vest and tie, at the 2016 Folsom Street Fair, was the member of the Board of Supervisors who sponsored the 2012 ordinance that banned public nudity.

37Again, this example invites us to be attentive to the relationship between the nature of what is being staged and the form of the staging. In this case, the overarching contention was about the desirability of normalcy and what place the transgression of the norms of decency should have in the expression of queer sensibilities. So, the staging of nude, hence culturally sexualized bodies was quite a pertinent way of taking part in this dispute. Yet, a further irony is that the so-called Castro naked guys did not claim to have a political agenda for the LGBTQ community. Nor did they even explicitly identify as queer; in fact a good many of them were straight, including Oxane “Gypsy” Taub, the only woman whose participation received visible coverage (“Hanging Out”; Placzek). Apart from the very few who have gone on being active opponents to the anti-nudity ordinance, most did not see themselves as activists, but just wanted to affirm their individual rights. So, in a sense, that controversy is at once a paradoxical and an ultimate form of infrapolitics: on the one hand, neither the forms nor the objectives –or even the motivations– of the Castro naked guys’ mobilization were explicitly political, so that its politicity was very subliminal indeed; but on the other hand, this case exemplifies how politically acute issues can be addressed through politically disqualified means (Marche 2012, 12; 2019, 152-153). At the same time, it does point to the existence of a continuum of more or less explicitly sexualized bodies that are staged in Pride marches, kinky street fairs, cruising spaces, and frankly solipsistic cases like the Castro naked guys –a continuum of the staging of eroticized bodies from explicitly political events, to subcultural manifestations, to infrapolitics, to quasi-non‑political situations.

V/ Conclusion

38When thinking of the staging of protest and rebellion, the main lesson to be retained from LGBTQ mobilizations and subcultures is that we should be attentive to the complex, sometimes paradoxical, or unexpected relationships between performers, audiences, and the stage. It is also necessary to examine the question from two perspectives: first, to what extent and in what ways staging is a means of protest, a manner of deploying politicity, or just a way of projecting a contested identity. Second, what if staging is the very condition of the deployment of politicity? What if the politics is in the staging –which, by the same token, implies that the politics is contingent on the staging and can therefore be evacuated from it?

39One of the reasons why LGBTQ protest is both paradigmatic and specific when it comes to issues of staging, is that it is a prime example of a social movement that has used theatrics to push its agenda. In that sense, it follows in a long history of movements –from pacifism to radical feminism, to anti-globalization– with such a repertoire of contention. Yet, this movement took the theatricality it inherited from previous movements to a particularly high level. It has even made it a trademark of its political style, to the point where other movements, from environmentalism to animal rights, mental health, or even ideologically conservative movements like masculinism, have borrowed either from the LGBTQ movement’s frames –e.g., the notions of the closet, coming out, and pride– or its repertoire –e. g., zaps, dies-ins, the staging of bare bodies. This testifies to the LGBTQ movement repertoire’s ability to be appropriated by different movements, in different contexts, or for different, possibly opposite purposes.

40Beyond that, the staging of LGBQT protest and subcultures raises the further issue of their conservation. Much of its traces indeed consist of ephemera, posters and stickers, personal archives and photos, as well as trinkets and graffiti, which are by definition transient. Activists and community leaders have long been aware of the issue, which was severely reinforced by AIDS and the dire prospect of the severance of intergenerational transmission. In this as in many other respects, the LGBTQ community and movement of San Francisco have played a pioneering role with the GLBT Historical Society, founded in 1985, and the related GLBT History Museum, which opened in the heart of the Castro in 2011, a grassroots-initiated, community-based accomplishment whose roots and long-term goals are inseparable from LGBTQ militancy (Koskovich). In a different, non-AIDS related context and with a different, lesbian feminist political goal, the Lesbian Herstory Archives was founded a decade earlier, in New York in 1974, in a similar spirit of grassroots, community-based conservation of the memory and achievements of a minority and movement under the constant threat of disappearance, lest that memory be intentionally kept alive (Corbman). Elsewhere in the United States and the rest of the world, the conservation of artifacts that bear witness to the staging of LGBQT protest and subcultures makes it all the more urgent to have LGBTQ archives that do not overly institutionalize, whitewash, or sanitize the memory of the movement.

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1 Among the various forms of the inclusive acronym, I use here LGBTQ rather than LGBTQ+, which usually stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, asexual, and intersex, because the latter three categories are less directly addressed in this paper.

2 I thank the anonymous peer-reviewers for their attentive reading and perceptive, thought-provoking remarks.

3 Most of the examples and discussions presented in this contribution are taken from my book, Sexuality, Subjectivity, and LGBTQ Militancy in the United States (Marche 2019).

4 Interestingly, this famous quote was difficult to ascertain. It is often cited as quoted by Michael Warner (61), where he uses Sullivan’s statement as emblem of the gay assimilationism he opposes. Warner credits David Groff’s Out Facts: Just About Everything You Need to Know About Gay and Lesbian Life (New York: Universe, 1997, p. 21), but the book does not provide a citation. Other sources cite Sullivan’s article “The Politics of Homosexuality” or his book Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality (New York: Knopf, 1995), but the quotation is not to be found in either source. In Queer Wars: The New Gay Right and Its Critics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), Paul Robinson acknowledges the statement’s dubiousness, but claims “So far as I know, Sullivan has never repudiated the remark” (95). I thank David Groff and Gerard Koskovich for assisting and encouraging me in this inquiry, and Deb Schwartz for kindly providing me with the original source.

5 These remarks focus specifically on Pride marches, which are the part of Pride celebrations that stage performances of LGBTQ identities intended for the general public. Different, complementary dynamics operate at other Pride events, such as party or sexual expression spaces, which are less demonstrative or more specifically intended for LGBTQ publics.

6 Manning was later invited to represent the ACLU at the 2017 New York Pride march, i.e. after she was acquitted of “aiding the enemy” in 2013, yet found guilty of several military infractions and detained until President Obama eventually commuted her sentence to a total of 7 years, in January 2017, and she was released in May 2017.

7 This is not exclusive to the United States. Broqua notes similar chronological paradoxes and strategic identity challenges about the creation of ACT UP in Paris.

8 I thank Deb Schwartz for pointing out the event was co-organized by ACT UP and WHAM!, a fact that tends to be obscured from the event’s memorialization.

9 In the butch/femme mode of lesbian seduction that was typical of lesbian bar culture until the 1960s, women in male-identified garb and displaying an assertive personality and bodily demeanor would only approach women in normatively female dress whose attitudes both enhanced their femininity and performed a more stereotypically demure version of femaleness.

10 As Benita Roth notes, however, camp humor in ACT UP/Los Angeles was the subject of disputes about “male definitions of what was culturally part of being gay” (90).

11 In this case, as in many others, the LGBTQ movement is indebted to radical feminism, here for example the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s conception, production, and dissemination, in 1970, of the groundbreaking women’s health manual Our Bodies Ourselves.

12 Nudity in demonstrations and protests is not exclusive to the LGBTQ community, as anti-sweatshop demonstrations or nude bike rides illustrate. Yet, these latter events emphasize the vulnerability of the human body or the questionable nature or origin of the garments that clothe it, whereas what is specific in public nudity in LGBTQ public events is the intentional eroticization of the body.

13 “Stage” here is understood metaphorically, but nudity on actual theater stages, including in LGBTQ-themed plays, is no less controversial a matter (Jouve and Lemoine).

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Guillaume Marche, « Staging LGBTQ Protest in the United States: Exploring the Politics of Theatricality »L’Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], 230 | 2023, mis en ligne le 24 mars 2023, consulté le 08 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Guillaume Marche

Université Paris Est-Créteil, IMAGER

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