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.”
From a therapeutic perspective, the more fantastic a sexual identity, the more it expresses individuality and thus the more exemplary it is. Superlatives such as “extraordinary,” “amazing,” and “fabulous” are ubiquitous in discussing queerness. Chips Ahoy! hires a drag queen for a Mother’s Day Twitter commercial. HSBC features spectral nonbinary activist Jamie Windust to emphasize that “being too much, will actually be just enough.” Oreo issues “special edition Pronoun Packs” of its cookies “encouraging everybody to share their pronouns with #Pride.” The New York City Human Rights Commission and Mastercard (the “official card sponsor” of WorldPride 2019) hang a panoply of temporary street signs near the Stonewall Inn, thereby transforming Gay Street into “Gay St. / Lesbian St. / Bisexual St. / Trans St. / Queer St. / Intersex St. / Asexual St. / Nonbinary St. / Pansexual St. / Two Spirit St. / + St.”: The “+” stands in for any sexual identities not already listed above. In a summation of the therapeutic doctrine of individuality, former Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson proclaims, “There are as many sexualities as there are human beings.”
Authenticity builds upon individuality as the public expression of each person’s unique essence. To be authentic, one must neither lie about nor obscure one’s feelings, desires, imaginations, and experiences that define the therapeutic self. This inner life must be brought outward, expressed, or even performed in words and deeds, confessions and self-revelations. Therapeutic practices enable such expression. They help the individual engage the past through recovery of suppressed feelings and memories of trauma, as well as anticipate the future through imaginative acts of self-discovery and self-realization. Authenticity urges one ever onward to “be yourself.” The therapeutic directive to “speak your truth,” deployed by senators and CEOs as much as by talk-show hosts and self-help gurus, is an exhortation to scale the summit of authenticity.
Like individuality, authenticity has exceptionally strong cultural connections to queerness. Sexual orientation, sexual identity, and gender identity are invisible qualities of the self traditionally subject to strong social control. Therefore, the experience of psychic trauma associated with suppressing the authentic self “in the closet” is particularly attached to queer persons. So, too, is “coming out,” a pure act of public self-revelation in the name of authenticity. This combination makes queerness a powerful symbol of therapeutic values. Mastercard justified its 2019 street sign stunt as a corporate commitment to “ensure that everyone has a way to express their true selves.” In flying the Pride flag above his state capitol building, Colorado Governor Jared Polis insisted, “The rainbow is a symbol that Colorado is a welcoming place where individuality is respected and everyone is free to be their true selves.” Gap Inc. celebrated Pride Month 2019 with “what is truly timeless: being true to oneself and one another.” Verizon could not be more explicit in its 2018–19 ad campaign featuring LGBTQ young people coming out to their families or reconciling with them on Verizon phones, replete with (presumably) unscripted endorsements of authenticity to “be who you are” and “live your own life.”
Within the therapeutic, authenticity demands originality in the expression of the self, especially through dress, style, and fashion. The costume element of every Pride parade manifests the connection between the fantastic and the authentic. This is how drag—although freely acknowledged as the performance of a persona—has gone mainstream. While on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand insisted, “Drag queens are the definition of brave. They are unapologetically themselves . . . which is something everyone in public service can learn from.” Another 2020 presidential hopeful, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, told attendees of RuPaul’s DragCon that she was fighting for an America in which “everyone is free to be who they are.” The 2018 NYC Pride Parade and Festival selected as its lead spokesperson “drag kid” Desmond Napoles, performing under the stage name “Desmond is Amazing,” because “he is the embodiment of our ‘Defiantly Different’ theme.” The shoe company Converse selected Napoles to represent it in 2019 as one of several “queer artists, activists, athletes and writers who have broken the rules.” The boy even appeared on Good Morning America to be praised by its hosts for “being who you are” and “inspiring others to be themselves.”
The therapeutic demands authentic selves that are not only expressed but also socially recognized. Mental health professionals once counseled the development of pro-social interdictions that would enable an individual’s adaptation to social expectations. Under the therapeutic, they now advocate for the wholesale transformation of all of society in order to facilitate self-actualization. This is why simple tolerance is wholly inadequate, for without recognition, selves will internalize a sense of inferiority and thus fail to become authentic. Hence the commissioning of every institution into the work of bestowing recognition and liberating selves. Nearly half of U.S. states and dozens of counties and cities now ban so-called “conversion therapy” for minors, requiring the medical profession to endorse the view that “being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency or shortcoming.” Preferred pronoun rituals have become the gold standard of inclusive recognition in academic and corporate settings. Employment tribunals in the United Kingdom now teach all employers that conservative, Christian, or feminist “absolutist view[s] that sex is immutable” are “incompatible with human dignity” and “not worthy of respect in a democratic society.” Twitter enforces this same view on over 300 million users worldwide.
This social duty finds its highest liturgical enactment in the Pride parade, a ritualized demand for and reception of recognition. Consider the 2019 New York City Pride Parade, perhaps the largest in world history. Uniformed New York City police officers on rainbow-flag-bedecked motorcycles opened the march, immediately parodied by the Sirens Womens’ Motorcycle Club and a host of unaffiliated supporting bikers, more than one riding in various states of undress. Queer rights organizations near the start of the parade demanded recognition, giving way to a long series of government officials and bureaucracies bestowing it. Community groups interspersed with corporations followed, and all along the parade route crowds cheered, granting recognition in the here and now while still anticipating a more complete recognition yet to come.
Precisely because of its symbolic bond to the therapeutic, queer affirmation is both the fulfillment and the herald of an entire society of authentic and recognized selves. That society’s banner is the rainbow and its animating spirit is “love.” It is impossible to miss the overpowering symbolic role that both play in the therapeutic appropriation of queerness, a role that explains the tremendous popularity of queer normalization among young adults, the entertainment industry, the professional class, and the tech sector—that is, in the therapeutic core of our society. The day the Supreme Court handed down its Obergefell decision mandating national same-sex marriage, Facebook’s rainbow filter was adopted by twenty-six million users in a single weekend, and #LoveWins became the most-used hashtag in social media history. The meaning of such acts is captured by California Governor Gavin Newsom, who sees appropriation of the rainbow flag as “a clear message that [one] is welcoming and inclusive to all, regardless of how you identify or who you love.” The cultural tie joining queerness to love is so strong that “love is love” has become a sacred mantra recited specifically in support and defense of queer persons. Gay-themed ad campaigns tell consumers to “Love All Ways” (Gap Inc.), that “Love Unites” (Express and Adidas), “Love Calls Back” (Verizon), and “Love For All” (H&M). Fresh&co created a “Love Salad” just for Pride month, Absolut Vodka offered “A Drop of Love,” and Starbucks kept it simple with just the word “Love” in rainbow colors on its Pride coffee cups.
“Love” here is the social recognition of authentic selves. The centrality of this fundamental therapeutic act cannot be overestimated. In the view of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, America groans for freedom from a “dark psychic force of collectivized hatred” that “only love can cast . . . out.” Before shrugging this off as the mystical babblings of a New Age guru, note that the 2020 Democratic party nominee for president believes much the same thing. In his foreword to a 2018 book by transgender activist Sarah McBride, former vice president Joe Biden writes:
We are at an inflection point in the fight for transgender equality, what I have called the civil rights issue of our time. And it’s not just a singular issue of identity, it’s about freeing the soul of America from the constraints of bigotry, hate, and fear, and opening people’s hearts and minds to what binds us all together.
Biden understands recognition as a spiritual crusade. According to the possible future President of the United States, our social glue is a common commitment to the therapeutic. Only then can every American “live authentically, fully, and freely.”
While the “soul of America” has been an object of anxiety since at least the 1850s, never before had anyone suggested that affirming transgender identity would determine its fate. Instead, the state of the national soul was typically said to be determined by the treatment of African Americans. When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference formed in 1957, it chose as its motto “To Save the Soul of America.” Martin Luther King Jr. used the phrase and versions like it throughout his years leading the American civil rights movement. In his view, liberation for black Americans was simultaneously liberation for all Americans. The legal subjugation of the descendants of slaves put the lie to the promise of freedom and equality for all and thus diminished faith in America, made a mockery of Christianity, and eliminated the possibility of racial peace. King’s appeal to the nation’s common religious and philosophical heritage was significant. The equality that he demanded and the freedom that would redeem America could be known because it “squares with the moral law or the law of God . . . rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
Fifty-five years after King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Joe Biden speaks to a different people holding a different faith. The laws of nature and nature’s God are no longer relevant to those caught up in a sacred quest for individuality, authenticity, and liberation. When persons of every sexuality and gender identity are simply “born this way,” neither nature nor culture can direct them. America’s current religious premise is that everyone can embrace the faith of the therapeutic because everyone can realize his or her (or their or zir) true self in the light of the rainbow. Conversion to a common faith need not produce membership in a common church. Look instead for the saved arm-in-arm at the Pride parade.
Darel E. Paul is author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.