Rainbows are lining the streets of the city that gave birth to the famous flag back in 1978. In the 30 or so years that have passed since then, Gilbert Baker’s beautiful creation has become a powerful symbol of LGBT empowerment across continents.

I was excited to be in Harvey Milk’s city, held up as a place of progressive politics and radicalism, critical mass, the beat poets and the summer of love. But while I enjoyed the partying as the sun broke through the fog, the politics of pride still left me feeling a little cold.

The Trans and Dyke marches on Friday and Saturday were peppered with banners and placards, and the queer community took to the streets together, joined in solidarity with a sense of common purpose. This was reflected in many of the countless arts events, workshops and the huge frameline LGBT film festival over the past month.

Sunday’s parade was a theatrical affair, where organisations drove floats and walked (or danced) the spectator-lined Market street to the packed celebration in the Civic Centre Plaza.

Being a parade spectator is markedly different to taking to the streets on a demonstration.
Behind barriers we watched the beautiful, sparkling spectacle and danced to the music as the floats drive by. Many of the placards called for gay marriage, recently outlawed in California by a constitutional amendment ruling that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” One group carried a rainbow Israeli flag with flyers outlining Israel’s sexual equality legislation, while another pointed to the human rights abuses in Israel calling for ‘queers against Israeli Apartheid’. Political placards and advertisements for banks and corporations sat uneasily together. While some were protesting, it was certainly not a protest.

But why not just have a parade – a celebration? There are many gains for the US LGBT movement to celebrate. In a city which 30 years ago suffered at the hands of violent homophobic policing, SFPD cops walked hand in hand wearing rainbow sunglasses. Where Harvey Milk was once assassinated as the first out gay man in Californian public office, out LGBT public officials and candidates rode in open-top cars and high-fived the crowd.

The most extravagant floats were sponsored by big banks – glittering on the streets which on any other day are the homes of people who have nothing but the items in the shopping trolley they are pushing. The bankers’ crisis is hitting the US hard, where the public sector faces draconian cuts, and where the welfare system is unable to provide support for many people living below the poverty line.

As pride parades in many countries become part of the establishment, the message of system change gets replaced by one of individual expression through consumption. We are what we buy. We buy what we are.

Such an individualised model of sexual liberation will only ever deliver freedom for the few. It does not take into account the structural ways that LGBT people are oppressed differently across axes of racism, sexism and class discrimination. We should fight for a world in which we all have freedom. This bank-sponsored liberation on offer through consumption is reserved for those who can afford the price tag of pride.

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