WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA–The mainstream acceptance of gays and lesbians, a hard-won civil-rights victory gained through decades of struggle against prejudice and discrimination, was set back at least 50 years Saturday in the wake of the annual Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade.
"I'd always thought gays were regular people, just like you and me, and that the stereotype of homosexuals as hedonistic, sex-crazed deviants was just a destructive myth," said mother of four Hannah Jarrett, 41, mortified at the sight of 17 tanned and oiled boys cavorting in jock straps to a throbbing techno beat on a float shaped like an enormous phallus. "Boy, oh, boy, was I wrong."
The parade, organized by the Los Angeles Gay And Lesbian And Bisexual And Transvestite And Transgender Alliance (LAGALABATATA), was intended to "promote acceptance, tolerance, and equality for the city's gay community." Just the opposite, however, was accomplished, as the event confirmed the worst fears of thousands of non-gay spectators, cementing in their minds a debauched and distorted image of gay life straight out of the most virulent right-wing hate literature.
Among the parade sights and sounds that did inestimable harm to the gay-rights cause: a group of obese women in leather biker outfits passing out clitoris-shaped lollipops to horrified onlookers; a man in military uniform leading a submissive masochist, clad in diapers and a baby bonnet, around on a dog leash; several Hispanic dancers in rainbow wigs and miniskirts performing "humping" motions on a mannequin dressed as the Pope; and a dozen gyrating drag queens in see-through dresses holding penis-shaped beer bottles that appeared to spurt ejaculation-like foam when shaken and poured onto passersby.
Timothy Orosco, 51, a local Walgreens manager whose store is on the parade route, changed his attitude toward gays as a result of the event.
"They kept chanting things like, 'We're here, we're queer, get used to it!' and 'Hey, hey, we're gay, we're not going to go away!'" Orosco said. "All I can say is, I was used to it, but now, although I'd never felt this way before, I wish they would go away."
Allison Weber, 43, an El Segundo marketing consultant, also had her perceptions and assumptions about gays challenged by the parade.
"My understanding was that gay people are just like everybody else–decent, hard-working people who care about their communities and have loving, committed relationships," Weber said. "But, after this terrifying spectacle, I don't want them teaching my kids or living in my neighborhood."
The parade's influence extended beyond L.A.'s borders, altering the attitudes of straight people across America. Footage of the event was featured on telecasts of The 700 Club as "proof of the sin-steeped world of homosexuality." A photo spread in Monday's USA Today chronicled many of the event's vulgar displays–understood by gays to be tongue-in-cheek "high camp"–which horrified previously tolerant people from coast to coast.
Dr. Henry Thorne, a New York University history professor who has written several books about the gay-rights movement, explained the misunderstanding.
"After centuries of oppression as an 'invisible' segment of society, gays, emboldened by the 1969 Stonewall uprising, took to the streets in the early '70s with an 'in-your-face' attitude. Confronting the worst prejudices of a world that didn't accept them, they fought back against these prejudices with exaggeration and parody, reclaiming their enemies' worst stereotypes about them and turning them into symbols of gay pride," Thorne said. "Thirty years later, gays have won far greater acceptance in the world at large, but they keep doing this stuff anyway."
"Mostly, I think, because it's really fun," Thorne added.
The Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade, Thorne noted, is part of a decades-old gay-rights tradition. But, for mainstream heterosexuals unfamiliar with irony and the reclamation of stereotypes for the purpose of exploding them, the parade resembled an invasion of grotesque outer-space mutants, bent on the destruction of the human race.
"I have a cousin who's a gay, and he seemed like a decent enough guy to me," said Iowa City, IA, resident Russ Linder, in Los Angeles for a weekend sales seminar. "Now, thanks to this parade, I realize what a freak he's been all along. Gays are all sick, immoral perverts."
Parade organizers vowed to make changes in the wake of the negative reaction among heterosexuals.
"I knew it. I said we needed 100 dancers on the 'Show Us Your Ass' float, but everybody insisted that 50 would be enough," said Lady Labia, spokesperson for LAGALABATATA. "Next year, we're really going to give those breeders something to look at."