At the beginning of June, President Biden took to Instagram to wish his followers a happy Pride Month. Although similar sentiments have become standard practice throughout social media, this post marked the first time in four years the @POTUS account acknowledged Pride. In his caption, President Biden recalls “the trials the LGBTQ+ community has endured and celebrate(s) the trailblazers who’ve bravely fought for equality”. Accompanied by an image of the White House emblazoned with “PRIDE '' spelled out in rainbow colors, it is clear that after a four year silence, Pride is inherently political. Once a year corporations fly the flag outside of brick and mortar stores, ecommerce site logos change overnight to a multicolored hue, and brands release merchandise filled with quippy slogans, rainbow designs, and proclamations that Love is Love. It’s in the midst of this commercialization, or even capitalization, of Pride that its roots get lost in a muddle of glitter, streamers, and plastic beads.
As President Biden stated, we must honor those who paved the way for our modern Pride celebrations: those whose individualism was constrained by stringent dress codes during the early days of the LGBTQ+ movement, who were arrested for dressing too provocatively, who fought to challenge the status quo through self expression. These early resisters were led by trans women, sex workers, and drag queens, amidst a growing faction of people looking for a community where they could fully feel and look like their truest selves.
Before Pride as it is modernly, even before its inception, there was a group of queer people who called themselves the Mattachine Society. Beginning in 1950 in Los Angeles, this group would gather and take part in “The Annual Reminder,” an early protest that sought to inform and remind people that the LGBTQ+ community did not have basic civil rights protection. This event became a yearly vigil held in Philadelphia, however, these gatherings enforced strict dress code ordinances, stating that men must wear jackets and ties, while women could only attend in a dress. Activists and fellow event organizers enforced this dress code in an effort to avoid arrests and represent LGBTQ+ people as “presentable and employable” as they were still a far cry from the societal acceptance of today. This wasn’t the first time that those who sought to dress against the cultural norm were punished, labeled perverse, or made to be illegal. Cross dressing laws in the U.S date back to 1845 and in 1913, a judge noted that “no girl would dress in men’s clothing unless she is twisted in her moral viewpoint.” This set a precedent in the world of clothing and further enabled strict limitations to be placed on those who did not fit into society’s definition of appropriate dress.
Beginning in the U.S. in the 19th century, even dating back to 1845 in New York City, many courts were also upholding “Masquerade Laws” which punished gender variance and cross-dressing, and “Gay Laws,” which stated that gender innapropriateness [...] was increasingly considered a sickness and public offence.” This rigid system of gender supression continued throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s as it was considered a crime to dress in drag and women were expected to adhere to the “Three-Article Rule,” which stated that a woman had to wear three pieces of “female attire” to avoid being arrested for cross dressing. The stifling of identity through these codified dress codes forced people to ascribe to society's heteronormative standards and discouraged self-expression and otherness.This ongoing tension between sexual identity and mainstream acceptance is often discussed as “respectability politics,'' where people are expected to follow suit with a set norm at the political risk of not having their rights upheld. This political agenda set in motion a counterculture within queerness and sexual liberation as a rejection of respectability: Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism or BDSM.
BDSM rose in the decade following the Stonewall Riots, the period of chaos which ensued after the violent raiding of the Stonewall Inn, a fixture in the New York City gay bar scene, in 1969, now known as the event that sparked the first Pride March on June 28, 1970.
Today, garments traditionally worn during BDSM play, or fetish-wear as it’s commonly known, can be found on the runway from designers like Francois Guillot, Helmut Lang, Alexander McQueen, and Vivienne Westwood, to fast fashion retailers, to the Instagrams of influencers and celebrities, and even to online shops like Etsy. Similarly to other subcultures like Punk and Goth, BDSM rose underground via a rejection of society and, as BDSM educator, Andrea Zanin, described, “pushing the boundaries of sexuality and exploration of kink within style.” Through the use of kink specific materials like leather, latex, and rubber, members of the LGBTQ+ community began to adopt fetish-wear as an outward display rooted in making political and social statements regarding their identity and acceptance into society. By wearing the clothes that they did in reaction against the norm, they simultaneously increased its acceptance into the norm, as their strike against society became acceptable in society itself.
At a similar moment, artists were using the fetish-wear styles of New York City gay and BDSM clubs as inspiration, calling attention to bondage, dom-sub culture, and the emphasis on consent that went into this sexual exploration. For example, in the 1970s, artist Robert Mapplethorpe began his exploration of BDSM through black and white photography until his battle with AIDS took his life in 1989. Still, his work would continue to inspire and challenge people, as an exhibition of Mapplethorpes was posthumously brought into question by a group challenging the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, calling the art obscene. The Arts Center won the case, setting a precedent for what can be legally deemed obscene. Mapplethorpe’s art, much like BDSM itself, seeks to blur the line between kink and art, from something non-traditional to something publicly displayed. The courage and sacrifice of these individuals gave rise to the legalization of dressing in drag, the beginnings of the removal of controversy from other subcultures, and even to Jean Paul Gaultier dressing Madonna in fetish-wear throughout the 1980s and 90s.
Words by Blythe Tokar
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