The naked truth about Pride

In defence of public nudity

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No one was especially surprised when Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug announced last month that they would skip the city’s first “world” gay Pride parade this summer, a celebration defined in their words by “buck-naked men running down the street.” (Even less surprising, as journalist Andrea Houston pointed out in Toronto Life, was the Fords’ convenient silence on the topic of buck-naked women at the event.) But many in this city were genuinely caught off-guard last week when three school trustees from the Toronto District School Board—an institution that has a float in the parade—requested that police enforce the city’s public nudity laws at Pride in June. It’s well-known that Toronto authorities turn a blind eye to bare bums and breasts in the public arena during Pride. (Naked people do turn up at the event frequently, though their presence isn’t as pervasive as some might think; one sees a penis at the parade as much as one sees a tourist with a full head of braids at an all-inclusive resort or a crowd-surfer at a rock concert. Every community has its truly committed.)

Sam Sotiropoulos, the trustee leading the anti-nudity charge, told the media he has “no problem participating with Pride,” but he cannot endorse an event “where the laws against public nudity are being flouted.” He’s not alone: According to a recent CBC poll, 62 per cent of respondents believe there should be no nudity at Pride. Until a few days ago, so did I.

Prudishness, I thought, was the price of progression. I argued (including in this magazine) that, when gays march nude at Pride, we affirm dangerous stereotypes held about us in places such as Uganda, Russia and India, and we alienate otherwise friendly supporters in the mainstream heterosexual world. When I reiterated this argument on social media immediately after news broke about the school trustees’ request, I was denounced by other members of the LGBT community as a “nice gay,” a pejorative term akin to “Uncle Tom.”

What’s more, I noticed that those criticizing me and defending nudity at Pride appeared to be at least twice my age. Those who came to my defence, meanwhile, were overwhelmingly young. This division isn’t coincidental. I have attended Pride four times now, and I have never seen a completely naked person who appeared to be under the age of 40. Nudist Bert Bik, a 62-year-old founding member of Totally Naked Toronto Men Enjoying Nudity, one of the city’s best-known groups of naked parade marchers, says the average age of a TNT member is between 43 and 47. (The group even offers discount rates to college students in an attempt to attract younger members.) Nakedness at Pride, then, isn’t merely a philosophical debate, but a generational one. Replace nudity with coupon collecting, Lent observing, kosher keeping, and the story becomes quite ordinary: An older generation adheres to a tradition that some in the younger set find retrograde, tacky and embarrassing. The old berate the young about the importance of said tradition, and the young rebel. The only difference is that, in the LGBT community, youth rebel by assimilation.

Our elders don’t cling to convention; they run from it. And for good reason. In 1981, on a taxpayer-funded mission estimated to have cost a quarter of a million dollars, police carrying crowbars and sledgehammers raided bath houses in Toronto’s gay village, forcing nude and nearly naked men onto the streets, where more than 300 LGBT people were arrested. Bik describes the night as “terrible.” Anyone wondering why some gay people at Pride are so “in your face” should look to events like these for an answer. There was a time when we weren’t in anyone’s face, but everyone was in ours. Hence the naked marching: When you can’t express yourself safely in private, there is no act of civil disobedience more powerful, I’d imagine, than doing so in public.

Sotiropoulos has, besides nudity, “no other issue whatsoever with the Pride parade.” But, as he wrote to me in an email, “I don’t think we ought to allow the wilful actions of a few people to hijack and tarnish the image of the event as a whole.” The problem with this line of apparently popular thinking is its sheer shortsightedness. Without the “wilful actions” of those “few people,” the event in question would not exist. In this country, public opinion is on the side of gay rights. In my short life, public opinion has always been on my side. I am insanely lucky. There is no greater proof of how lucky I am than the ease with which I once winced at the unlucky: buck-naked old men who wear nothing with as much defiant pride as our veterans wear the poppy on Remembrance Day—buck-naked men, to whom I owe almost everything. This year, I won’t wince. I’ll salute.