Dodger Blues: A Queer, Academic Breakdown of Pride Night ‘Cultures Wars’ That Hit Home
Here is the controversy over Pride Night at Dodger Stadium happening this Friday, explained. It's 'the culture war that no one asked for,' says Dr. Beer Butch. She brilliantly breaks down its fallacies, including the traps of corporate Pride and Fandom, the nuances of mockery vs. parody, and more in her latest.
11:09 AM PDT on June 13, 2023
The Dodgers haven’t even hosted their 10th annual “LGBTQ+ Pride Night” at Dodger Stadium yet, but it’s already been generating controversy for weeks. The Dodgers’ Pride Night grabbed local and national headlines on May 17, when the team announced on Twitter that it would no longer give a Community Hero Award to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist order of queer and trans nuns, during a pre-game ceremony.
The Dodgers decided after Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred alerted them to complaints he received about the Dodgers’ Pride Night plans, including objections from Catholic groups and leaders based in Indiana and Florida. The team cited “the strong feelings of people who have been offended by the Sisters’ inclusion in our evening” and their desire to not “distract from the great benefits we have seen over the years of Pride Night” as reasons for canceling the Sisters.
Many other parties, including local politicians, the ACLU, and the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, spoke out against this decision, criticizing the Dodgers for uninviting the Sisters and capitulating to out-of-state religious pressure. The Dodgers’ main sponsor, LA Pride, threatened to boycott the marquee event. Five days later, the Dodgers “reversed course,” apologized to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and re-invited them to receive their award.
I’ve been thinking about this mess as a writer, scholar, and professor who teaches classes in gender, sexuality, and popular culture; as someone struggling lately with Dodgers and other lifelong fandoms (ahem, Morrissey); and especially as a daughter and sister who grew up queer in a big devoutly Catholic Mexican American family full of Dodger fans.
To make sense of this 2023 Dodger Pride moment, I’m compelled to think about it within the larger contexts of the ongoing “culture wars” flaring up around LGBTQ+ issues and rights in this country, the contradictions of rainbow capitalism, and the challenges of queer sports fandom.
A “Culture War” Most of Us Didn’t Start and Never Wanted
Gun control. Abortion. Same-sex marriage. Immigration. Vaccines. Racism.
These “hot button topics” become flashpoints in the U.S. culture wars that play out in the media as a battle between conservatives and liberals, religious and secular groups, and red states versus blue states. But why these conflicts? Who wages these “wars” (and against whom?) for political control over these issues?
The term began circulating with the 1991 publication of James Davidson Hunter’s book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Davidson, a professor in the Religion, Culture, and Social Theory Department at the University of Virginia, used this term more than thirty years ago to describe “cultural struggles” between “traditionalist” and “post-Enlightenment” visions of political power in this country.
On one side, he says the “traditionalist vision” holds truth to be “rooted in authority outside of the self” (think the Bible, Torah, or Quran). On the other side is a secular, “post-Enlightenment vision” that “rejects” traditionalist, authoritarian, faith-based rule.
Davidson borrows from the German term “Kulturkampf,” meaning “culture struggle,” used to describe the fierce, years-long conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Otto von Bismarck’s Germany from 1871-1887. Davidson understood the term’s religious origins when he applied it to U.S. cultural conflicts around issues like “abortion, campus speech codes, multiculturalism, and religion’s place in public life” since the 1980s.
A year after Davidson’s book, conservative political extremist Pat Buchanan hijacked the term, calling for a “culture war” that he recast as a “religious war” during his fiery speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. The “soul of America” was at stake, he thundered, blaming Democratic candidate for President Bill, and wife Hillary, Clinton’s “liberal” agenda of “radical feminism,” “abortion on demand,” and “homosexual rights” that threaten to “tear down our country” and the “right-to-life” “Judeo-Christian values” that inform its founding.
From that point on, “culture wars” became associated with right-wing, religious-based ideological movements working against the advancement of “post-Enlightenment” liberal values that spread with broader access to higher education after World War II.
When we look at who remotely and needlessly started the pedo around the Dodgers’ honoring the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, we see a clear line connecting the “culture war” dots from 1992 to 2023. But why do these out-of-state influencers care about what happens at a baseball game in California, anyway?
Mockery vs. Parody
On May 15, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio sent a letter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred blasting the Dodgers’ Pride Night plans to “give an award to a group of gay and transgender drag performers” that he says “intentionally mocks and degrades Christians.”
Star Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw and Nationals pitcher Trevor Williams also expressed this sentiment in their own statements of disagreement with the Dodgers for inviting a group that “mocks” and “makes fun of” their religion.
Dictionaries tell us that to mock means “to treat with contempt or ridicule,” “to tease and laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner,” or “to laugh at someone, often by copying them in a funny but unkind way”—think of Team Mexico fans’ infamous “p*to” chants at fútbol games, or mostly white kids throwing tortillas at a predominantly Latino high school basketball team in Orange County.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist group of queer and trans nuns called to serve the oft-ignored and disparaged needs of the LGBTQ+ community, have been accused of Catholic mockery and sacrilege since their founding in 1979, so that’s not news.
Instead, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence engage in parody (“an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect”), satire (“a way of criticizing people or ideas in a humorous way, especially in order to make a political point”), and camp (“a sensibility that revels in artifice, stylization, theatricalization, irony, playfulness, and exaggeration rather than content”).
None of these constitute “mocking” for the sake of it. Parody and satire have political utility as social commentary and protest that “mocking” alone does not, like skits about Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.
In her 2018 book Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody, UC Riverside Religious Studies professor Melissa Wilcox explains how the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence practice “serious parody,” an “activist strategy” which “simultaneously critiques and reclaims cultural traditions in the interest of supporting the lives and political objectives of marginalized groups.”
These queer nuns take this ancient holy role seriously and aspire to be like these blessed women of the church, heeding their calls to minister to the sick, poor, and outcast. Wilcox discusses how the Sisters’ deliberately and carefully considered parody of exaggerated nuns’ habits and witty, punny names (“Sister June Cleavage,” “Sister Harlot D Lite”) are key ways the group uses humor and drag to dispel our fears and expose the hypocrisies of those who wield spiritual and political power—and those who aspire to wield it—over us.
Two of the earliest members of the Sisters were “an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ” and a “former Roman Catholic seminarian.”
Too bad Rubio couldn’t just butt out and keep his oppressive “Don’t Say Gay” Florida politics out of my state. But here we are. And now we local LGBTQ+ Dodger fans and our allies are once again caught in the crosshairs of a culture war we didn’t start and never wanted.
The Traps of Corporate Pride and Fandom
This brings me to “Pride” and all the rainbow corporate logos we see in June.
When I first saw the Dodgers’ May 22 tweet re-inviting the Sisters to Pride Night, I tweeted that I was “reluctantly pleased but still a side eye always and forever cast on the doyers and corporate pride.”
“Reluctantly pleased” because the Dodgers acted on behalf of their own “diverse communities” rather than the objections of a few out-of-state conservatives, based on “generous discussions with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” that led to the team’s apology and reinstatement of the group at Pride Night.
But I’m also giving an eternal side-eye on corporate Pride of any kind, even at Dodger Stadium. Because when the Dodgers uninvited the Sisters, they did so “in an effort not to distract from the great benefits that we have seen over the years of Pride Night.” In short, the Dodgers didn’t want to lose those stacks of rainbow dollars, surely among the top “great benefits” they have seen in the ten years that the team has hosted the event since its first “LGBT Night Out” in 2013.
On a recent episode of “Press Play” on KCRW, Karen Tongson, USC professor of English, gender and sexuality, and American studies explained the traps of “rainbow capitalism.” Tongson stated, “Many of us in the LGBTQ community are deeply cynical about these gestures of rainbow sponsorship and corporate sponsorship, because we know why they're there. It's less a deep and profound commitment to supporting us and supporting our causes, than to reaching into our pockets and getting as much as they can out of us.”
Like Black history and women’s history, we queers get one month to see ourselves reflected in the expanding marketplace of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” as companies compete for our cash and brand loyalty but don’t do half of the real work on the street that groups like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence do for our communities year-round.
In the end, “Pride Month,” and all its attendant corporate-sponsored festivities, obscures the radical activist roots of the 1970s era of “gay liberation” movements against gender-based police brutality, led by trans women of color activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson.
Let’s not forget that the original “Pride” events were protests against police raids of gay bars to arrest people for “masquerading” and other so-called ‘vice’ laws that criminalized women for wearing men’s clothes and vice versa. Someone like me, a butch who prefers masculine accouterments, would have been arrested in the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s for the crime of “cross-dressing.”
I remember back in August 2000, when Dodger Stadium security ejected a lesbian couple for kissing after two fans complained that their kids shouldn’t have to see “those kind of people” doing the very thing practically required of straight couples when the Kiss Cam catches them on the jumbotron. Bill Clinton’s anti-LGBT “Defense of Marriage Act” (1994) and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (1996) laws were in full swing–so much for the Clinton brand of “liberalism.” And while Vermont was busy becoming the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2000, California voters were busy passing Proposition 22, which stated marriage “is between a man and a woman”—eight years before they did it again with Proposition 8.
I thought of that moment again this year and all times the Dodgers have challenged my lifelong fandom over the years, most recently with signing pitcher and accused sexual assailant, Trevor Bauer. At its most base, fandom is a transaction: I can buy in or not.
But in a “culture war,” buying in may or may not be that simple. Perhaps buying that rainbow logo Dodger cap, tee, or beer koozie can be a form of solidarity with my fellow queer fans and allies, a collective finger to the oppressive forces that aim to make life miserable for women who might need abortions, or trans kids who need gender-affirming care, or bullied queer, black, brown, and immigrant kids who just want to read books that tell their stories, too.
And this year, perhaps, Dodger Pride Night can mean something else to us. Because we don’t have to look to Uganda or Turkey for repressive anti-LGBTQ+ laws. We can look across this country to states like Tennessee, Florida, and yes, even closer to home in Glendale, North Hollywood, and Temecula, to witness homophobic actions of “concerned parents” and conservative politicians who care more about banning books, changing curricula to reflect their own narrow worldviews, and fighting imagined threats like drag queens at story hour than representing all of their constituents equally.
The “culture wars” are knocking at our doors, showing us that even sports fandom is not so neutral, innocuous, or free from the traps of national politics.
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