When our children grew tired of marching, we plopped onto a nearby curb. Just as we got settled, our elementary-schooler pointed in the direction of oncoming floats, raising an eyebrow at a bare-chested man in dark sunglasses whose black suspenders clipped into a leather thong. The man paused to be spanked playfully by a partner with a flog. “What are they doing?” my curious kid asked as our toddler cheered them on. The pair was the first of a few dozen kinksters who danced down the street, laughing together as they twirled their whips and batons, some leading companions by leashes. At the time, my children were too young to understand the nuance of the situation, but I told them the truth: That these folks were members of our community celebrating who they are and what they like to do.
The kink community has participated in Pride since its inception — risking their jobs and safety to be authentically themselves in public. Still, every year as Pride Month approaches, a debate erupts about whether kink belongs at Pride at all. Those hoping to oust kinksters often cite the presence of children as their top concern. That was pointedly the case this year when Twitter users argued that kink at Pride is a highly sexualized experience that children should be shielded from. Thousands of users supported these posts, claiming that kink at Pride crosses a line because minors also attend events. I agree that Pride should be a welcoming space for children and teens, but policing how others show up doesn’t protect or uplift young people. Instead, homogenizing self-expression at Pride will do more harm to our children than good. When my own children caught glimpses of kink culture, they got to see that the queer community encompasses so many more nontraditional ways of being, living, and loving.
As much as I want them to spend time in queer spaces so they can be with families like their own, I also want them to know that they shouldn’t limit their understanding of what relationships or expression look like to whatever’s most familiar. I want them to see that they can make their own ways in the world — and know that they’ll be supported and celebrated by their community. If we want our children to learn and grow from their experiences at Pride, we should hope that they’ll encounter kink when they attend. How else can they learn about the scope and vitality of queer life?
Anti-kink advocates tend to manipulate language about safety and privacy by asserting that attendees are nonconsensually exposed to overt displays of sexuality. The most outrageous claim is that innocent bystanders are forced to participate in kink simply by sharing space with the kink community, as if the presence of kink at Pride is a perverse exhibition that kinksters pursue for their own gratification. But kinksters at Pride are not engaged in sex acts — and we cannot confuse their self-expression with obscenity. Co-opting the language of sexual autonomy only serves to bury that truth and muddies the seriousness of other conversations about consent. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because anti-kink rhetoric echoes the same socialized disgust people have projected onto other queer people when they claim that our love is not appropriate for public spaces. It’s a sentiment that tolerates queerness only if it stays within parameters — offering the kind of acceptance that comes with a catch. The middle-aged, White men who I grew up with said they were “fine” with gay people as long as they wouldn’t be subjected to PDA — as long as all signs of queer love could be outwardly erased. Queer people’s freedom to be themselves is, according to this logic, contingent on non-queer people’s freedom from exposure to it.
The arguable difference here is that many of the latest objections are coming from self-identified queer people, but that shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. Respectability politics demand that queer people assimilate as much as possible into cis- and heteronormativity, hewing to mainstream cultural standards. Members of the queer community have internalized those norms to the point that we judge ourselves by them, and then criticize and ostracize others if they don’t uphold them, too. This is the same oppressive message that prevented my wife from transitioning for 30 years, and the same message that still keeps marginalized children from coming to terms with their own experiences with desire and embodiment.
Children who witness kink culture are reassured that alternative experiences of sexuality and expression are valid — no matter who they become as they mature, helping them recognize that their personal experiences aren’t bad or wrong, and that they aren’t alone in their experiences. I can’t think of a more relevant or important reminder for youth, who often struggle with feelings of isolation and confusion as they discover more about themselves and wrestle with concerns about whether they’re normal enough. Including kink in Pride opens space for families to have necessary and powerful conversations with young people about health, safety, consent, and — most uniquely — pleasure. Kink visibility is a reminder that any person can and should shamelessly explore what brings joy and excitement. We don’t talk to our children enough about pursuing sex to fulfill carnal needs that delight and captivate us in the moment. Sharing the language of kink culture with young people provides them with valuable information about safe sex practices — such as the importance of establishing boundaries, safe words and signals, affirming the importance of planning and research and the need to seek and give enthusiastic consent. I never want my children to worry that exploring any aspect of consensual sex or touch is too taboo.
If we’re afraid to talk about kink with our children, we prioritize the status quo — sanitizing and censoring their access to information about appropriate and normal self-expression. These are the very attitudes that made Pride necessary — and life-affirming — for so many of us in the first place, and we have no business imposing them on the next generation. Kink embodies the freedom that Pride stands for, reminding attendees to unapologetically take up space as an act of resistance and celebration — refusing to bend to social pressure that asks us to be presentable. That’s a value I want my children to learn. Affirming the kink community helps our children to love themselves and others with courage and resilience. If my wife and I had seen such fierce and determined role models as young people, we might have learned to be ourselves much sooner. We didn’t have that chance, but my children have that community in Pride, and I want to keep it that way.