SINCE coming out in the ‘80s, I’ve partied at Pride functions across America. In the conservative South, you sometimes cope with uninvited guests—protestors. I never imagined I’d be among them. Regrettably, at Atlanta Pride’s October 11th gay bash at the Georgia Aquarium, I found myself chanting, not cheering.
PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—where I’ve worked since college, is a longtime sponsor of Atlanta Pride. Two years ago, upon my arrival in the Big Peach, I was stunned to learn that the Pride kick-off party was held at the Georgia Aquarium, where 120,000 exotic sea and land animals are crammed into chlorinated, artificial exhibits. The setting is one of incarceration, not liberation, and I wanted to organize a demonstration. Instead, I hesitantly agreed to tag along with a performer friend to mingle and see if others sensed the irony of celebrating freedom in a building that celebrates captivity.
“It’s too sad to think about!” a tranny in our group observed, sweetly nudging me from being a Debbie Downer. “Want a drink?!” I broke away to strike up casual conversations with strangers who didn’t know I’m an animal activist. On the dance floor, most revelers were too busy singing along, chatting, or cruising to pay much attention to the thousands of scaly creatures swirling by the wall-sized windows. The passing flashes might as well have been reflections off a disco ball.
“That’s Beethoven,” said an aquarium guide named Judy. She was pointing at a beluga whale through a tank window near the pulsing dance floor. The whale was frantically twisting.
“He doesn’t look very happy” I hollered above the Gaga remix. “Could it be the music?”
“Yes, it really does bother them. When the music starts pounding the belugas go nuts and start attacking the harbor seals.”
Belugas, dolphins, and other marine mammals communicate by sonar: they emit sound waves which bounce back from objects so they know where to feed, breed, or avoid danger. In captivity, they’re under constant stress from their sonar bouncing back from the tank walls, and from excessive human noise. Atlanta Pride adds to their plight with circuit party DJs. The UN banned music torture of prisoners, but it’s still in common practice at the Georgia Aquarium, and a small clique of gay officials is institutionalizing it.
Wildlife studies show there are gay belugas, and our similarities don’t end there. Male belugas congregate in droves and unlike other whales, show a range of facial expressions. This cuteness is their curse; it’s why they’ve been yanked from the ocean and put on display for human amusement since 1861.
I don’t think most people are cruel, just oblivious. I assumed that Atlanta’s Pride board would agree to meet and, once informed, choose another of the city’s many hotspots. They didn’t even respond to my e-mail or follow-up calls. I filed an official cruelty complaint in Fulton County and wrote a Huffington Post blog about the sorry experience. Pink tweeted it to her 14,000,000 followers, marine biologists echoed PETA’s concerns, and Tim Gunn and Jane Lynch asked Atlanta Pride to change venues. Pride’s executive director Buck Cooke reacted by issuing canned quotes from the Georgia Aquarium’s rent-an-expert and said the event was staying put. Last year, the party was a “blast,” as usual.
This year has seen a national backlash against marine animal parks, and the Georgia Aquarium in particular. The sleeper hit documentary Blackfish exposed the torment involved in capturing and confining whales, and NOAA publicly denied the Georgia Aquarium’s request to import eighteen more beluga whales on grounds of cruelty. Several hundred gay Georgians renewed PETA’s appeal to change venues, but for some reason Buck Cooke is beholden to this disgraceful tourist attraction. PETA is still sponsoring Pride, but we’re protesting the party monsters.
Leaving the aquarium party two years ago, I wandered through a dark corridor teeming with tropical river animals. Asian small-clawed otters huddled with their faces in the wall away from a fluorescent light, quivering to Katy Perry. Electric eels were piled on top of each other in a tank the size of a bath tub. An albino alligator had squished himself into the corner of a small display case with his right claw curled oddly against the glass.
“It looks like he’s flipping his middle finger at us!” said a tipsy lesbian.
“I think we all deserve it,” her girlfriend tersely replied.
Dan Mathews is the senior vice president of PETA. His memoir Committed is now out in paperback.