Since coming out in the 1980s, I’ve partied at Pride functions in big and small towns across America. In the conservative South, you sometimes have to walk past uninvited guests: protestors. I never imagined I’d be among them. Regretfully, at Atlanta Pride’s October 11th gay bash at the Georgia Aquarium, I will be chanting, not cheering.
PETA, where I’ve worked since college, is a longtime sponsor of Atlanta Pride. Our roots run deep in Georgia’s gay scene: RuPaul appeared on our cruelty-free cosmetics guide, Lady Bunny hosts our “Fur is A Drag” fashion show parodies, and The B-52s, who drew Atlanta Pride’s biggest crowd ever, have long headlined PETA benefits. Two years ago, I was thrilled to help staff our vegan outreach table at the bustling Pride fest in Piedmont Park—in part because the sparse Pride turnout in blue-collar Norfolk, where PETA is based, is like a Honey Boo Boo cast party.
Upon my arrival in the Big Peach I was stunned to learn that the Pride kick-off party was at the controversial Georgia Aquarium, in which 120,000 exotic sea and land animals are crammed into chlorinated artificial exhibits. Magnificent marine mammals have met premature, newsworthy deaths there. 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 main 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, especially the males. When the music starts pounding the docile whale sharks go nuts and start attacking the harbor seals.”
Beluga whales, whale sharks, dolphins and other marine mammals communicate by sonar: they emit sound waves which bounce back from the ocean floor or an ice floe or an inlet so they know where to feed, breed or avoid danger. In captivity, whales and dolphins die prematurely from the stress of their sonar bouncing back from the tiny 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.
Interestingly, wildlife studies show there are gay beluga whales, and our similarities don’t end there. Male belugas congregate in droves, have a sophisticated way of communicating, and unlike other whales, have a wide 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 the Atlanta Pride board would agree to meet, discuss the issue, and, once informed, eagerly choose another of Atlanta’s countless hotspots. They didn’t even respond to my email or follow-up calls. I then filed an official cruelty complaint with Fulton County and wrote a Huffington Post blog about the whole sorry experience. Pink tweeted it to her 14 million followers, marine biologists echoed PETA’s concerns, and gay icons Tim Gunn Jane Lynch and Kathy Najimy politely asked Atlanta Pride to simply change venues. Pride’s executive director Buck Cooke reacted as if he’d been asked to undergo conversion therapy. He re-issued canned quotes from the Georgia Aquarium’s rent-an-expert and said the party was staying put. Last year, I heard the party was a “blast,” as usual.
2013 has seen a major national backlash against marine animal parks and the Georgia Aquarium in particular. The sleeper hit documentary Blackfish exposed the gut-wrenching torment involved in capturing and confining whales, and NOAA publicly denied the Georgia Aquarium’s request to import 18 more beluga whales from Russia on grounds of cruelty to animals. Several hundred gay Georgians, including longtime Pride philanthropists, renewed PETA’s appeal to change venues, but Buck Cooke won’t budge. Nobody can figure out why he is so beholden to this disgraceful tourist attraction.
PETA is not pulling our sponsorship of Atlanta Pride in the park, but this year we are also leading a protest outside the kick-off party at the aquarium on October 11. It’s a trip I’m dreading.
As I left the aquarium party two years ago, I wandered through a dark corridor boasting 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 PETA’s Senior Vice President. He has lectured at Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford and his memoir Committed is now in paperback.