For many, big parades and festivals celebrating all things LGBTQ seem like a faint memory of a pre-pandemic existence. Pride events marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in 2019 were some of our last vestiges of rainbow-laden streets filled with throngs of people. 

As COVID-19 spread across the country in the spring of 2020, Pride festivals were some of the first big events to be cancelled, and, as reported in this week’s issue of qnotes, 2021 is seeing more delays in events across the country. But, there’s also a rising tide of change happening in Pride events and the groups that organize them. 

According to the United States Association of Prides, such organizations in the U.S. mobilize more than 20 million individuals in communities across the country through annual events. In some major cities, Pride organizations are dissolving, however, and many are undergoing major shifts — disappointing to some and heralded by others. 

A lot has changed in the past two years. The police-involved killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the increased awareness of sexual assault and gender inequities brought on by the #MeToo movement, the record number of violent attacks against the transgender community and the increased political divisions that exploded on January 6 have all led to increased attention on the disparities marginalized communities face. Instead of employing the overused term of “cancel culture,” one could argue that it has been a positive time for “accountability culture.” 

The LGBTQ community has not been immune to these conversations and the reckonings of social justice in America. 

Editor at Large for the Advocate, John Casey, pointed out in February that for the first time in our history, three of the national legacy LGBTQ equality organizations (National LGBTQ Task Force, Human Rights Campaign and National Center for Lesbian Rights) are all being led by Black executives.

“I don’t think we can look at these fragmentations as one-offs,” said Casey. “Rather, they are harbingers of things to come as a new generation rises and replaces what have traditionally been organizations made up of predominantly white gay men and lesbians.” 

How It Started

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Tired of ongoing raids against the LGBTQ community, patrons fought back, and the Stonewall Riots or Uprising began. Earlier protests had occurred at Cooper’s Do-nuts and the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, 1959 and 1967 respectively, and at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966. A year after Stonewall, the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee held the first Gay Pride March in New York. 

All of these events had important things in common. They were in response to ongoing police harassment of the LGBTQ community and significantly involved the transgender community, many also centering around the lives of Black and Brown people. That history has served as the trigger point for many protests against Pride organizations in recent years. 

In Philadelphia, criticism of Philly Pride Presents, the organization that managed the annual pride event for 30 years, ultimately led to its dissolution this summer. While there remain questions about the group’s organizational structure, transparency and finances, outrage stemmed from what some called “revisionist, racist and transphobic” rhetoric on its social media pages and a history of not representing the full community. A new group of queer and trans activists are now stepping forward to create a new Pride for the city. Mark Segal, a key figure in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community and one of the original organizers of NYC’s pride in 1970, shared in a recent column that “The earth below Philly Pride Presents has been shifting for several years now. People in the community have continued to ask for changes, and none were coming.”   

A National Shift

Segal points out a shift that has been taking place across the country. In New York, Reclaim Pride launched in 2019 as a community protest on the corporate focus of Heritage of Pride’s event. Their Queer Liberation March has served an alternative to New York City Pride in June ever since, and says that it is committed to “no corps, no cops, no bs!” 

In response, organizers at Heritage of Pride also announced this year they would ban police officers from participating in the annual Pride parade while in uniform until at least 2025. Toronto Pride hasn’t allowed police since 2017 and Capital Pride Alliance (Washington, D.C.) started doing so in 2018. 

In Chicago, Pride Without Prejudice is an ad hoc group of LGBTQ activists who held a march in June with the goal of taking Pride back to its roots. In a news release, organizers said the march would call to defund police, redistribute wealth, decriminalize sex work and center on Black and trans people, “who are typically marginalized or tokenized at white-led Pride events.” 

Indivisible Chicago, said that “the cancellation of last year’s [Chicago] ‘Pride Parade’ gave several queer community members the opportunity to replace that vapid, corporation-drenched spectacle with a truly community-driven event.”

In Boston, the decades-old LGBTQ organization that organized the city’s Pride Parade announced a decision to disband in July after growing criticism from the community. Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted the Boston Pride parade in 2015, demanding more inclusivity and representation, and, in 2020, 80 percent of the organization’s volunteers resigned and called for the resignation of the entire board of directors. The newly formed Boston Pride 4 The People released a statement that said “the [then] current Pride Board no longer holds the trust of LGBTQ+ community that Boston Pride is supposed to serve.” It stemmed from a number of grievances of racism and what some called a lackluster statement on police brutality that removed “Black Lives Matter” from a unified statement.

Internationally, London Pride recently cancelled plans for a Pride festival and parade this year, citing pandemic requirements. However, LGBTQ advocate and journalist Peter Tatchell said on Facebook that he suspects “a reason for the cancellation may be because big sponsors like Barclays and Tesco, and some LGBT+ organizations, were allegedly not supporting this year’s parade.” According to Tatchell, who was also one of the organizers of UK’s first Pride in 1972, allegations of racism and bullying within the organization have not been investigated and may be a factor. 

“Pride has strayed far from the roots of the event,” said Tatchell, “It’s corporate and depoliticized. The organizers no longer profile LGBT+ human rights issues.” 

Pride events and LGBTQ organizations have evolved in many ways over the years, but one thing remains true – they have served to make visible our community’s struggles and successes. While not dismissing the need for change, we owe it to those leaders of the early movement to not forget that. 

As Casey says, “We could very well be at a point of radical reckoning in our community, the likes of which probably have not been seen since the early days of the AIDS pandemic, when women stepped in to lead when men were too sick to do so. Our community transitioned then from Stonewall rebellion to ACT UP resistance. The ripple effect of AIDS was felt on an entire generation, and it forced changes in so many directions.” 

The awareness and need for a return to social justice in our Pride organizations and in our overall movement is nothing different. It’s an evolution that has the power to create positive change, both within our communities and beyond. It will also bring about new ideas and opportunities, marches, events and venues that further amplify our full community — if we let it happen.

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