Why LGBTQ Pride Festivals Are Becoming Black Lives Matter Protests

Fifty-one years after Stonewall, Pride is going back to its roots

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, most LGBTQ celebrations were canceled. But with protests across the world this week drawing attention to police brutality and the systemic racism facing the Black community, many of the organizations behind Pride festivals are re-engaging their plans and pivoting to join the protest movement.

Pride has always been a protest, and over time has become a celebration as well,” said David Correa, interim executive director at Heritage of Pride, the nonprofit that organizes each year’s massive NYC Pride celebration as well as ongoing community events and fundraising efforts throughout the year.

New York’s Pride march started officially in 1970 as Christopher Street Liberation Day, a protest march that commemorated the one-year anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn. Throughout the 1960s, police regularly harassed and raided gay bars—arresting trans women and butch lesbians, among others, for the “crime” of wearing clothes designated for the opposite gender.

The night of the Stonewall uprising, the West Village LGBTQ community had finally had enough. They fought back, throwing bricks and other objects at police, and the riot spilled over into several days of standoffs between the police and queer and trans New Yorkers.

Each year since, LGBTQ Pride falls on the day of the Stonewall uprising, June 28. But over the course of 50-odd years, the event has evolved from an anti-police riot into a massive public celebration, with corporate brand sponsorship totaling millions of dollars. Until Covid-19.

For many Pride festivals, this year already presented a shift in priorities overall as corporate diversity funding was pulled back during the pandemic, leaving organizers to rethink the purpose of their events. NYC Pride, for example, has one of the most robust sponsorship portfolios of any LGBTQ event—with T-Mobile and Mastercard leading donations, and dozens of partners including Hyatt, Omnicom Group, United Airlines and Target. But this year, some of its corporate partners have had to renegotiate their pledged donations while others—like the travel industry—had to pull out of the event because their bottom line had been hit hard.

“It’s been a difficult year in general,” Correa said. “Making pivots like this is not easy. Luckily, we have great partners that have stayed the course; some have had to reduce their gives, some have been able to maintain.”

Correa said a big part of the financial blow to Pride this year is the shift away from live events, where NYC Pride typically makes a good portion of its profits on ticket sales. Correa said those sales usually go to fund events like Youth Pride and other community support efforts. This year’s festival will be virtual and free to all.

Bringing ‘those on the margins’ to center stage

NYC Pride had already signed up Ashlee Marie Preston and Brian Michael Smith, both Black trans media personalities, in 2019 to host this year’s festival as co-emcees. But making the announcement this week felt especially impactful.

On Monday, Keyonna “Iyanna Dior” Kamry, a 20-year-old trans woman of color, was badly beaten by a crowd of men in Minneapolis, sparking a discussion about LGBTQ inclusion that followed on the heels of a Black trans man, Tony McDade, being killed by police in Florida, then misgendered in press accounts of the incident. Between the global protests over George Floyd’s killing by police, the handling of McDade’s death and the horrifying beating of Kamry in a video that went viral, the LGBTQ community seems to be talking about racial justice and transgender safety more than ever before.

And, as Preston pointed out, LGBTQ Pride started as a protest movement largely ignited by two trans women of color: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Preston said hosting NYC Pride 2020 feels “ancestral.”

“It’s important that the LGBTQ community at large remembers that it was those on the margins, who’ve been disproportionately impacted by socio-economic disparity, that have always fought tooth and nail for everything we have today,” Preston said.

In May, before Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed, Preston launched an effort to engage brands that typically sponsor Pride parades, asking them to redirect the funds to help the community survive the job losses and other impacts of the pandemic. On Friday, Preston said she was disappointed that no large corporations came on board, but ironically two small businesses owned by trans men of color were the first to sign the Pride Pledge.

When Preston saw the viral video of Kamry being assaulted by a crowd of men, she said her “heart sank.”

“As Black trans women, our identity isn’t always embraced by the Black community, our womanhood isn’t validated in feminist spaces, and our Blackness isn’t valued in the LGBTQ community,” Preston said. “Therefore, we find ourselves in the wilderness of the margins.”

Incorporating Black Lives Matter into Pride

Black Lives Matter has become bigger than the nonprofit organization that bears its name; it’s now a decentralized ideology as well, one that protesters with varying beliefs and values have adopted in personal ways. But the fact is that Black Lives Matter—the organization and the movement—was founded by a group of Black LGBTQ organizers.

Some of those queer members of BLM will meet on Monday with the organizers of Global Pride, a new event launching this year in response to Covid-19 and the cancellations of Pride festivals around the world. Global Pride has an estimated 400 nations currently signed up to contribute content to a 24-hour virtual event on June 27, with representatives from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.

We recognized that Pride may not happen this year,” said Natalie Thompson, co-chair of Global Pride and vp of DC’s Capital Pride and the international network Interpride. “Many times, the celebrations are the only times LGBTQ people are able to interact and feel proud and feel safe. Sometimes it’s someone’s first Pride. It’s for the youth, it’s for seniors, it’s for everyone to build community and find resources.”

Thompson said that after last weekend’s anti-racism and police brutality protests ramped up, she issued a call to action to her Global Pride colleagues.

As a Black woman myself … it would be unacceptable for me not to demand that this is a step that we take,” said Thompson. “We cannot continue moving forward unless we are addressing the issues that are happening right now.”

Thompson said she hopes Monday’s meeting will result in a partnership between Black Lives Matter and Global Pride, with BLM organizers kicking off the event so that the focus is clear and “to make sure that all of our content falls in line with the movement.”

Police are no longer welcome at Pride

Other Pride festivals have come under fire for starting to pivot without consulting with BLM organizations. In Los Angeles, the group Christopher Street West announced this year’s LA Pride would take the form of a protest march aligned with the current anti-police brutality movement. Community members quickly responded on social media, accusing the organizers of failing to reach out to Black leaders before making the announcement and asking whether LA Pride would include participation from the police department.

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Preston, who has sat on the board of LA Pride in previous years, said in a video posted to her social media accounts Wednesday that Black LGBTQ leaders in Los Angeles had not been contacted about LA Pride’s solidarity rally, and neither had Black Lives Matter’s LA chapter. BLMLA did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent Friday.

In Indianapolis, the Indy Pride committee announced on Thursday that it would cancel all LGBTQ Pride events save for a single virtual rally that will “uplift Black and brown people in our community, spotlight their stories and showcase their contributions to our community.” Indy Pride also announced that it was divesting from the local police department.

“Indy Pride will no longer contract with or utilize police departments for security at the Indy Pride Festival and other events, unless necessary for road closures,” reads Thursday’s statement. “In those situations, they will provide support to block traffic as mandated by the city, but will not participate in the event.”

In the nation’s capital, the group No Justice No Pride continued its years-long effort to ban police from the parade in Washington, D.C. In a petition, the group asked Capital Pride to stop allowing MPD to march in its parade, ban recruiters from law enforcement agencies from participating in Pride, and join the local movement pressuring the DC City Council to defund the police department.

Police divestment is a step LGBTQ Pride organizers are being asked to take to make the celebrations more inclusive to Black members of the community, Preston explained.

“The terror New Yorkers are experiencing at the hands of NYPD has always been there at the micro level,” Preston said, in reference to widespread reports and videos of police officers beating New Yorkers with batons at the start of the city’s 8 p.m. curfew. “When non-Black people put their bodies and their privilege on [the] line for Black liberation, they begin to get a taste of what we’ve been experiencing throughout generations.”