Pride Month 2020 has been different, to say the least. In addition to a pandemic that has driven celebrations online, the start of June was marked by countless people taking to the streets as Black Lives Matter demonstrations spread to every state. Such a confluence has highlighted an ongoing reckoning about the ways in which the broader LGBTQ+ community excludes and further marginalizes those of us who are Black and Brown. While this month is often an opportunity for queer and trans people to let our rainbow flags fly proudly, it increasingly has become just another set of thirty-something days.
For Sasha Alexander, founder of the nonprofit Black Trans Media, Pride began as “a place of refuge.” The 34-year-old first attended New York City Pride at age 12 — an experience that indirectly inspired them to start Gay-Straight Alliances in their middle and high schools. “I knew in my little Black and Brown body that it was nice to be somewhere where I was being celebrated rather than torn down or harassed,” they say. But upon learning about the history of Pride, and having their own unpleasant experiences at the event, Alexander began distancing themselves from the annual celebration. “I started to really understand that this wasn’t the history of our community being honored there, and that this was a place where we weren’t supposed to talk about racism or be critical of cops,” they say. “It just feels like Pride is completely out of touch with its roots.”
Those roots are in protest — protest led by Black and Brown queer and trans women, no less. On June 28, 1969, the now-iconic Stonewall uprising, which is credited with launching the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, began. It was spurred by a tussle involving Stormé DeLarverie, a biracial, butch-presenting lesbian, and police who had raided the Stonewall Inn and were arresting patrons who either didn’t have proper IDs or were wearing clothing not associated with their assigned sex at birth. Similar raids were all too commonplace for the city’s queer and trans community, but on this night, a crowd of onlookers erupted in anger and fought back against the discrimination they’d once tolerated as a means of survival.
Even this particular Pride Month — a historic moment when pride in our Black queer selves should be at its highest — inspires little faith from the trans and gender-nonconforming community.
The riots lasted six days, with Black and Brown queer and trans folks like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera leading the revolution. By its end, law enforcement — and, by association, the political establishment — knew the community would no longer passively accept bigotry and brutality. The Stonewall event mirrored other uprisings of LGBTQ+ people across the country; riots occurred at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966, and the following year saw protests in Los Angeles in response to a raid on Black Cat Tavern. In 1970, the year after Stonewall, the first Pride marches were held in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
But what began as demonstrations meant to assert the humanity of queer and trans folks have since become parades, parties, and festivals that cater to mainstream (read: White) audiences — and seek out police support to do so. “Looking at the way Pride is now being co-signed by police, and police actually marching in the parade, it really feels disrespectful to the history of Pride,” says activist-actor Devin Michael Lowe, who founded a mutual aid initiative called the Black Trans Travel Fund, which pays for car ride services for Black trans women to be able to travel safely.
While some cities’ Pride marches have become police-free — Toronto and Minneapolis among them — they remain corporatized, which for Lowe introduces a different kind of conflict. “With every corporation you can think of during June slapping rainbows on some merchandise to sell to us,” he says, “they’re still not pouring a dime of that money into the hands of Black and Brown queer and trans people.”
Pride has never been an appointment-level celebration for me. Even Black-focused Pride events in majority-Black cities and neighborhoods like Atlanta and Harlem haven’t driven me to the streets in glee. As someone who is Black, queer, and gender nonconforming, I’m constantly confronted with the reality that the larger Black and LGBTQ+ communities haven’t affirmed the humanity of those of us at the intersection — and that even Black queer spaces can marginalize trans and gender-expansive folks like me, similarly treating us as freak shows and policing how we show up.
As such, even this particular Pride Month — a historic moment when pride in our Black queer selves should be at its highest — inspires little faith from the trans and gender-nonconforming community. Even the virtual Pride celebrations that have arisen this year seem to lack actual investment in the LGBTQ+ communities who need it most.
But I have witnessed, on an emotional level, what I believe our ancestors intended Pride to be.
Four years ago, early in the morning of June 12, a gunman entered Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and murdered 49 people — the majority of them Latinx — and wounded 53 others. Hours later and thousands of miles away, preparations were happening for Los Angeles’ annual Pride parade, which was set to cap off the weekend of celebration. As you can imagine, no one felt like celebrating. Even the weather, gloomy and overcast, seemed to be paying its respects.
But I, like many others, needed to be around other LGBTQ+ people that day. It didn’t feel right otherwise, even though many of us were unsettled by the massacre and by reports that police had apprehended a man with guns and explosives-making materials who intended to attend the Pride parade. After finding a parking spot in West Hollywood, I followed the sounds of cheers to the parade route, which was flanked by a sea of folks in rainbow paraphernalia. All I remember is tears streaming down my face as the community gathered to honor the lives lost, to stand up in the face of what felt like targeted bigotry. With every float that passed, I kept thinking of the infamous Queer Nation slogan, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.”
I like to think that the thousands of people who filled West Hollywood’s streets that day were there in the spirit of those activists 50 years ago who demanded to be seen and respected. And even though there was a (heightened) police presence and grand, branded gestures from corporations, those bells and whistles took a back seat to the audacity with which we assembled. We wanted to make a collective statement about our humanity as LGBTQ+ people, to show that our pride can’t be snuffed out, and to demonstrate to the world that there were more battles to fight in pursuit of progress to be had.
But perhaps it shouldn’t take a mass shooting for many to remember that the promised land of equality for our entire community is not yet nigh.
Ten days ago, an estimated 15,000 people gathered in front of the Brooklyn Museum for Brooklyn Liberation, a rally and silent march for Black trans lives organized by Black trans activists who took umbrage with the persistent erasure of the deaths of Black trans folks amid Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. (In late May, days after Floyd was killed, Tony McDade, a Black trans man, was killed by police in Florida; in June, two Black trans women, Dominique Fells and Riah Milton, were found dead.) The demonstration was historic; the rallying cry of “Black Trans Lives Matter” has never been endorsed so loudly by so many people.
But as community groups chart out how Pride necessarily evolves in the face of Covid-19 and the current social revolution, it’s the way Brooklyn Liberation put Black trans folks and Black trans–led organizations front and center — including the Okra Project, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, For the Gworls, GLITS, and Black Trans Femmes in the Arts — that might serve as a blueprint of sorts.
“The future of Pride is actually imagining and continuing to cultivate Black and Brown trans spaces for our folks to enjoy, strategize, and exist together,” says Sasha Alexander, mentioning how the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference, with its stated aim of building community among the marginalized, has become a Pride of sorts in its own right. “That is some of the future of Pride: actual, tangible things that provide for the community beyond just a day of shaking your ass on a float.”
Alexander also wants to reinject protest into the celebration. “We might still shake our asses,” they say, “but we’re going to shake our asses while we ask to defund jails and defund shelters and give us housing.”
Lowe agrees, noting, “We need to reframe the purpose and reshift the impact of Pride.”
“We should be celebrating the beauty of the existence of queer and trans people all year round,” he adds. “And it should be more of a continual call to action in regards to what steps we still need to be taking in order for true liberation from the constraints of this White supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
From political education to skill-building events, “I want Pride to be something that I can take pride in engaging in,” Lowe continues. “And that requires making sure that it remains a revolutionary space.”