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Know the West

Where does Pride fit in a time of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter?

For organizers and participants, this is a chance to return to the roots of Pride — a fight for equity.

 

In a typical year, after the drag shows and dance parties of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Black Pride, attendees gather in a hotel conference room to discuss queerness and race-related issues. But this year, with COVID-19 canceling many in-person pride gatherings, the event — which is separate from Seattle Pride, the fourth-largest such celebration in the country — will look very different.

Like many Pride events across the nation, Pacific Northwest Black Pride is going digital. But its core goal — combating the systematic oppression the Black queer community faces — remains the same, said Steven Sawyer, executive director of the People of Color Against AIDS Network, which runs Pacific Northwest Black Pride. “We’re preparing for virtual Pride and equipping people with what they can do to continue the resistance,” he said, including community conversations around how Black LGBTQ+ members can make sure their voices are heard moving forward.

Inaya Day performs at the 2019 Pacific Northwest Black Pride. This year, the event will be held virtually.
Courtesy Ulysses Curry

That resistance taps into the same sentiment powering the Black Lives Matter protests now sweeping the nation. “For me, being an African American gay man, I’ve always seen Pride and equity hand-in-hand,” Sawyer said. What had largely become a predominately white, commercialized celebration is now changing course and returning to Pride’s roots — a multiracial protest to fight inequality.

Over 50 years ago, police raided a gay club called the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, arresting 13 people. After the police hit a gay woman and forced her into a van, a crowd of onlookers started to fight back, throwing stones, bottles and other objects at law enforcement, which sparked a six-day-long protest. Transgender women of color, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were front and center, though they have only recently received widespread recognition as pivotal forces within the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Although it was far from the first time a gay bar was raided by police, the Stonewall Riots galvanized of movement of political activism within the queer community. Over time, this movement has flourished and evolved, with cities and towns all over the country now celebrating Pride, often in June, in part to commemorate the Stonewall uprising.

Yet some queer groups have raised concerns that the event has become too reliant on corporate sponsorship. Organizations like the Reclaim Pride Coalition in New York City argue that modern Pride has lost its radical roots — a worry that was originally raised after the 1993 gay, lesbian and bisexual march on Washington. “The ’93 march got very criticized from a lot of folks in the community for toning down the message (of civil protest) too much, and being too open to commercialization,” said Emily Hobson, a professor of history and gender, race and identity at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Marsha P. Johnson is just recently receiving widespread recognition as a pivotal force during the Stonewall Riots. She is the subject of a recent documentary, ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.’
Netflix

As big Pride events continue to grow, Sawyer argues that they’re moving further away from their original purpose. “The first Stonewall uprising was really about ‘We’re mad as hell, and we’re going to start to take back our own voice and speak to the inequities that are happening to us,’ ” he said.

Many of those inequities, including heightened economic insecurity, violence and harassment, are particularly pervasive in communities of color. According to the Human Rights Campaign, Black LGBTQ+ individuals are more economically disadvantaged, face more housing insecurity and are more heavily impacted by HIV than their white peers. They are also twice as likely to experience physical violence during a hate crime as queer people of other races. Transgender women are particularly vulnerable to violence, discrimination and poverty, with trans women of color making up four out of five anti-trans homicides. 

“We intentionally put people of color and trans people of color on the front of the line in order to get their words out and heard.”

For many modern Pride organizers, prioritizing the fight against these systemic injustices is crucial. “We cannot consider ourselves equal until we are all equal,” said Natalie Coblentz, production manager for Capital City Pride in Olympia, Washington, who uses the pronouns they/them and is Latinx. “We intentionally put people of color and trans people of color on the front of the line in order to get their words out and heard,” they said. Recently, Capital City Pride added its name to a growing list of LGBTQ+ organizations dedicated to combating racial violence created in the wake of recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. “The LGBTQ Movement’s work has earned significant victories in expanding the civil rights of LGBTQ people,” the document reads. “But what good are civil rights without the freedom to enjoy them?”

TODAY, PRIDE ALSO PROVIDES a space to celebrate queerness as a community. Sawyer still remembers his amazement at the number of LGBTQ+ people who gathered at the first Pride event he attended, in Houston, Texas, in 1993. “It was really significant for me to see my community in this light,” he said. Even though this year’s Pacific Northwest Black Pride — held in August, because organizers wanted a specific time to celebrate Black queerness — will have to be virtual, they hope it evokes the solidarity of an in-person celebration. Organizers also want to continue empowering the Black queer community through a virtual voter registration drive, as well as online workshops on re-envisioning the justice system. Additionally, they plan to submit a letter to Seattle’s mayor, suggesting direct actions she could take to reduce police violence.

Other Pride organizations have struggled to incorporate the Black Lives Matter movement’s priorities into this year’s events, however. In Los Angeles, the nonprofit that organizes L.A. Pride was heavily criticized for working closely with law enforcement, but not local Black leaders, in planning a march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, according to the Los Angeles Times. (After the nonprofit stepped aside in favor of new organizers, a large crowd held the march on June 14.) The blunder did not surprise Sawyer, who has seen many Pride organizations forget about Black queer communities. “You can’t try to speak for us, you can’t try to do for us — you’ve got to partner with us,” he said.

Now, the question is whether this momentum will continue into future Pride celebrations. “This is a call to action,” Sawyer said. “We need to put teeth to Pride like we haven’t before.”

Helen Santoro is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.