Pride has become corporate and white as hell. How do we reclaim its rebellious roots?
The first time I ever attended a Pride celebration, I was absolutely captivated. It's the usual story. Coming from a semi-small town in Minnesota, Pride for me was limited to digital spaces like Tumblr. Sure, my high school had a Gay Straight Alliance, but it left a lot to be desired. Going from the practical-nothing of my hometown to Minneapolis's Loring Park celebration, how could I be anything but exhilarated?
Those emotions, however, faded over time. After I moved to Minneapolis, Black LGBTQ+ people made up almost my entire circle of friends. For once, I wasn't starved for community. When I went back to Pride, I did so with new knowledge about the politics behind Minneapolis's event, including instances of anti-Blackness from organizers. Because I felt more fulfilled in my daily life, I didn't need to accept the scraps Pride presented to me. I knew what a real five-course meal tasted like.
I'm far from the only Black person to be disillusioned by mainstream Pride celebrations. Jaelynn Scott, executive director of the Lavender Rights Project, an organization based in Tacoma, Washington, which provides free and low-cost legal services to marginalized communities, tells Mic that Pride had issues with overwhelmingly whiteness even when she came out in the mid-90's. Because of that, Scott says, "Pride never really resonated with me growing up."
"In Mississippi, we really didn't come out. We weren't doing the rainbow flags. That wasn't the way we celebrated. We celebrated at Splash Houston and other specifically Black queer events," Scott explains. That disconnect didn't only stem from Pride consistently centering the experiences of white, cis gay men. As Scott says, "Pride didn't have meaning to me because I also didn't know the history."
Let mainstream events today tell it and Pride is brought to you by AT&T, Comcast, Walmart, and other corporations that are quick to slap a rainbow over their logo while donating to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians. The multi-day resistance against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City that launched the modern gay rights movement as we know it — including Pride — is ignored. After all, acknowledging the Stonewall Riots, and Pride's origins as a response to police brutality, certainly wouldn't help in ongoing efforts to make queerness more palatable to the mainstream.
It's hard to bury history forever, though. The Stonewall Riots took place relatively recently, in 1969. Before her death, Marsha P. Johnson, a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front who co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) alongside Sylvia Rivera, often spoke about her involvement in the riots. Through her legacy and the legacy of the other people who made a stand at Stonewall 50 years ago, many LGBTQ+ people of color have taken up the rallying cry that "the first Pride was a riot." It's not only a protest maxim against mainstream Pride's exclusionary practices, but it helps people of color forge connections with a celebration that can sometimes feel like it's not welcoming them.
"After I learned the history that Black trans women and Latinx trans women were the start of Pride and kept the movement going, I've reclaimed Pride for myself," Scott says. "I think as an organization and a community ... that's what we've been doing: a constant sort of reclaiming Pride for us, and moving away from this white gay corporate pride."
Some argue, however, that Pride is such a big event now that it would not be possible without its corporate sponsors. Dan Brown, programmer of Birmingham Pride in the United Kingdom, told Vice, "Even putting on a parade without council funding can be ridiculously expensive, so sponsorship means that local support groups and NGOs have more chance of raising money."
Corporate involvement comes at a great cost, though. Target isn't going to throw money at an event that keeps its anti-police orientation, for example. So to keep the money, concessions have to be made. As Scott explains, "The marketing and the corporate presence at Pride events began to shape with Pride looks like. While it had already been white and erased Black and Latinx histories, the influence of corporate partnerships further erased Blackness, transness, and [Indigenous identity]."
"The events, the highlights, and all of the things are about trying to get money from wealthy white gays. In Seattle, we see it as Black trans folk not being approached or represented at these events at all. There are ethical decisions made that aren't healthy for our community, like police presence at pride," Scott continues. "There's a complete erasure of our experience with the lack of safety that a police presence has, at events that we are supposed to be celebrated at. All of this is heavily influenced by the fact that corporate sponsorships uplifts and highlights white voices."
Some people have responded to the growing phenomenon of rainbow capitalism by protesting at Pride. In 2017, organizers in Minneapolis halted that year's parade. The protest was driving in part by parade organizers' last-minute decision to allow police to participate.
For Scott and the Lavender Rights Project, reclaiming Pride means stepping away from an event that doesn't serve them anymore, and instead holding their own. Earlier this month, the Lavender Rights Project put on a weekend-long convention, where they specifically centered the needs of LGBTQ+ people of color. Available resources included helping people with résumés, holding healing sessions, and offering legal assistance for trans people looking to change their names. And the work didn't end there.
"We are gathering the community for regular brunches and 'get to know yous'," Scott says. "In addition, we're working with a company to promote and push out Black trans histories and their contribution to the LGBTQ+ community."
Unfortunately, these alternative Pride efforts can sometimes replicate the same issues plaguing mainstream events. In 2019, Reclaim Pride Coalition captured mass attention with its Queer Liberation March. Per the organization, over 40,000 people marched the same route as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, an event held in 1970 to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. But ahead of its third annual march this year, the group posted an accountability statement on Instagram, writing that it "has not done enough to combat repeated instances of structural racism and individual racist acts within our organization."
To some, the Reclaim Pride Coalition's statement may read like a cue to give up trying for a better Pride. What's the point if people are never going to be satisfied? However, Pride is not about a pursuit of satisfaction alone. It is a freedom struggle. Nobody — and, in particular, no LGBTQ+ person of color — should ever feel the need to settle for something less just because it is the most convenient path. And in New York, organizations like the Stonewall Protests, a collective of Black LGBTQ activists, are still working to ensure that Black LGBTQ+ people get what they deserve.
When I used to attend organizing meetings or participate in more fellowships, I'd often get asked world-building questions: What does a world where we're all free look like? How would I spend my days there? At first, I always found questions like that hard to answer. I knew what I didn't want; I knew what freedom wasn't. But over time, I realized that my plans for freedom all center around being in community.
Similarly, when I asked her what a perfect Pride would look like, Scott focused on what is good for the collective. "A Pride that I want to participate in redirects resources in the sense of mutual aid to the communities that need it," she says. "There is still this sense of celebration, but we actually lift up and center the people who started the damn thing."
If the corporations donating money today stick around, Scott wants to see that funding help provide Black trans people with basic necessities, like housing. Ultimately, she tells Mic, "We come up with plans to protect our community at these functions. We strengthen the community. We build allies and then we train allies. We train white folk on their privilege, on how to be good allies with Black trans people. That's the type of event that I want."