Pride 2020 is unlike any in the history of the modern lgbtq movement, and offers an overdue opportunity to retool Pride as a powerful weapon in the fight against systemic racism.
June 19, 2020
As we march into the last week of June, fists yet raised, one thing is obvious: Pride 2020 is different.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has cancelled parades, relegated speeches and rallies to social media, and exiled drag shows to streaming platforms. Parties, if they happen at all, will be small, with all the awkwardness demanded by social distancing. In towns and cities across the country, community agencies that rely on June fundraisers to meet large percentages of their annual financial goals are scrambling to create virtual campaigns to minimize their losses. Even the 2020 Annual General Meeting and World Conference of InterPride, the global organization encompassing more than three hundred and fifty independent community organizations that plan Pride events around the world, scheduled for October, will now be convened online rather than in Oslo, Norway.
For comfortable, white, lgbtq people, these annual commemorations come just in time to remind us, as memes on social media have rightly admonished, that the lgbtq history of resistance to police brutality and social injustice is not a tidy story of peaceful civil disobedience and polite Kameny-esque picket lines, but is instead replete with vandalism, the destruction of property – both public and private – and, yes, even violence. In the words of the chant familiar to every Queer Nation veteran: STONEWALL WAS A RIOT! WE WILL NOT BE QUIET!
The first iteration of these memes annoyed me with their oversimplification of a complex history: the Stonewall Uprising was more a turning point than a “spark”, “beginning”, or “birth”, after years of queer resistance in cities across the US, all built on a nascent international movement that began in the previous century (and thus the importance of distinguishing what happened after Stonewall as the modern lgbtq movement). The best versions of these memes did at least acknowledge the essential role played by people of color and transgender women, an important and accurate revision of how history has sometimes told the story.
Of equal or greater concern is another persistent omission from this story, especially in recent years, as queerkind has celebrated landmark victories in its struggle for legal equality. While the progressive world hailed the abolishing of sodomy laws, the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the establishment of marriage equality, and the concurrent shifts in public opinion as signature triumphs of a successful movement advancing with unprecedented speed, the benefits of these accomplishments have accrued disproportionately to queer white people, while queer people of color have been largely excluded from the boon.
The data collected by organizations such as the Trevor Project, LGBT Funders, and the Williams Institute, among others, paint only a partial picture. With alert eyes and ready ears open to people of color in our communities, we can know for ourselves: Black and Latinx lgbtq people have less accumulated wealth, less access to healthcare, and a greater likelihood of experiencing homelessness, anti-gay harassment, and police violence than queer white people. Queer youth of color are less likely to complete high school than their white peers, and more likely to be estranged from birth family, contract HIV, attempt suicide, suffer sexual violence, and depend on survival sex to meet basic needs. Similarly, non-white queer elders are less likely to have access to healthcare, social services, and housing than their white counterparts. And no one in our entire society seems to be at greater risk for harassment, economic injustice, and sexual violence than Black trans women. In other words, the advancements and opportunities derived from the supposed triumphs of the modern lgbtq movement that emerged after Stonewall have not accrued equally to queer people of color by any metric, a circumstance that demonstrates the real-life consequences of intersectionality and perhaps lends credence to another critique of the movement after Stonewall: that its agendas had never properly taken into account the needs and desires of queer people of color in the first place.
Still, even the recognition that queer people of color have not shared equally in the victories of the modern lgbtq movement fails to acknowledge an even larger tragedy, more breathtaking and heartbreaking in both scope and scale: that, while the modern civil rights movement and the modern lgbtq movement both emerged from the same general social and cultural unrest of the mid-twentieth century (along with the movements for women’s equality, for sexual freedom, and to end the war in Vietnam), the standings of these two endeavors some sixty years later could not be more different.
For instruction on this disparity, we need only consider two recent events: the Supreme Court’s decision handed down last week in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, finally including lgbtq people in Title VII employment protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the nation’s re-education, occasioned by weeks of global protests denouncing the brutal public execution of George Floyd by a white police officer, specifically, and police brutality and racial injustice, generally, on the history of Juneteenth, the June 19th celebration commonly understood to commemorate the end of slavery.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, crafted largely by John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s administration as an accomplishment of white men, a bill for, not by, Black citizens, did not originally specify “sex” in its Title VII provisions. Until the 1980’s, conventional wisdom held that the sex provision was a “monkey wrench that unintentionally became part of the machine” according to Louis Menand in his 2014 New Yorker article, “How Women Got In On the Civil Rights Act.” Menand tells how scholars “dug into the archives” and discovered the riveting, more complicated story of the unsung efforts of Alice Paul, student of the militant British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, prominent veteran of the American suffrage movement that had successfully culminated in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, founder of the fringe National Women’s Party, and one of the earliest proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment. Civil rights leaders opposed the inclusion of women’s protections in Title VII, and some claim their antipathy to the idea as one of the reasons the speakers’ platform at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom later that summer included not a single woman. Menand recounts how the segregationist democrats, who held the majority in congress, may have sought to use the addition of the sex provision as a poison pill, but the interests of Virginia textile mill owners, employing women whose hours were then limited by sexist laws, and the political necessities of Representative Howard Smith (D-VA) also played a crucial role. Indeed, the full history of how “sex” came to be added to Title VII is no less complex than the histories of the modern lgbtq and civil rights movements themselves, and efforts to oversimplify it are equally misled. But one thing is clear: without the civil rights protests then roiling U.S. streets, there would never have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law Martin Luther King, Jr., rightly hailed as a “child of the storm”; and without the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there would have been no Title VII, no protections against discrimination on the basis of sex, and no court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County extending those protections to lgbtq citizens.
One cannot, on numerous grounds, overstate the debt owed by the lgbtq movement to the civil rights movement, but in the long-sought achievement of legal protection against employment discrimination, one can easily draw a direct line from the civil rights protesters, who overtook both the streets of American municipalities and the moral imaginations of decent white Americans, to last Friday’s Supreme Court victory. In making that connection, one would be further grossly remiss not to recognize that, under the new interpretation, white lgbtq workers will likely immediately enjoy the total protections of the law, while people of color, queer or not, have even yet to see its full promise fulfilled, as demonstrated by unemployment statistics, reality on the ground in communities of color, and by studies showing that nothing more than a name perceived to be Black-sounding on a resumé significantly reduces an applicant’s chance of landing a first interview, never mind an actual job. Such an inequity should rouse us all from our comfortable positions as lgbtq winners in the battle for legal equality and, if not inspire us to act, perhaps shame us into it.
Similarly rousing, our national return to school for lessons in the history and meaning of Juneteenth, commemorating the 1865 freeing of slaves in Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had “then, henceforth, and forever” freed them under the law and a full forty days-in-the-wilderness after the defeat of the Confederacy, should call lgbtq citizens to action. In some of our biggest American cities, hosting the world’s largest events, Pride week immediately follows or encompasses and, in some years, even commences on June 19th, but only in cities with Black pluralities can I imagine a majority of Pride participants even aware of it, and as the last several weeks should have taught us, our ignorance is not acceptable. Even many lgbtq white people with fairly accurate understandings of the Stonewall Uprising, and a smaller number, growing all the time, who also know something of the 1966 riots at Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco, where police harassment was answered by a trans woman’s cup of hot coffee in a cop’s face, or the 1967 demonstrations in Los Angeles, following a brutal police raid at the Black Cat bar, organized by a militant group called Personal Rights through Defense and Education (the original PRIDE), but very few will have heard of Jubilee Day, or Freedom Day, or Juneteenth. If Pride events, especially those whose boards and memberships are dominated by white people, are going to smother June 19th in rainbows, or by proximity and sheer size, even overshadow it, history and values oblige the Pride community to talk about it, act on it, and change it.
The details of the workshops planned for InterPride’s now-virtual conference in October aren’t yet available to non-registrants, so I can’t tell you whether planners intended or have re-programmed workshops or other sessions to address issues of racial inequality. Similarly, neither the Consolidated Association Of Prides, Inc. (CAPI), nor the affiliated United States Association of Prides (USAP) make any mention of how Pride organizations can work to repay the lgbtq Pride community’s socio-cultural, legal, and material debt to Black people and the civil rights movement. I can already anticipate that some of the officers of CAPI and USAP, and some of its member organizations without specific references to racial justice in their missions and values statements, will perhaps argue that this is not part of their missions, but I will disagree. USAP states its “primary purpose” is to “promote the public education and awareness of the personal rights and civil liberties of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals”, some of whom are obviously people of color, and who, by virtue of the magnifying effect of intersectionality, are arguably in greatest need of USAP’s support. CAPI says it’s dedicated to networking and “serving as a role model in advancing the Pride of our communities”, the assignment of both article and capitalization to Pride suggesting both its meanings as a feeling and a specific, if wide-ranging, series of events. Obviously, the advancement of the feeling of pride is hindered when anyone among us can be flippantly and arbitrarily murdered by the state. And as for capital-p Pride events and the local and regional organizations around the country that underwrite, plan, and produce them, they too must come to see the connection between their costly, consumptive pageants, the values those spectacles are meant to affirm, and the persistence of systemic racism. In some American cities, enslaved Africans and their descendants built the very roads on which we march; and four hundred years of their forced labor, Jim Crow suffering, red-lined deprivation, and neo-liberal delay have alone purchased the twenty-first century’s accumulated wealth, the signature boast of predatory capitalism, and the economic predicate to the increasingly politically safe, largely middle class, and all-too-often milquetoast phenomenon that Pride has become.
I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush here. I have myself participated in local Pride events in various cities for the last thirty years, as an event attendee, a parade participant, an event volunteer, a participant in planning processes, a media consultant, and as a member of subcommittees, committees and one board of directors. Across those decades, the abiding and unavoidable commonality between all those groups was the degree to which they were always and essentially local in nature, whether local be defined as town, city, or region. These events, at their best, are honest if celebratory reflections of the communities producing them. Every one is unique. The answer to the question of how Pride events must broaden their scope and address racial injustice as a first priority will, therefore, probably not come from InterPride, or USAP, or CAPI. It may not even come from the local boards of directors or even their usual, reliable volunteer base, resistant to change as almost all corporate entities can be. The answer may have to come from the collective frustration of community members uninvolved in the ongoing, year-long planning and funding required by the Pride events they attend every year. I urge readers, especially white readers, to ask yourselves if the organization responsible for staging Pride events where you live has already found successful ways to:
- center Black voices and narratives throughout planning processes, policymaking procedures, and event production,
- include diverse people of color in leadership structures, not to merely reflect the community-at-large, but to also acknowledge and remediate the way in which, historically, the group may have actively excluded people of color from leadership or passively allowed white people to dominate it.
- use the platform of Pride to elevate and support queer people of color and educate others about the dynamics of intersectionality,
- heed and respond with action to the needs, wishes, and ideas expressed by stakeholders of color, and
- invest community resources — disproportionately, in reparation for historically disparate outcomes— in realizing the needs, wishes and ideas expressed by stakeholders of color.
If your local Pride organization has accomplished all that, then this exhortation is not addressed to you, and I hope such organizations will share what they know with the other member organizations of USAP. But if your local Pride organization has not already taken these steps, now is the time for you to become involved in your local Pride organization. Now is the time to make real change in how your community celebrates Pride, perhaps a community that has been blind to its own systemic racism in the past. Now is the time to apply our greatest resources and energies to a cause that is as very much our own as the fights at the Gene Compton Cafeteria, and at the Black Cat Bar, and, fifty-one years ago this week, at the Stonewall Inn.
In the excellent book, The End of Policing, author Alex Vitaley does not shy from the intertwined nature of racism and homophobia in the history of policing and cites their insidious persistence in modern police departments. He observes that a culture of toxic masculinity lingers in even the most progressive departments, and queerkind of all races still face police harassment and brutality, even if agencies, officers, and their unions have had to rely on an ever-shrinking legal basis to justify it. I’m not arguing that the fight against unjust policing, or any other cause of the modern lgbtq movement, is altogether won for queer white people, but not at all for Black queer people. I’m arguing that the difference in outcomes evident right now is sufficient to call the entire Pride community back into the fight as never before. More importantly, I’m arguing that it’s the same fight. We share the same cause, “justice for all”, and always have, even if that truth has been sometimes inconvenient for comfortable gay white people.
To many among us, at least privately, Pride 2020 seems like a disaster, and indeed, I can conjure few worse predicaments for a tradition so reliant on large public gatherings than a pandemic-driven moratorium on large public gatherings. Fatefully, the Pride community has a rare opportunity in this crisis, a chance to reinvent itself, a chance perhaps to redeem past failures to fully honor the debt it owes to Black lives, and a chance to reinvigorate itself with enlarged purpose. The recent Supreme Court decision to extend the employment protections guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to lgbtq citizens, when the promise remains unfulfilled for the descendants of black people who fought and bled to win it, and the nation’s re-education on the history and meaning of Juneteenth, of which so many Pride participants, noisy claimants to June entitlements all, have for so long remained ignorant, together serve to illuminate the imperative. In the future, as economies reopen, should the Pride parade want to carry on anything like usual, it will have to do what has been tragically all too unusual, because it won’t be enough for the Pride organizations, in their representation of diverse stakeholder communities, planning processes, operating procedures, contract-making policies, and outcomes, to not be racist; then, henceforth and forever, Pride organizations must be aggressively, uncompromisingly, and loudly antiracist.