On Sunday, June 14, a reported 15,000 protesters, dressed mostly in white, filled the block outside of the Brooklyn Museum to overflowing. After a series of speakers called for the centering, protection, and elevation of Black trans women, the crowd marched two miles through downtown Brooklyn to Fort Greene Park, carrying signs, voguing, and chanting.
“What do we want? Justice,” went a call-and-response chant referencing the deaths of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and more. “When do we want it? Now. If we don’t get it? Shut it down. If we don’t get it? Shut it down. If weeeeee doooon’t geeeet iiiiit? SHUT. IT. DOWN!”
The display stopped traffic, and a few people who had been on the streets joined the march. As protesters made their final descent onto the park, they were presented with the visual impact of their solidarity: As far as the eye could see, thousands of people all wearing white, waving flags, and hoisting signs. Someone started up a new call-and-response:
“This is what community looks like!” The answer came back: “I know what community feels like! This is what community feels like; I know what community feels like!”
The Brooklyn Liberation March wasn’t officially part of New York’s Pride celebrations, but “that beautiful, exquisite event was very much similar to the original intent and model of the early [Pride] marches,” Jon Carter, an attendee of the Brooklyn Liberation event and organizer of the Queer Liberation March, told GQ. “One of the original catchphrases that was very common was ‘Off the sidewalks and onto the streets.’ It meant that people who were bystanders who were watching could step off the sidewalks and join. A lot of people that I’ve spoken to who are heavy-hitting activists who helped secure our rights and freedom came out of the closet that very way; they were scared young people and not out to their family and friends, but on that day they were inspired by seeing their people marching together, to enter the LGBTQ+ world, and it changed their lives.”
As a result of COVID-19, this 50th anniversary of the first Pride marches (following the 50th anniversary, in 2019, of the Stonewall Uprisings), will mostly take place online—but following the Black Lives Matter protests that have erupted around the world in the past month, the event has in many ways returned to that original spirit of participation identified by Carter. Pride organizers have faced tough financial and moral decisions about whether to go on and how, but they’ve also rediscovered (or have been forced to rediscover) a commitment to social justice, which many activists have called for in recent years.
Pride originally began as a march for rights and equality, but over the years it has morphed into a multimillion-dollar global industry—an estimated 1,500 Prides worldwide with big-dollar sponsors, a parade of floats, a highly regulated procession, and, in the case of larger events, increasingly heavy police presences. Given the 50-year milestone, Pride festivals were planning especially large celebrations this year. But as the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic set in, those plans were halted.
By mid-March, over 100 Pride events had been canceled or rescheduled as a result of the pandemic and lockdown projections, according to the COVID/Pride International Coordination Group convened by InterPride, a global association of Pride events. “We were seeing a lot of information about Pride having to be canceled, or whether people were going to be able to pay their staffs, or would people be losing their jobs,” said Natalie Thompson, vice president of global outreach and partnership at InterPride. “We had no idea of how this was going to go.”
“There was this idea of even though we can’t all come together, is there an opportunity for us to all celebrate together,” Thompson continued. “So Global Pride was born.”
Global Pride is a 24-hour streaming event occuring on June 27 that will bring together over 500 Pride festivals worldwide and include performances by Pabllo Vittar and Deborah Cox to be hosted on Todrick Hall’s YouTube. Individual Prides moved similarly: New York City’s event featuring Dan Levy, Janelle Monae and Billy Porter will air on WABC Channel 7 on June 28; San Francisco Pride will stream through Twitch and YouTube on June 27 and 28 featuring headliners like Big Freedia.
DC Black Pride, which was the first Black Pride kicking off in 1991, held a virtual party in May — last year there were an estimated 65,000 people at their events. “When we had Pride [in-person,] I don’t think we realized how much it meant to folks,” Earl Fowlkes Jr., the President and CEO of the Center for Black Equity, which organizes DC Black Pride, said. “Now that we’re not having it we receive emails and calls from folks saying how sad they are. Black Prides are more intimate affairs, and are more like family reunions than the white-majority Prides.”
In addition to providing a space for communion, going virtual allows festivals to raise money — a vital element of Pride, which annually generates millions of dollars that sustain festival organizations, their employees, and the programming of local community groups.
While some events, like New York City, have been able to stick to their community commitments — the Pride Gives Back program will give $150,000 — others are in a moment of uncertainty. San Diego Pride, amongst the most philanthropic in the nation, gave out some $200,000 in cash grants last year in addition to in-kind donations, but the cancellation of in-person events and a resulting $840,000 budget deficit makes that amount unlikely this year — organizers told GQ that if they can raise an extra $1 million, $150,000 will likely be given in grants.
San Francisco Pride is similarly generous — they’ve previously allowed organizations like the NIA Collective to work festival beverage booths in exchange for funding. Others like Kween Culture, an empowerment project started in 2018 for and by Black trans women, have received cash grants from the organization “at a time when none of the gay-led foundations were really supporting our work,” Kween Culture founder Aria Sa’id said. Sa’id is also a founder of San Francisco’s Transgender District, the first such government-recognized district in the world, which received a one-time $10,000 cash grant from SF Pride earlier this year that allowed it to keep staff employed through COVID. That sort of giving could be in danger as SD Pride “will be facing a very significant budget loss” without in-person events this year, according to its board. To mitigate the impact, SF and SD Pride organizers have been hosting one-off fundraisers and hope to integrate donation requests in their streaming broadcasts.
Just as organizers were coming to grips with COVID, at the beginning of June the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd brought a new layer to the moment, and another reason to reconsider what Pride should be. “In a way I’m glad that the pandemic closed down most of all the prides in June because I think it would have been a horrible clash of communities and community ideals if the white-majority prides were to continue their events given the unrest,” Fowlkes said. ”I could see — given the amount of money that goes into doing those Prides — them not cancelling. That’s millions of dollars from corporate sponsors and they would have to give some of it back.”
Combined, coronavirus and the global Black Lives Matter protests have shown the systemic and sometimes fatal oppression and inequalities that Black communities are forced to live under. In their wake, there have been calls to center, uplift, support, and answer to Black voices. The queer and trans communities, as always, have simply become a microcosm of that phenomenon.
“The protests have put a mirror up to a lot of folks about injustice that they didn’t want to admit exist,” Carolyn Wysinger, the Board President of SF Pride said. “The first Monday after the protests started we started getting demand emails saying we should cancel Pride because we should be focusing on Black people right now. For me it was like OK, so you’re admitting that you only think white people are a part of Pride.”
The presence of police at Pride — often with barricades, curtailing the ideal of ‘off of the sidewalks and into the streets’ — has long been criticized, but under these circumstances, it has received particular scrutiny. On June 3, LA Pride announced that it was organizing a peaceful protest “against police brutality and oppression” in Hollywood, “in solidarity with the Black community.” In the days to follow, the event was criticized for not working with local Black-led LGBTQ+ organizations and advocacy groups, while also working with the police to obtain permits. Eventually, LA Pride pulled out of the event entirely, and it continued as the All Black Lives Matter March without the police, attracting a reported 25,000 protestors.
“It kind of feels like this is the most original Pride season in two or three decades,” Taylor Alxndr said. Alxndr is one of the founders of Southern Fried Queer Pride, which does community-based grassroots events including Pride festivals in Atlanta and Durham. “Right now, I think we are in a beautiful place to utilize Pride to uplift the voices who have always been marginalized and erased and make it more accessible as well.” Southern Fried Queer Pride, which will happen as a pop-up festival virtually on June 26 and 27 before trying to organize an in-person event for this fall, is one of a slew of Pride festivals — including the Black Pride movement — that have cropped up in recent years because participants either didn’t feel represented or safe at the white-led events.
In response to the protests, major Prides have also integrated Black talent and Black Lives Matter-related information throughout their virtual programming; Global Pride has announced that “Black Lives Matter will be centered” in its broadcast.
“For me, it was about what would it look like for us to not turn a blind eye to [the intersections of our community] and actually have a conversation or add content in there that makes sure it’s diverse and we’re not tone deaf,” InterPride’s Thompson said. “This might be Pride month but within Pride we have to recognize we are a microcosm of the larger community so if something is happening in the world, let’s address it.’
This larger recentering has also meant that Black queer- and trans-led organizations have seen historic donations and visibility, taking over the instagrams of celebrities like Selena Gomez, Lizzo, and Shawn Mendes while receiving donations from Lady Gaga, Jack Dorsey, and more. Some organizations have received over $1 million in donations in the past month, far outpacing lost Pride grants.
The new social landscape has pushed at least one Pride to rethink its plans for a virtual event and go back to the streets. After drawing an estimated 40,000 attendees to its first march last year — following over a year of trying to work with New York City Pride organizers Heritage of Pride, to address concerns surrounding police involvement, accessibility, and corporate sponsorship — the Queer Resistance March will return to lower Manhattan on June 28, renamed as the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality.
“When we looked at the current climate, we felt that this was the time for us to, in the spirit of the first march and out of solidarity, find a way to safely and effectively take to the streets in support of the community that we share both symbolic and direct ties with,” Carter said.
Marchers will start at Foley Square and organizers will have masks and hand sanitizer on hand — much like the Brooklyn Liberation March. They are demanding a 50% reduction of the New York Police department budget with a similar reduction in the police force. Like Brooklyn’s event, protestors will march in the streets, hoisting homemade posters in lieu of the ones printed and handed out by brands at New York City Pride, and host no barricades, encouraging any supportive bystanders to join in.
“The June 28, 2020 Queer Libration March for Trans and Queer Black Live will not have a permit nor will RPC communicate with or negotiate with NYPD,” organizers wrote in a release. This is not a pivot, or a change of what Pride is — it’s a return to the origins.