Pride Is a Protest (Again)

With traditional Pride parades and parties canceled due to the pandemic, radical political alternatives have taken their rightful place.

A crowd of protesters on a street carry signs and display a banner reading "Queer Liberation March."
Activists participate in the Queer Liberation March on June 30, 2019, in New York City. Kena Betancur/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I remember the day I realized there would be no Pride this year. It was the beginning of April, a few weeks into quarantine where I live, and the outlook from public health officials was getting bleaker by the hour. I tried to envision joining a shoulder-to-shoulder march or entering a packed nightclub in two months’ time, and I quickly realized that I was about as likely to find myself at a Pride party in June as I was to find myself in a hot tub with Roberta Colindrez.

The thought was gutting, but not because I’m particularly attached to the official trappings of local Pride festivities—the parades, the fairs, the businesses draped in rainbow flags. Rather, I mourned Pride because it had always been an excuse for queers to come out en masse, in celebration and in protest, with an energy and a take-the-streets defiance that’s more dispersed during other months of the year. Friends who don’t normally stay out until the wee hours drink an espresso with dinner; friends who usually dress to blend in sex it up or transgress gender norms for a change. The dyke marches, dance parties, and political demonstrations are annual reminders that LGBTQ history is rooted in big acts of world-changing art and activism and small acts of mutual care. This year, it seemed, COVID had stolen from us the chance for such an ostentatious show of strength and self-love.

However, while official in-person Pride events around the country were and remain canceled, grassroots Pride groups have risen to meet the moment. In previous years, organizations like the Reclaim Pride Coalition in New York and No Justice No Pride in D.C. have staged demonstrations against, or as an alternative to, the bloated parades that have transformed from community celebrations into hourslong commercials for corporations and state entities. By blocking the police and weapons manufacturer contingents in Pride parades and holding egalitarian marches with no floats or barricades, these groups have tried to reimagine Pride activities in the spirit of the occasion Pride month actually commemorates, the 1969 uprising against police brutality at New York’s Stonewall Inn. This year, with their antagonists called off or gone virtual, “alterna-Prides” are the only game in town.

The Reclaim Pride Coalition was set to hold its second annual Queer Liberation March, an alternative to the city’s massive Pride parade, at the end of June, but canceled it when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic that all public events would be barred through that month. Organizers began planning a virtual event with livestreamed content and prerecorded interviews with queer elders. Then, in late May, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, and the protests began.

“The powder keg that was set off in that moment, that spread across the city, country, and the world, has changed the situation on the ground here,” Reclaim Pride organizer Jay W. Walker said. “It just felt important for the queer communities of New York to unite around the movement for Black lives. This feels like a watershed moment, the moment that Black America has been waiting for.” A few weeks later, the Queer Liberation March was back on for Sunday, with a new focus on honoring Black lives and demanding an end to police brutality.

To make the march safer for HIV-positive participants and others with chronic health conditions that may make them more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19, Reclaim Pride is doing what it can to reduce the inherent risks of gathering in a large group during a pandemic. The organization is strongly urging marchers to wear masks—“We’re doing everything short of an outright demand, because we’re not fascist,” Walker said—and marshals stationed along the route will hand out masks, remind people to social distance, and demonstrate proper mask placement. They’ll also stream a live feed of the march to participants who can’t take the risk of in-person attendance and encourage those people to send in videos of themselves “celebrating Black lives and demanding racial justice” at home.

Walker believes it’s no coincidence that, in almost every city where alternative Pride groups have sprung up in response to existing Pride parades, the main problem cited by organizers was a heavy police presence—often as honorees as well as ostensible public safety enforcers—at mainstream Pride events. These queer organizations staging Pride Month demonstrations against police brutality aren’t adopting the flavor of the month in progressive protest. They didn’t have to sweat over drafts of a clunky statement of support for protesters. They didn’t have to convince a board of directors that police killings are an LGBTQ issue. When the protests began, they were ready to show up.

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In D.C., for No Justice No Pride, showing up has meant organizing a march to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s home on June 13, where demonstrators vogued and called on Bowser to defund the Metropolitan Police Department. Since its formation in 2017, No Justice No Pride has expanded beyond Pride-related actions into political advocacy and direct services: The group has been a major force behind a local campaign to decriminalize sex work and currently provides housing for displaced trans sex workers of color. Unlike Capital Pride, the city’s official Pride organization, No Justice No Pride has no corporate sponsorships or political connections to safeguard, so it can be as political as the community it serves needs it to be. It doesn’t need to follow up its social media posts about the value of Black lives with ads praising Comcast. Earlier in June, Capital Pride co-hosted a webinar about defunding the police (the event was billed as a way to “learn more about this call to action and how to better support Black communities in this effort”) and posted links to other groups’ protests and vigils. No Justice No Pride has lobbied the D.C. Council to protect Black trans women and confronted the mayor where she lives.

There’s a telling contrast between these two responses to a global movement for racial justice and the urgent needs of Black LGBTQ people. Traditional Pride organizations have been acting like corporations: slow, cautious, hands-off, trusting in the benevolence of private industry, speaking in tones of sadness and hope rather than rage, with a “progressive” politics still well within the bounds of the mainstream. Alternative Pride groups have responded in the vernacular of the queer activism responsible for many of the rights and protections we enjoy today: provocative, furious, chaotic but targeted, unconcerned with respectability politics, focused on the needs of the most marginalized.

This year, in the absence of traditional Pride activities, LGBTQ people have the chance to reimagine how their history should be celebrated. What’s more in the spirit of the Stonewall uprisings: standing on the sidewalk behind a crowd-control barrier, clapping for a parade of armed, uniformed cops and corporate affinity groups in rainbow T-shirts? Or marching in solidarity alongside all manner of queer and trans people, with no need to buy a ticket for one’s place in the festivities? What’s a more fitting celebration of LGBTQ resourcefulness, creativity, and resilience: a parade float adorned with a model of a combat drone? Or voguing on the doorstep of a mayor who refuses to consider her constituents’ call to divert city funding away from a police force that kills unarmed Black men? What’s a more promising vision for the future of trans and queer lives: one that’s beholden to corporate sponsorships and support from government officials? Or one that pressures those powerful entities to do better without need of their approval?

Pride has always been, and should always be, a time for both party and protest. As LGBTQ people, we already excel at combining them. This year, a moment of crisis has given grassroots groups an opportunity to employ their strengths—agility, clarity of purpose, indifference to city permitting—in service of a community sorely in need of an outlet for solidarity and anger. In the process, they’ve shown by example what trans and queer people might expect from a Pride divorced from the hierarchies, boardroom decision-making, and power-worshipping that have come to define traditional festivities.

“It’s kind of the perfect moment” for alternative Prides, Walker said. “Logistically, our march is very simple. It’s not figuring out floats. We don’t have, ‘Oh, you people line up and wait for your turn.’ We’re just people marching with banners and signs. We all march together.”