Pundits everywhere are talking about how COVID-19 may well reshape major aspects of our lives, from our health care system to education to workplaces to our shopping habits and planetary health.
Might it also have provoked a major and permanent change in how New York City celebrates June’s LGBTQ Pride Month?
That question was heavy in the air the afternoon of Sunday June 28 among the estimated 50,000 queer people and allies who took part in the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality, organized quickly by the grassroots Reclaim Pride Coalition (RPC). (Disclosure: This writer has attended some RPC meetings and both QLM marches, and last year co-produced a promotional video for them.)
Like Pride groups nationwide in the wake of COVID-19, both RPC and its more mainstream counterpart, Heritage of Pride (HOP)—which for years has produced the city’s expensive and police- and corporation-heavy mainstream Pride March—canceled their live events this year. But in the wake of national uprisings over the May 25 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, RPC quickly decided to stage a live march after all—a march that would put Black queer and transgender people front and center, in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
After some internal haggling over the march route, organizers decided it would start far downtown at Foley Square, which is surrounded by federal buildings and has been the site of many protests in recent years, then proceed up to the Village’s historic Stonewall Inn gay bar—site of the iconic 1969 uprising that galvanized the LGBT rights movement—then head a bit east to culminate with a rally and a sort of COVID-era be-in in the Village’s Washington Square Park.
As soon as crowds began gathering around noon on June 28 in shadeless, broiling Foley Square, it was clear that thousands of queer people—racially and gender diverse, but overwhelmingly young, likely due to older folks’ COVID fears—were hungry for a Pride march that spoke explicitly to the political moment, free not only of the typical permit negotiation with the police (who shadowed the march in relatively low numbers) but of branding from corporations, especially those that have done business with things like fracking, oil pipelines, and private prisons.
Black people were urged to take the front of the march, which was also dominated by massive tall puppets of Black and Latinx queer and transgender icons including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Bayard Rustin. RPC members expert in civil disobedience and street action had trained roughly 100 volunteers to be marshals to keep the march flowing and to defuse tension if police interactions occurred. (They did, briefly, amid a post-march impromptu dance party at Washington Square Park. Apparently one of the marchers scribbled on an NYPD car with a Sharpie, prompting cops to rush the crowd, pepper-spraying, shoving, and even arresting some marchers.)
The rally in Washington Square Park was organized by Sasha Alexander, the Black and transgender founder of Black Trans Media, and featured other Black and Brown transgender speakers including OIympia Sudan, Tabytha Gonzalez, and LaLa Zannell. As the police melee ensued on one side of the park, the rally went on uninterrupted on another, with white listeners forming a protective ring around Black ones.
A Sea Change?
The massive, slick Bank of America and Chipotle floats of prior HOP parades were replaced by homemade “Black Trans Lives Matter” signs; the NYPD’s LGBT cop contingent, a staple of the HOP parade, was replaced by innumerable calls to defund the NYPD by $1 billion by June 30; and throbbing sound systems with poppy club music were replaced by drum circles and spontaneous dance parties along the route and in the park.
“Wow, yesterday was incredible!” wrote @TheDustyRebel on Twitter. “Raw activist energy. No corporate bullshit. No waiting for hours to step off. Just joyful determination.” Wrote @shuttershed on Instagram: “This is what Pride looked like this year. Perhaps the most authentic it has been in a long time. Wrote @leandrohuerto on Instagram: “PRIDE RECLAIMED. No corporate sponsors and their heteronormative demands, no NYPD permits, no floats with cops or politicians just a QUEER ARMY. 50K showed up for the #QueerLiberationMarch for Black Lives and [against] police brutality, and 400K tuning in for the livestream. NYC, I 🖤 YOU.”
On Facebook, Damon Jacobs, LMFT, the founder of the popular Facebook page PrEP FACTS (about the HIV prevention regimen PrEP), wrote: “The QLM yesterday was the first time for me that a ‘Pride’ event felt like a statement, a protest, a necessary and urgent movement. It was wonderful to see so many people of all ages/genders/races/abilities aligned in our spoken chants, joined in our energies, connected through our masks. It was truly beautiful, and hopefully the start of a new way to approach this yearly ritual (note: I missed the similar march last year, I don’t plan on missing it again!).”
By the end of the day, many participants were wondering if the Queer Liberation March would replace HOP for good as the centerpiece June LGBTQ event in New York City. Wrote longtime HIV activist Peter Staley on Facebook: “It’s time for NYC Pride [by which he meant the HOP parade] to close shop. No more corporate Pride marches and silly floats with separate contingents.”
Could it happen? “That’s the plan, anyway, after the enormous success of last year’s march and the feedback we got from the community,” says Jay W. Walker, an RPC organizer. “Older queers were saying, ‘This is the Pride March I remember.’ Younger queers were saying, ‘Oh my God, this is the best Pride I’ve ever seen.’ So, yes, we want to replace the HOP march, because we’re actually fulfilling the needs of the real community, whereas HOP is fulfilling the needs of corporations and ceding power and control of their march to the NYPD.”
RPC organizer Jon Carter says that he began looking for an alternative to HOP after he attended one of their planning meetings a few years ago. “Their approach erased the political nature of Pride as a movement,” he says, “and they seemed to believe that [the involvement of] corporations were not only the gauge of progress in the queer community but also who would bestow liberation upon the community.” The June 28 QLM, on the other hand, “created a space for our community to inhabit in a way that addresses the most pressing issues that Americans face today. We demanded respect and progress, because there’s no way to divorce queer life from the political disaster we’re witnessing with this current [presidential] administration in office.”
In response to an email asking how it sees its future role in relation to QLM, HOP cochair Vinny Maniscalco and media director Maria E. Colon wrote: “The mission of Heritage of Pride is to work toward a future where all people have equal rights under the law and to do this by producing LGBTQIA+ Pride events that inspire, educate, commemorate and celebrate our diverse community. In addition to the March, this has included free community events such as PrideFest, Family Movie Night, and Youth Pride. Youth Pride, in particular, has served as a safe space where our future LGBTQIA+ leaders can celebrate with each other. These events were made possible with the support of our sponsors. We hear the concerns and priorities of various members of our community, and the stakeholders within our organization will discuss how best to serve our community moving forward while being mindful of the concerns raised.”
The Queer Liberation March was more than the event that (for this year, at any rate) supplanted HOP. At a politically and racially fraught time, it was an exercise in how a majority-white group such as RPC (Walker and Carter are among the group’s few Black members) sought to stage a #BlackLivesMatter solidarity event in a manner that actually centered Black participants and amplified actual demands from Black activists.
According to Walker, as soon as RPC decided to stage a live march this year after all, in solidarity with BLM, it reached out to Black-led groups that had endorsed the QLM march last year—including Black Trans Media, People’s Power Assembly, and GLITS. Everything was happening quickly, according to Black Trans Media founder Sasha Alexander, who says they did not make it to an RPC Zoom meeting until a few nights before the march—at which point they voiced some concerns.
“Everyone’s been disingenuously hopping on the BLM bandwagon, but you’re not going to do that this year and then next year center some other hot issue,” says Alexander. “When I came to the meeting, I said that I would not sit at that table unless the voice of Black queer and trans people were centered. Here we have mainly a bunch of white people doing this. Who’s leading here, and does it reflect what our communities really want? Sometimes in a subtle way, white people don’t realize they’re not really hearing you, but I appreciated that they were completely receptive [to my issues]. So I told them that they had to explicitly demand the defunding of the police.”
Alexander also notes that, although white marchers spontaneously formed a protective perimeter around Black speakers at the rally once police came on the scene [but did not ultimately approach the rally site], “there should’ve already been white folks having volunteered for those positions.”
Alexander says that they also took issue with the event’s title, the March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality. “I said I thought that was redundant. Anyone who’s been looking at the Movement for Black Lives knows it’s against police brutality.” (RPC stuck with the title.)
As for whether more Black members might come to RPC going forward, Alexander says, “I think we might see [that], but there are larger dynamics of who holds the power in RPC, who facilitates the meetings and feels they can take up space, that have to be addressed.”
Also, they say, “Some queer and trans people feel that RPC isn’t radical enough, and I don’t think it’s just generational.” [RPC is heavily made up of older white queer activists, many of whom were involved with ACT UP in the ’80s and ’90s and live in the now heavily affluent neighborhoods of the East and West Villages, Soho, and Chelsea.]
Rhetorically, Alexander asks of white RPC members: “If you were no longer the majority in this group, would you all still be here? I don’t think there’s any special kind of resistance [in RPC toward more Black leadership], but white supremacy is embedded in everything we do. People just imagine things happening a certain way. There’s some shaking out to see how radical RPC really is.”
But Walker thinks that RPC is on the right track, saying that “anyone who wants to help the group achieve its goals” is welcome. “There are a whole lot of ways to be radical. We’re a group willing to take on a behemoth like HOP and return the annual Pride march to something in which all people can feel welcome and included on Pride Sunday. The fact that we are a multiracial, multi-ethnic coalition of activists helps in that work.”