A radical new side to Pride
After a year in which activism mostly had to take place online, Pride events have come back onto the streets of some cities in 2021. In countries where Pride events have long taken place, new movements have emerged that seek to return to the radical roots of struggles for LGBTQI+ rights, and make connections to other movements, notably Black Lives Matter. Around the world, new Pride events continue to be established, reflecting local cultures and articulating local demands. The global Pride movement is diverse and growing and will continue to be pushed to connect struggles for LGBTQI+ rights with other campaigns for rights, including demands for racial justice.
Pride marches to demand equal rights for LGBTQI+ people largely had to pause or go online during 2020, but in 2021, at least in those countries privileged enough to enjoy widespread vaccination, Pride parades came back with a vengeance. And in countries where Pride events have become well established, new movements are emerging to take a more radical edge.
June’s Pride month in the USA saw thousands of people take part in marches and protests in multiple cities. Among the most active groups was the Reclaim Pride Coalition, formed in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, which gave birth to today’s global Pride movements. The Reclaim Pride Coalition, which held its first Queer Liberation March in 2019, was formed in protest at the corporate sponsorship of the official NYC Pride March and at police participation in the parade.
NYC Pride and other long-running events face questioning about whether they have retained their activist edge: whether in becoming successful parades, they have forgotten to be protests. That many large companies now sponsor Pride events gives rise to concern that Pride is being used to launder corporate reputations, enabling lip service to be paid to equality that stops short of challenging power – a practice now critiqued as ‘rainbow washing’.
Attention has fallen on the double standards of some companies that make a show of supporting Pride each June – and doubtless benefit financially by doing so – but also give money to politicians who attack LGBTQI+ rights: research in the USA shows that 25 companies that expressed support for Pride in the last two years also gave more than US$10 million in donations to political representatives or candidates who sought to block progress towards equal rights.
Pride and Black Lives Matter connect
As the global Black Lives Matter movement resurged in 2020, Reclaim Pride again mobilised despite the pandemic, organising the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality. People called for police defunding and drew attention to the killings of Black trans people. The 2021 march again focused strongly on liberation and justice, with people showing their support for Black Lives Matter and Palestine and protesting against police brutality. A further coming together of civil society agendas was seen in demands articulated by the movement, in the context of the pandemic, for universal healthcare. The event powerfully made the point that no one is free until everyone is free – and that means the most vulnerable and least recognised people.
A further crucial point of differentiation is the role of the police. While uniformed LGBTQI+ police officers have been a highly visible part of NYC Pride, uniformed police have not been allowed to march in Reclaim Pride events, calling attention to the role of the police in repressing Black and trans people. In May, Heritage of Pride, organisers of NYC Pride, said it too would now ban uniformed officers from its parades, on the grounds that many Black, brown and trans participants feel threatened by their presence.
The absence of floats and corporate sponsorship also has the benefit to making events easier to organise, meaning that marches have still been able to go ahead in the pandemic era when glitzier official parades have been postponed.
The more radical approach spread. The UK’s first Reclaim Pride march took place this July as the country reopened, again practising intersectionality by making the connection to Black Lives Matter as well as protesting against growing transphobia in the media. Protesters demanded that the UK government pass a law to ban ‘conversion therapy’, reform the Gender Recognition Act – a commitment dropped by the UK government in 2020 – and provide safe haven to LGBTQI+ refugees. Reclaim Pride events were held in other UK cities, including Liverpool and Manchester, in August.
As in New York, the London march took place while the main Pride event was shelved. The annual Pride in London event, cancelled in 2021 as in 2020, usually sees a parade of around 1.5 million people through the centre of London, but has been criticised as effectively becoming more of a tourist attraction than a protest. Another alternative, the Black-led UK Black Pride event, has also grown in prominence in recent years.
Pride organisations under the spotlight
Activists have also called into question the diversity of who gets to decide how established Pride events are held. In 2021 in the USA, a break with the past came in Boston when, following 50 years of Pride events, the Boston Pride organisation dissolved itself. It had come under criticism for having an all-white board of directors and for failing to address racism and transphobia. In 2020, 80 per cent of its volunteers quit and many organisations withdrew from the event after text condemning police brutality and affirming support for Black Lives Matter was removed from a Boston Pride statement. Groups boycotting Boston Pride organised an alternative Trans Resistance March and Vigil in 2020 and 2021.
Similarly, this year the Philadelphia Pride march was cancelled and the organisation behind the event, Philly Pride Presents, dissolved itself in the wake of criticism over its lack of racial diversity, failure to engage with issues of racism and transphobia and apparent close relationship with the police. Now Black and other non-white LGBTQI+ people are leading the development of a new event and an organisation that can encompass the full diversity of LGBTQI+ experiences.
To some extent, these moves reflect the fact that, with long-established events and organisations, there is a desire by new generations to get back to the essence of protest. In Canada for example, Montreal Pride in August was a much less formal affair than in previous years, seeking a return to its roots with an absence of the usual parade floats. Change offers a reminder of the need for civil society movements continually to self-question and periodically reinvent themselves: to ask if the conditions are being created where the most excluded groups are able to take the lead in asserting their rights. They call into question the gatekeeping role long-serving staff can play and point to the need to pass the torch on to new generations.
That continued protests are essential, even in contexts where Pride events have long been established and legal rights recognised, is shown by the continuance of violence against LGBTQI+ people. August and September in the UK saw a spate of violent attacks on LGBQTI+ people in the city of Birmingham’s ‘Gay Village’. In the USA in June, the Human Rights Campaign reported that already this year 28 transgender and gender non-conforming people had been killed, putting this on track to the be deadliest year since the organisation started keeping records in 2013. In July, far-right groups held a violent protest outside a spa in Los Angeles, merely because transgender people were welcome as customers.
The recent questioning of the diversity of Pride movements also makes clear how understandings and appreciations of exclusion have changed, thanks largely to the new movements that have emerged in recent years such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter. The voices of these new movements must be heard in every sphere, and no part of society should go unexamined.
Progress and backlash in LGBTQI+ visibility
In many other countries, including much of the global south where people have been denied mass vaccination, the picture was of course quite different in 2021. For the second year running, many Pride events were cancelled or held online, and while people did their best to keep their issues alive, they were deprived of the essence of what Pride events can achieve: an insistence on the visibility of LGBTQI+ people in central public spaces. Part of the cruelty of the pandemic is that this came at a time when LGBTQI+ people were among those experiencing its worst impacts on their lives and livelihoods: many LGBTQI+ people were denied the ability to associate, deprived of informal economy incomes, forced back into closets and targeted with attacks and harassment.
The Olympics, however, offered an alternate opportunity to make LGBQTI+ lives more visible. Three times as many out LGBTQI+ people, at least 172, took part in the delayed Tokyo Olympics as compared to Rio in 2016. There’s an important if intangible contribution to the visibility of LGBTQI+ people when they are able to show themselves to be the best in the world and use the space to celebrate their identities, as British diver Tom Daley did. He spoke of his pride in being a gay married man and father after winning gold, having stood on the podium between athletes from countries – China and Russia – where he would be considered a criminal.
Some who used their participation in the Olympics to affirm their LGBTQI+ identities opened themselves up to risk. Polish Olympians Katarzyna Zillmann and Aleksandra Jarmolińska, for example, both came out around the time of the Olympics, and both could well experience backlash in a country where homophobia is being mobilised by leading politicians. Russia’s state media Olympics coverage was suffused with homophobia and transphobia, characterising people celebrating their status at joyful moments as part of some kind of western agenda to impose LGBTQI+ ideology. Such responses merely demonstrated why LGBQTI+ people feel the need to keep asserting their presence in public life.
In hostile contexts, Pride events remain particularly vital, and are far from acts or tourism or rainbow washing. Participation can still be an act of brave defiance. The need for Pride events in any form was shown in Hungary, where thousands mobilised in July to communicate their fury with a government intent on making LGBTQI+ people a pre-election political target – see our story.
Romanian LGBTQI+ people also knew they were taking a political stance when they took part in Bucharest Pride in their thousands in August. Two right-wing parties are currently trying to introduce a law to ban ‘gay propaganda’, similar to that passed in Hungary in June. One of the civil society groups behind Bucharest Pride, ACCEPT Association, made clear that LGBTQI+ people are demanding fundamental rights, of protection from violence and discrimination, including workplace discrimination, that they are currently denied.
The backlash these displays of public visibility can bring was emphasised in Georgia, where the prime minister’s political attack on a planned Pride event helped enable a violent far-right protest in which Tbilisi Pride’s offices were ransacked. The event was called off and media worker Aleksandre Lashkarava, one of many journalists attacked, died only a few days after being violently beaten by the mob.
But even in the face of such unacceptable risks, vital steps forward have still been taken this year. Malawi held its first-ever Pride event in June. In Jamaica, a country where homophobia has hit the headlines, Pride events have gone from strength to strength, shaping themselves into the local context to become a firmly established part of the annual calendar.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Karen Lloyd is Associate Director of J-FLAG, a human rights and social justice organisation that advocates for the rights, livelihood and wellbeing of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica, where same-sex relations are criminalised. She speaks about the way Jamaican Pride events have developed to encourage participation and foster more diverse ownership.
Since our inaugural Pride event in 2015, Jamaica has held annual celebrations during the ‘Emancipendence’ period – the holidays celebrating both the end of slavery and independence from British colonial rule.
The first thing to note is that Jamaica Pride has been conceptualised and implemented through a culturally appropriate lens; for example, it does not include a parade and instead takes the form of a diverse set of events and activities that are important to Jamaicans, including a sports day, church service, trade show, concert, party events and a day of service. At our inaugural Pride in 2015, the keynote speaker at our opening ceremony was the Mayor of Kingston, Dr Angela Brown-Burke, which meant to signal that the community had allies among policymakers and parliamentarians.
Another success has been having mainstream dancehall artistes such as Tanya Stephens, D’Angel, Jada Kingdom, Tifa, Ishawna, Yanique Curvy Diva and Stacious perform at Pride events. This focused national attention on our celebrations and signalled a positive shift regarding cultural spaces that had been highly contested.
For the first time this year, J-FLAG did not host all the Pride events itself; instead, it provided financial and logistical support for members of the community to spearhead their own events. Dubbed #PrideShare, the initiative featured events led by community members, including arts events and a lip-sync battle, whose success indicated that our efforts are a step in the right direction.
After 20 years of advocacy, now there is sustained public conversation around LGBTQI+ rights, increasing public tolerance and a growing willingness among parliamentarians, policymakers and key decision-makers to engage with the local LGBTQI+ community, including steps in working with LGBTQI+ rights organisations and advocates to improve the lives of members of the community.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Karen Lloyd. Read the full interview here.
The vitality and diversity of Pride
Whatever form they take, Pride events remain vital. Public visibility, and public celebration of the reality of LGBTQI+ lives, is always needed, even in contexts where rights have been legally recognised. But there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach to asserting visibility and claiming rights.
When Pride events first mobilised in North America and Europe, joyful flamboyance was the approach chosen, in part because attempts at quiet advocacy were felt to have achieved little, and the need was visibly to come out of closets. But there are other contexts, as in the example of Jamaica, where there are locally resonant forms of events and performance that can be adapted. Elsewhere, as in the East European countries where politicised homophobia is currently being mobilised, a protest that insists LGBTQI+ people are just like everyone else might feel a better response than a parade that insists on being recognised as different.
While equality is being pursued everywhere, events will tap into local cultures, take advantage of the opportunities and spaces available and, often while being forced to work within the constraints of domestic laws, seek to expand the spaces that are possible.
In contexts where Pride events have a long footprint, debate, respectful disagreement and a plural approach are particularly needed. While it may be the case that in some global north countries white middle-class LGBTQI+ people feel they now experience little active discrimination, it is important to recognise that non-white LGBTQI+ people and trans people are far more exposed to violence. The experience of police brutality is a common current that connects a variety of excluded groups. And not to take a stance for racial justice is to align with the oppressor.
To make sure that change keeps happening, Pride movements need to keep changing. They need to make sure they remain at the cutting edge, wherever that edge may be in their contexts, and ensure they are working to advance the rights of the multiply excluded.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States should enable Pride events to take place, including by ensuring the safety of participants, and desist from any restrictions on Pride events.
Allies of the LGBTQI+ movement should support a variety of Pride events of relevance to different local contexts and struggles.
Allies of the LGBTQI+ movement should follow the lead of local LGBTQI+ organisations and support their decisions on what is needed to most effectively promote LGBTQI+ rights.