Pride 2023: defiant joy against anti-rights backlash
Between June and August, LGBTQI+ people and allies in many countries mobilised to demand rights against the backdrop of anti-rights backlash underway in much of the world. Where possible, LGBTQI+ people took to the streets to claim their right to exist in public, celebrate hard-won victories and fight back against regression – including in solidarity with those who couldn’t mobilise. In doing so, they connected with broader struggles – for women’s rights, racial equity, climate justice and fundamental democratic and civic freedoms. This year’s Pride season made clear that underneath the glitter, Pride mobilisations are still protests – and they’re as necessary as they’ve ever been.
Beneath the glitter, this year’s Pride events made clear that Pride mobilisations are still protests.
Pride events take place throughout the year in different parts of the world, but prime Pride season comes when many of the longest-established marches are held, between June and August. They spike around a date of special significance, 28 June, marking the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York – the birthdate of the modern LGBTQI+ rights movement. After a first anniversary march took place in 1970, events around this date have offered a key annual opportunity to assert visibility and demand the rights of LGBTQI+ people.
In some countries, Pride has now been established for decades. In others, public gatherings for LGBTQI+ rights are a more recent occurrence – demanding enormous courage and bringing consequences for those involved. In yet others, where LGBTQI+ people continue to be denied the most basic rights or the space to claim them, public Pride events still aren’t possible – and those in power are working to make sure it stays that way.
Intersectionality and solidarity
In the decades that followed Stonewall, Pride marches – both celebrations of the joy of togetherness and progress made, and protests at rights still denied – grew and spread. They went a long way in increasing visibility, normalising the existence of LGBTQI+ people, gaining greater social acceptance and building momentum for legal breakthroughs. In places like Madrid, New York, San Francisco and São Paulo, attendance has come to be measured in millions. New events spring up each year, gathering hundreds or thousands – and sometimes just a few brave dozens.
Over time, some Pride events became well-rehearsed routines, tourist spectacles and business opportunities; in reaction, their protagonists faced pressure to renew them by ceding centre stage to the historically most excluded – notably trans people, addressing the intersecting layers of discrimination faced by LGBTQI+ people, including on the basis of their race, migration status and disabilities, and connecting more strongly with other rights struggles.
This year in the UK, the intersection of LGBTQI+ rights and climate justice was an issue raised by direct action group Just Stop Oil, which disrupted London’s Pride to protest at the event receiving funding from companies contributing to the climate crisis. The group made the point that the most excluded people suffer the greatest impacts of climate change.
Black and Trans Pride events are now a feature of Pride season in several countries. Born in 1990s USA as an alternative to the largely white mainstream LGBTQI+ events that often reproduced patterns of racial discrimination and segregation, Black Pride opened up spaces for Black LGBTQI+ people to raise demands and discuss the overlapping forms of inequality they experience. Dozens now exist across the USA, including the world’s two largest – held in Washington, DC since 1991 and Atlanta, Georgia since 1996.
UK Black Pride has taken place in London since 2005, bringing to the fore a major issue that continues to weigh on LGBTQI+ people across the Commonwealth: the damning legacy of British colonialism that led to present-day criminalisation. Last year’s edition attracted roughly 25,000 people.
Trans Pride has been celebrated across North America and Europe for almost as long. The most well-known in the USA is in San Francisco, held since 2004, and in Canada it’s in Toronto, held since 2009. In Paris, ExisTrans first came together in 1997. In London, the fifth Trans+ Pride event this year attracted more than 25,000 people.
There’s still a need for mass mobilisation in the places where Pride has the longest footprint. An anti-rights backlash is growing in confidence around the world, and its cradle is the same as Pride’s: the USA, a major funder of global attacks on LGBTQI+ rights and exporter of anti-trans hysteria.
In the first half of 2023 alone, almost 500 anti-LGBTQI+ pieces of legislation were put forward in US states, according to estimates by the American Civil Liberties Union. Several of these target drag artists and performers or concern the use of public restrooms or ID consistency requirements. But most are focused on education – on limiting school curriculums to ban discussion of gender identity and sexuality issues – and healthcare, with a large number aimed at banning access to gender-affirming healthcare for young trans people. Growing visibility and normalisation are also challenged by conservative groups and consumers through boycotts of LGBTQI+-friendly brands, some of which pulled back their support during Pride month in response.
Attuned to this regressive context, this year’s Pride march in New York was held under the banner ‘Strength in Solidarity‘, meant to emphasise the need for the collective to coalesce around the most vulnerable of its members, currently targeted by the most intense attacks since the early days of the movement.
Latin America in celebration mode
In São Paulo, Brazil, people mobilised on 11 June in what’s traditionally South America’s biggest Pride event. This year marked the 10th anniversary of equal marriage becoming legal in Brazil. It was also the first Pride march since the end of the four-year presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right leader who campaigned against ‘gender ideology’. Participants called for the recovery of a national human rights agenda with the inclusion of LGBTQI+ people. They demanded more than a return to the situation before Bolsonaro, instead urging a leap forward, calling for effective access for all LGBTQI+ people to all constitutionally recognised social rights. Dozens of additional Pride marches were held earlier or would take place later in the year in multiple Brazilian cities – with the second-largest due in Rio de Janeiro in September.
On 28 June, Pride celebrated its 45th anniversary in Mexico City. It was Mexico’s first Pride since equal marriage, a demand first made by LGBTQI+ activists in Mexico City, was extended to all Mexican states last October. Having secured this victory, the movement’s attention shifted towards other vital legal changes, such as a ban on ‘conversion therapies’ – discredited practices that falsely claim to change sexual orientation or gender identity, which human rights institutions consider akin to torture – and the recognition of the right to identity of trans people. The movement is also working to break down the prejudices underlying the denial of rights, discrimination and violence against LGBTQI+ people. Those most subjected to discrimination and violence were on the front lines of the Pride march, which included people living with HIV, trans women, sex workers, Indigenous people and people with disabilities.
‘Diversity marches’ were also held between June and August in multiple cities of most South American countries – including Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru – apart from Uruguay, where the annual event comes in September, and Argentina, where it’s held in November. They were also seen in Central America, from Costa Rica and El Salvador to Guatemala and Honduras, as well as in the Dominican Republic in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.
However, a Pride march once again wasn’t possible in Nicaragua, now submerged in full-blown authoritarianism, with the government having shut down civic space and dismantled civil society. Instead, numerous LGBTQI+ Nicaraguans joined the march in Costa Rica, which hosts by far the largest number of Nicaraguans in exile.
Participation ranged from hundreds of thousands in Chile and Colombia to around a thousand or two in Honduras and Paraguay. Depending on the amount of progress achieved in each context, Pride events in the region mostly focused either on demanding protections against discrimination and violence or advancing marriage equality and trans rights. Nicaraguans, of course, also demanded the restoration of democracy in their country so they can resume their fight for rights at home.
The Caribbean atop a decriminalisation wave
In most countries in the Commonwealth Caribbean Pride marches are relatively new, having developed within the past five years as change is being won. This time people marched with renewed expectations after last year courts in three countries of the region – Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and St Kitts and Nevis – struck down regressive remnants of British colonial rule criminalising same-sex relations.
Six countries in the Commonwealth Caribbean still criminalise gay sex: Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines. As well as urging legal change in these, Pride demands typically pushed for greater social acceptance to enable effective access to rights.
In Guyana, this year’s Pride Festival, kicking off on 1 June, raised the banner of decriminalisation. So did Pride events in Jamaica, held during ‘Emancipendence’ week, which commemorates both the emancipation of enslaved Africans throughout the British Empire and the country’s independence. Jamaican activists framed their struggle for rights as a fight for full citizenship and linked liberation from repressive colonial-era legislation to the country’s potentially imminent break from the British monarchy.
The path ahead is suggested by Barbados, whose third Pride, held this June, was the first since the country became a republic in November 2021 and decriminalised homosexuality in 2022. LGBTQI+ activists are now demanding the recognition of trans people and effective protections against discrimination.
Asia’s light and shadows
This year’s Pride event – known as ´Pink Dot’ due to its pervasive use of pink rather than rainbow colours – had renewed impetus in Singapore, where the government recently repealed a British colonial-era law that criminalised sex between men – while also making clear it has no plans to recognise same-sex marriage. The demand for marriage equality was reflected in the march’s rallying cry, ‘A Singapore for All Families’, pushing back against the notion of the traditional family enforced by political authorities.
Mass festivals, expos and marches also took place in June in the Philippines, where the Pride tradition dates back to the mid-1990s. And on 1 July it was the turn of South Korea, with a Pride Festival attended by tens of thousands. This year, however, the event was forced to change locations after the Seoul city government gave a permit for its usual venue to a vocal anti-LGBTQI+ organisation that held a Christian youth concert instead.
One of the largest Pride marches in Asia, in Tokyo, took place earlier in the year in April, with the other big one, in Taipei, Taiwan, still to come, in the last week of October. Tokyo Rainbow Pride attracted over 200,000 people to – as its motto went – ‘press on till Japan changes’. Japan is the only G7 country that doesn’t recognise marriage equality and despite being increasingly accepted by public opinion, there have been recent conflicting court rulings and the government is dragging its heels.
Taiwan is so far the only Asian country that legally recognises same-sex marriage, having legalised it in 2019, although change must soon come in Nepal, where in June the Supreme Court ruled that the government must immediately register same-sex marriages pending reform of the law. Indian activists leading the fight in their country’s Supreme Court hope to follow suit, despite the government’s attempts to dismiss the issue as unimportant. Pride gatherings were held in June in multiple Indian locations. The year’s theme was ‘Rage and Resilience’, reflecting both the global rise of anti-rights forces and the momentum of India’s LGBTQI+ litigation strategy.
But it’s far from all good news coming from Asia, home to 22 countries that continue to criminalise same-sex relations and several states that ban all forms of demonstrations for rights and are increasingly targeting LGBTQI+ people for political reasons. In China, where the state once tacitly tolerated LGBTQI+ people, there’s increasing restriction of LGBTQI+ identity expression and organising, and only below-the-radar events are now able to take place.
Among those that criminalise same-sex relations, Malaysia has moved further along the repressive path. Malaysia’s LGBTQI+ people are being increasingly targeted for political gain, and the government recently banned Swatch watches and accessories that made LGBTQI+ references, making their possession punishable by up to three years in prison. No Pride event is possible if a brightly coloured watch is viewed as a danger to national values.
Pride was a no-go in Indonesia as well, since it also criminalises LGBTQI+ people. At the height of this year’s Pride season a regional gathering of LGBTQI+ activists in its capital, Jakarta, was cancelled in response to harassment and death threats from religious conservatives.
Politics were to the fore in Tel-Aviv, where an estimated 150,000 people marched on 8 June in direct opposition to Israel’s far-right government, which includes several cabinet members who have expressed homophobic views and coalition partners with a long anti-LGBTQI+ voting record. But there was no room for Pride elsewhere in the Middle East, where the latest controversy was over the Barbie film, a harmless entertainment now banned in Kuwait and facing banning calls in Lebanon under accusations of promoting homosexuality and transsexuality, undermining gender roles and questioning traditional marriage.
The anti-rights offensive in Africa
There was little Pride action on the African continent. In part this was because the continent’s biggest events, both in South Africa, come in Cape Town in March and in Johannesburg in October. But it also reflected the headway being made by regressive forces. Most of what took place were small gatherings and events that had to be held in secret, making it impossible to assert LGBTQI+ visibility.
An anti-LGBTQI+ rights backlash is underway in the region that already has the highest concentration of countries – a staggering 32 – that criminalise same-sex relations. Small gains in rights and attempts to articulate demands are bringing a disproportionate defensive response by anti-rights forces that falsely claim LGBTQI+ rights are an imported western agenda – although it’s exactly the other way around: it was criminalisation that was imported by colonial powers and the anti-rights backlash is lavishly funded by foreign forces, with conservative US foundations promoting identical repressive bills in country after country to deny home-grown demands by LGBTQI+ people.
One such bill was recently signed into law in Uganda, with Ghana following in its footsteps with a bill that would impose up to 10-year jail sentences for advocating for LGBTQI+ rights, and with Kenya showing signs that it will likely follow.
Two Europes parting ways
Between June and August, large-scale Pride marches were held in capitals and many other cities across Western Europe. At the height of a Pride season that saw it host Baltic Pride, Estonia became the first post-Soviet state to legalise same-sex marriage. Barely a month later, the British city of Liverpool hosted Kyiv’s Pride on behalf of Ukraine. EuroPride 2023 will come in September in Valletta, Malta – rated by ILGA Europe as the best place in the region for LGBTQI+ people.
These events were largely held without incident. But the atmosphere was more tense in countries that place more barriers in the way of LGBTQI+ people and activism – such as Serbia – and those where governments are outright hostile, such as Poland and Turkey.
On the bright side, conservative backlash has resulted in increasing social support for equality and the protection of LGBTQI+ rights. Polls indicate that the level of public support for civil partnerships and marriage equality is on the rise.
Russia leads the assault, with no place for LGBTQI+ people in a country where the construction of a narrow, state-defined national identity has been accelerated to serve its war on Ukraine. Pride has never been allowed, and 10 years ago this June a law was passed banning the distribution of ‘gay propaganda’. LGBTQI+ organisations have recently been smeared as ‘foreign agents’ and this July, another law banned almost all medical help for trans people, including gender-affirming healthcare.
In Serbia, Belgrade Pride experienced a tough time in 2022: it faced a police ban and, after it went ahead following government reassurances, it experienced attacks from anti-rights groups. So when the time comes for Belgrade Pride in early September 2023, people will march under a telling banner: ‘We’re not even close’. The Pride campaign kicked off in August with the pre-emptive spraying of pink, pro-LGBTQI+ graffiti on the windows of the Pride Info Center. The building has so far been vandalised 18 times without a single perpetrator being punished.
On 17 June came Central Europe’s biggest Pride march, Warsaw’s Equality Parade. Celebrated since 2001, it has also routinely faced challenges such as conservative and far-right counter-demonstrations. Against the backdrop of a right-wing government that instrumentalises anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric to rile up its conservative base, getting ever more belligerent as elections approach later this year, the latest threatened to be no exception. However, Warsaw’s mayor, from the liberal opposition, promised that the LGBTQI+ community could march safely on city streets. And they did, in their defiant tens of thousands.
Voices from the frontline
Annamaria Linczowska is advocacy and litigation officer at Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH), a Polish LGBTQI+ civil society organisation (CSO) working to counter violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity through political, social and legal advocacy.
We have experienced conservative backlash ever since the Law and Justice party took power in 2015. The government doesn’t support any Pride events and prominent Law and Justice politicians are known for their homophobic and transphobic speeches. National television consistently refers to Pride marches as ‘LGBT parades’, and the Minister of Education has called them an ‘offence to morality’. The Catholic church, public TV and influential political figures unjustifiably link LGBTQI+ people to paedophilia, portraying us as a danger to children’s wellbeing and traditional Polish values. Some Law and Justice politicians have voted in favour of a ‘Stop LGBT’ bill aimed at banning Pride marches in Poland.
In recent years, mayors of numerous towns across Poland have opposed the organisation of Pride marches. KPH has supported local CSOs and individual activists who have taken the mayors’ decisions to court, resulting in decisions being overturned and consent being given to hold Pride marches.
There have also been instances of attacks on Pride marches. For example, in 2019, people involved in the Pride march in Białystok were subjected to violent physical attacks, resulting in injuries. This year in Olsztyn a person was shot in the head after leaving the Pride march. Although the victim was carrying a rainbow flag and other LGBTQI+ symbols, the police did not connect the attack to homophobia.
On the bright side, conservative backlash has resulted in increasing social support for equality and the protection of LGBTQI+ rights. The large number of Pride marches and other Pride events taking place in Poland is a visible reflection of this support. Polls indicate that the level of public support for civil partnerships and marriage equality is on the rise.
In 2023, over 20 Pride marches took place across Poland, in major cities including Warsaw and Krakow and in smaller towns such as Milicz and Sztum, with populations of around 10,000. The high number of Pride marches was only made possible by the active involvement of Polish civil society.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Annamaria. Read the full interview here.
When Istanbul Pride was first held in 2003, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to hold such an event. But as the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dug in by taking an increasingly more conservative stance, authorisations have been systematically denied since 2015, supposedly due to security and public order concerns. Every year since, hundreds and sometimes thousands have defied the ban, facing repression as a result. This year, police intervention resulted in the detention of at least 113 people.
Voices from the frontline
Damla Umut Uzun is international relations and fundraising officer at Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association (Kaos GL), one of the oldest and largest LGBTQI+ organisations in Turkey, dedicated to creating visibility and understanding and promoting LGBTQI+ human rights.
Since 2015, Pride events have been increasingly banned by city governors. The first ban was introduced in Istanbul, which in 2014 had the largest Pride gathering, with at least 50,000 participants. But despite the growing number of bans, the number of Pride events across the country has also consistently increased.
This year in Istanbul, several Pride events were banned by district governor offices, resulting in detentions, police brutality and restrictions on journalists. A Pride movie event organised by the University Feminist Collective in Şişli was banned for ‘potentially causing societal resentment’ and ‘threatening social peace’. The screening of the film ‘Pride’, scheduled by the cinema collective, and a tea gathering event organised by the LambdaIstanbul LGBTQI+ Solidarity Association were banned in Kadıköy district. The police detained and later released at least eight people who came to watch the film, using physical violence. The LGBTQI+ group Queer Baykuş of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University had their posters violently confiscated by the university’s security units before a planned press release. On 18 June, during the Trans Pride Parade in Beyoğlu district, the police handcuffed and detained 10 people, including a child, and released them later that day after taking police statements. Journalists were prevented from taking pictures during the intervention.
The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey compiled a detailed report of rights violations in the context of 2023 Pride events between 2 June and 10 July 2023. Various Pride celebrations, including parades, picnics and press statements, were banned by multiple governorships and disrupted due to targeted threats and societal reactions in Adana, Ankara, Antalya, Eskişehir, Izmir, Kocaeli and Muğla. A total of 241 people, including four minors and seven lawyers, were detained on the grounds of Article 2,911 of the law on gatherings and demonstrations. The main reasons cited by authorities were non-compliance with regulations, disruption of public order and violation of ban decisions. Although most detainees were typically released on the same day, they might face prosecution and lawsuits months later.
Police interventions during Pride events are a reflection of the government’s hostility towards LGBTQI+ people. They are waging a kind of war against us. The recurring violence is fuelled by a sense of impunity: the fact that law enforcement officials face no consequences for harming, insulting or harassing LGBTQI+ people further emboldens them.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Damla. Read the full interview here.
Around the world, the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights is at very different levels, and the space for action varies greatly. But wherever it is safe to do so, LGBTQI+ people and allies will keep mobilising to assert visibility, demand equality and expand the space for action. The backlash is no reason to stop, only to keep pushing harder. Characterised by their dynamism, Pride movements will continue to evolve to seize and shape opportunities, learning from the lessons of struggles in various contexts and becoming ever more intersectional. It is the responsibility of every part of a civil society that is guided by the value of universal human rights to act as allies of the global Pride movement, asserting our shared humanity until all rights are within the reach of all people.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States must remove all barriers to Pride events being held and ensure the safety of their participants.
LGBTQI+ movements should strive for intersectionality and work to build stronger connections with other struggles.
Wider civil society must support LGBTQI+ struggles and embrace trans rights as an essential human rights demand.
Cover photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images