The big spectacle of Pride—the parade, the parties, and the other affiliated events—is always inspiring because the right to public pleasure is so hard-fought for queer people. But in recent years, maybe since the nationwide legalization of gay marriage, in 2015, triumphalism has outshone much sense of political urgency. Alternative events, eschewing the support of corporations and law enforcement, have sprung up, emphasizing the movement’s unfinished work—work that largely involves protecting queer people who aren’t white and wealthy. In some cases activists have openly clashed with mainstream Pride, such as when protesters blocked the path of Washington, D.C.’s 2017 parade and forced it to be rerouted. In other cases, they’ve simply thrown their own anti-assimilationist march.
This year, the establishment festivities went digital because of the coronavirus pandemic. So the Queer Liberation March was the only major real-life outpouring for Stonewall’s anniversary in New York City, and it built explicitly off the Black Lives Matter protests of the past month. The march, in fact, began a block away from the park across from City Hall, where those activists have set up a camp. On Sunday, that camp—decked in colorful umbrellas, signs, and graffiti—felt like a replacement for typical Pride street fairs. Makeshift booths offered hot food, radical literature, and sunblock, all for free. On the fences were posted information about the accessibility of nearby bathrooms, phone numbers to lobby lawmakers regarding the death of Breonna Taylor, and a picture of RuPaul next to the words, Police Brutality, Sashay Away.
At the march itself, many chants and slogans were familiar from other demonstrations after George Floyd’s killing. But visually it read as a gay fashion party at which each person’s duty was to stand out. Protesters flaunted bright-pink handbags, billowing floral blouses, black leather-ish hoods, kilts, and stilts. There were bare bodies, too—hard and soft, cis and trans. Flesh has always been a key component of the Pride experience; in 1970, at the first Pride in Los Angeles, the Reverend Troy Perry described “a mass of muscle calculated to turn everyone on.” The spectrum of bodies on display Sunday offered a reminder of the purpose of turning people on: to grab attention for one’s message, to preach sex positivity and body acceptance, and, yes, to show pride.
What did the marchers want? “Defund the cops”rhetoric abounded, as did verbal and visual tributes to black trans people failed by the American justice system. A large effigy memorialized Marsha P. Johnson, the influential veteran of the Stonewall uprising whose 1992 death, activists alleged, was insufficiently investigated by the NYPD. Signs mourned Layleen Polanco, the New York ballroom-scene fixture whose 2019 death at Rikers Island led to the disciplining of 17 correctional officers for misconduct. The focus on black trans people, especially transgender black women, points to a coherent and morally urgent way forward for the queer movement as a whole. Trans people of color experience disproportionate rates of violence, incarceration, and poverty. Defending their lives involves attacking the various structural bigotries—political, cultural, economic—that also bear down on the rest of the LGBTQ population: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia.
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